Commencement Address by Elizabeth Demaray
University of California at Berkeley, Department of Art Practice
May 16, 2008, University Art Museum, Barkeley, CA
I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to be here, with you, today. You who have worked so hard. You who have braved treacherous financial aid forms, endured opinionated psychotic street people, survived the bathrooms in cooperative housing, eaten the food at the food court on Durant street, completed introduction to Probability and Statistics. Finagled the lightening in the student gallery, and surrendered to the public couches in the lounge at the law school when you’re too tired to go home because you’ve been working endless, endless hours in studio honing your works of art until they speak back to you in a voice that you’ve been wanting to hear. You, I am so proud of you.
This is an art joke that I recently heard in the painting department at Rutgers. It goes like this:
A woman visits an artist and asks if he would paint her in the nude for $10,000. Without flinching the artist says “NO”. The woman ups the price to $20,000. The artist still says no. Angry, the woman gets her husband to threaten the artist. Frightened, the artist agrees but only if socks would be worn. The man and woman agree but ask “why socks?” and the artist answers, “I need somewhere to hold my brushes”.
I relate this story to you because I think that it is emblematic of how we artist fit into the scheme of American culture. We are a little “off”—being that we don’t immediately recognize or even value what others take to be given. We are no strangers to struggle—we are used to it—this is the nature of our work. So we may see the tasks before us as more arduous than they really are. There is, of course also always the possibility that, at times, we may be dependent upon others to fund our work. But taking all of this into account—let’s look again at the scenario. It is the patroness and her husband who must rely upon the artist to fulfil their desire. It’s the artist, who’s in charge here–in charge of bringing something specific and wanted and new into creation. It is the artist, off in his own world, who is called upon to be, in the parlance of internet startup companies everywhere, the content provider.
So, I am very honored today to be here with all of you wonderful content providers. I am however having a problem that I think a lot of artist have when asked to “talk.” I know what I want to say but MODE of communication is difficult. There is a great scene in a film about the famous, contrarian, word philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He is on his deathbed and confines to a friend that he once conceived of a philosophy written entirely in jokes. “Why did you not write it?” asks his friend. To which Wittgenstein replies, “I didn’t have a sense of humor.”
Well, it’s sort of like that. I, like a lot of visual artists, may have important things to say but words are not our preferred form of communication. I’m really only used to communicating these things through objects I make. Or, at best, because I teach, communicating these important things by referring to images of objects that other people make. And even at that, I don’t do a very good job. At least I should say, I don’t do an illuminating, complete job—not the way that Richard, or John or Katherine does. This is one of the things that you all here today, who are graduating with a BFA in Fine Art, have learned to do in this amazing department. My big, dark, art background secret is that I was never an undergraduate art major. I don’t have a proper background in the visual art. In the art classes that I was able to finesse my way into as an undergrad—I was an impostor. I was a cognitive psychology and neuroscience major. I actually chanced into my first art class, with Richard Shaw, almost by mistake. I picked the course because I needed a break from my studies and I needed a class that I thought was going to be an easy A.
At the time the issue that I was interested in, in my own area of study, was called the Theory of Multiple Memory Systems—which is something that I think is important for us as artists to know about. The theory is based on studies of amnesia, the condition that happens when someone is bumped on the head loses all their memories. In this situation, doesn’t it seem strange that someone can lose ALL their memories and still be about to talk—can still be able to remember what words mean?
As it turns out that we may have actually several different kinds of memory. Neurologists call the one that we keep when we have amnesia, Semantic or Procedural Memory. It is a storehouse of basic logical relationships, word meanings and procedures—This is the kind of information that we may not ever remember remembering. For example, you probably can’t remember the first time you learned what a cat was. This is because—back when we were children—we were trying to remember generalizations rather than specifics. We were working on remembering that all four-legged animals were cats and then this concept later differentiated into some of these animals becoming horses and some becoming dogs. Psychologists think that this early attempting to remember generalization may be the reason that we have so few memories of specific episodes from childhood.
Which brings me to another kind of memory—the kind that amnesiacs lose—which is called episodic memory. It is a memory system for qualities, episodes, and events that we remember as particular moments — these things that give us a marked sense of time, place and identity.
So, while I was studying this, I was also taking classes with Richard Shaw—which I loved. It was thrilling to be able to make abstract ideas into sculpture because it meant that you could actually see the ideas physically exist in the real world. One late night in the ceramic studios I was hand building a piece of sculpture and I had a startling thought. I realized that I was really pleased with the object I was making because in it I was able to simultaneously present qualities that were totally contradictory in nature. I was creating something that was beautiful and, at the same time, very ugly. With the piece I was making, I was asserting something that was completely illogical yet nevertheless true. I realized that the sculpture was reflecting episodic thought and that, that may in fact be, what are does.
When we look at a painting or hear a poem that defies expected semantic patterns, it kicks us into the episodic part of our brain, which is experiential in nature. Viewers will often describe having an immediate meaningful experience of a painting or a poem, as a pause—a sense of being stopped in time. It is my contention that this is why it is sometimes so difficult to talk or write about what art communicates. These qualities are essentially non-linguistic in nature. They defy logic and they defy the kind of ready-made linguistic categories that we generally use to describe them.
So this is one of the gifts that we as artists have. We can communicate truth is not logical but nevertheless true. Today, in this endeavor, I would like to help you. To do this, I’ve compiled a list of every important piece of advice, about being an artist, that I can think of. As it turns out, most of these pieces of advice are neither my own nor may actually be very helpful. On the bright side however, this list is, for the purposes of this address, mercifully short.
So here is a list of MY TOP TEN PIECES OF ART ADVISE:
Number Ten: in order to be an artist, you do not have to be penniless. There is a story about Durer’s engraving of Adam and Eve, in the garden, a work in which the artist embodied all his new ideas of beauty and harmony. In the story brit, a Frenchmen and an artist are standing in front of the famous work. “look at their reserve, their calm,” muses the Brit. “They must be British.” “nonsense,” the Frenchmen disagrees. “They’re naked, and so beautiful. Obviously they are French.” “But they have no clothes or shelter” the artist observes, “they have only an apple to eat, and yet they believe this is paradise, clearly they are artists.” Now, I am going to ask all of you to please debunk this myth. Do not live in poverty. It is neither good for your health nor good for your art. If you need to take a miserable, non-art related job somewhere, take it. You can always make conceptual work in your head—while you commute.
Which leads me to number nine: yes, you can take a crummy job somewhere if you need to. Believe it or not you actually have lots of time to do everything in life that you want. For most of you—your average age is about 22. That is twenty-two years leading up to this moment. Most of you will have a creative life of another 40 to 60 years. That’s 2 or 3 more of the life times you just had up until now. So there is lots of time. Be easy on yourself.
But that said it’s good to do number eight, which is: clarify what you want. Descartes said “…we are the manifestation of our dominant desires.” Don’t be ashamed or afraid of what you want. We are so very, very lucky to be artists. In our work, our desires are fulfilled by no one but ourselves. We are our own bosses. We are truly free. We are the guy wearing the socks. We make beauty as we see fit.
However, if you are unable to figure out what you want, then number seven is: do nothing instead. I’m not pulling your leg here; this is good advice. In life and in your work, if you can’t figure out what you want, do nothing and see what happens. In this situation I have found that Descartes is right, our dominant desires do manifest.
Number six is very important. And it’s actually not my piece of advice. It’s from Squeak. She imparted this to my classmates and myself during a graduate seminar. The piece of advice is: create a community. This is so important. Art never happens in a vacuum. And if it does, you certainly aren’t going to hear about it. It’s not going to be part of the economy of ideas that exponentially multiplied and became the Golden Age of Greece or the advent of Dada, or the language Group or even the Young British Artists. You need other artists. They will be your audience, your competition, your refuge and your muse. Look around you right now and identify them. Keep these individuals near you, especially the ones you don’t like. These are the folks that you can show your work to when it’s not working very well. Because—if you don’t like these people in the first place—you won’t have to worry about creating a bad impression.
Number five: remember that what makes us different is what makes us beautiful. Or should I say—make your weaknesses the thing that makes you both strong and beautiful. In 2006 there was a symposium at Columbia university titled ART AND THE NEW BIOLOGY OF MIND. It addressed how recent discoveries offer new possibilities in examining human creativity. We want to study this because every area of human endeavor, every other discipline graduating on this campus today, wants to know how you do it—how you create innovation. Scientist have found that the main characteristic shared by artists is that we often possess some sort of dyslexia. They theorize that this helps make us more adaptable in using other modalities as a means of communication. This is what the scientists tell us.
On the other hand, is number four, what Rumi the poet tells us which is: “Don’t look away. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That is where the light enters you.”
So even though you are wounded and possibly even dyslexic try to be number three: which is to be easily entertained. You are so lucky that you know how to do this. Being able to create, being able to make any moment significant is a blessing. The alternative is where everybody else is—which is unconsciousness, sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We as artist struggle with these kinds of issues constantly in our work, but the moments that have immediate, significant experiences of art, these moments can give everything else meaning.
Number two: have fun. Play is so important. Much of my work that I value has come out of horsing around, amusing dialogues with colleagues, being entertained and/or attempting to entertain others. Please note that two, one and five can sometimes be accomplished at the same time.
Number one: We are made to sit here, the writer Annie Dillard once wrote, “to give voice to our astonishments.” Please go forth and astonish us.
Sometime time today, maybe at the reception you are headed to, or maybe when you are gathered with your friends and family, I want you to look around you and to know that this is the beginning of anything that you want to create.
It is your future. It is exciting and perhaps a little frightening. This is to be expected. Your future Is defined and also limitless in its scope. It is beautiful and scary. It is contradiction. Thank goodness that you as an artist have the tools to address it. And I promise you that, as artists, as makers, you will amaze us….and keep your socks on.
Thank you and my congratulations to you all.