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More Than Changing the World, Save it

Notes on graduation, and a re-cap of Patti Smith’s commencement speech.

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By Jennifer Swann

“To all of the graduates, I really want to talk to you for a few minutes,” said Patti Smith after congratulating the parents and family of graduates at the SAIC commencement ceremony. It was the morning of May 21, 2011, and those in attendance at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park had several reasons to be grateful. For one, the world hadn’t ended, as predicted by those who believed May 21st would signal the Second Coming of Christ, and therefore, the apocalypse.

Secondly, it wasn’t raining or thundering that morning, as predicted all week by erratic Chicago meteorologists. All predictions set aside, May 21st was a day in which SAIC graduates and their family and friends could be grateful for the sheer accomplishment of finishing art school. Several years of study and experimentation and countless failed projects later, here we were, not dressed in caps and gowns, but in pajamas, platform heels, roller skates, and prom dresses, to name a few notable graduate ensembles.

Since coming to SAIC, we had made sculptures that fell apart, films that hadn’t been exposed, garments that were un-wearable, and ready-made objects that we declared art simply by labeling them as so. We had conceptualized projects and constructed work that we never would have dreamed about before enrolling in art school.

As an undergraduate freshman, I had screen-printed in my bathtub in the dorms, illegally plastered posters in CTA trains, and started impromptu performances in the middle of Daley Plaza. But from all the failure and the questioning of our own identities and practices as artists, we had also made masterpieces. We had exhibited finished pieces at the BFA and MFA shows, and many of us installed our work at apartments, parties, galleries, festivals, fairs, and showrooms throughout the city, across the country, and internationally.

Working and studying in Chicago, we had been given the opportunity to meet and exhibit with even the most prestigious of Chicago-based artists, designers, and scholars. And most of all, we had been given the opportunity to meet each other. Over the last few years, we had shared living spaces with each other, worked together in the same studios, and competed against each other in scholarships, fellowships, and exhibition spots. We were peers at first, then sometimes colleagues, sometimes collaborators, sometimes lovers, but mostly we were friends.

On May 21, 2011, I was grateful to be surrounded by an audience full of my friends as we listened to Patti Smith tell stories before serenading us with two songs. Smith began her speech by introducing herself, not as the performer and artist we all knew her as, but as a Chicago native born during the blizzard of 1946.

“It was December 30th and my mother really tried to hold me in because if I was born December 31st, she would get a free refrigerator,” said Smith. “Of course, being in Chicago, ready to be born, I couldn’t wait, and I was born a day too soon, and she never let me forget about it.”

Smith told the story to illustrate her pride in accepting SAIC’s Honorary Doctorate in Chicago. “I wasn’t even sure if I deserved it, but it was Chicago giving it, so I was going to come,” she joked.

As SAIC professor James McManus said in his introduction, Smith was “too poor to afford art school or sometimes even space to make work,” but in her speech to the graduating class, she expressed a sincere pride and understanding of the hardship and perseverance required of artists. She seemed to acknowledge that SAIC students aren’t given grades, that some of us may have worked much harder than others during certain classes or semesters, but no matter the circumstances, we all ended up here together; we all accomplished a mission and will continue to accomplish difficult tasks in our life.

After delivering the praise, Smith hit us with the reality: “You’re going to go out into the world, and maybe you’ll have great expectations, whatever, you’re going to have a tough time, you’re going to be sometimes broke, you’re going to be disappointed, you’re going to be shit on, your work might not get accepted, and of course, there’s also the beautiful part, but we can all dream.”

At the end of May, New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks criticized commencement speakers who mislead graduates into thinking they can conquer the world with fierce individualism, which he said is still the dominant note in American culture. Whereas Brooks noted that most commencement speakers refer to the world as a place of “limitless possibilities,” Smith acknowledged those possibilities (her own life is an example of the power of individualism combined with the luck of being in the right place at the right time) while also reminding graduates that the world can be a cruel place.

“If your reality is difficult for a while, be proud,” she declared. “Accept it, embrace it, because an artist’s life, it’s part of the package that you’re going to be dogged, damned, and inspired. Sometimes poor, sometimes accoladed, but just be proud.”

Then came Smith’s call not for individualism and expression, but for cooperation in rescuing our planet. “Yes, you will change the world, you are the future,” she said. “But there’s something we need even more than changing the world. We need you to save it.”

The audience cheered. Smith, in her poetry and her soulful voice of “an old-fashioned Jersey girl,” as McManus described in his introduction, had said something so simple but so urgent and honest. It was something we knew, but nobody had ever told us.

We knew that the future was ours, but nobody had ever told us to save it. And then it occurred to us: of course the future needed saving. “Make sure we have a future,” Smith reminded us, just before strumming the lead into a song called “Grateful.”

When the ceremony ended, the world still hadn’t. Despite a fleeting burst of drizzle, it still hadn’t rained, and even more miraculous, we were now art school graduates.

The future was ours and some of us would stay in Chicago and a lot of us would move away and a few of us would move back some day. Some of us would win prestigious prizes and have our work hung in museums and biennales, while some of us would never make art again. A lot of us would start paying off hefty student loans and frantically apply to any job that would help us do so the fastest. But whatever happens after graduation, we’ll all make sure that our world has a future. Maybe we’ll even think about collectively saving the future before setting out to change it ourselves.

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