How Do You Measure Your Life: Artist Carrie Mae Weems’s Stirring SVA Commencement Address
“Open and alert, you respond sensitively to the world around you, and it causes you a great deal of pain and tremendous trepidation. But, of course, these are the natural byproducts of a closely examined life.”
By Maria Popova
One of the most important creative voices of our time multidisciplinary artist and MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems is to this day the only African American woman to have been given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. On May 18, 2016, Weems took the stage at Radio City Music Hall, stood before the graduating class of New York’s School of Visual Arts, and made a spectacular addition to the finest commencement addresses of all time — a meditation on the measure of a life and the demands of making art, beginning as a sort of philosophical prose poem and unfolding into a stirring multimedia mediation between the past and the future, exploring what the upheavals of our time mean for living a creative life in an increasingly complex world.
Three days earlier, I had given a commencement address of my own, so I was in a particularly raw and receptive state — Weems’s generous, piercing words went straight to heart. May they do the same for you — transcribed and annotated highlights below.
Half a century after Henry Miller considered the paradox of success and the measure of a life well lived, Weems raises the most substantive question there is:
As we move through our lives, I want you to ask yourselves: How do we measure a life? How do we measure a life — by what means and by what measure? Do you measure it inch by inch, step by step, crawl by crawl? How will you measure you lives is the most important thing — not only for you, students, but for all of us. I am asking myself this question constantly: How do you measure a life?
Do you measure it day by day or year by year? Do you measure it by yesterday or by today? Do you measure it by the miles walked or the mountains climbed or the valleys explored?
How do you measure your life?
By the dreams imagined or by the hopes dashed? By the wisdom of wise words spoken or by the sorrow of silence? By the wealth accumulated or by the amount spent? By the monument built or by the walls scaled? By defeats and/or by victories, large and small?
Do you measure it by the forgotten or the remembered? By all the near-misses and the exhaustion, or by the ability to endure? How do you measure your life? … By the suffering of friends and enemies alike? By the end or by the beginning? By those who walk with you to the very end of the precipice, by the friends gathered around you, by the support that you are offered? How do you measure the life?
Whatever answer we may give, Weems intimates, it has something to do with wresting meaning out of our impermanence:
I think about myself as dust in the wind, and I’m going to be here just for a hot second — that’s about it. When you think about the vastness of the universe in which we dwell, we are dust in the wind — and yet we are here.
Contrasting the long history of inequality in how art by women and artists of color is valued with the unprecedented fact that in less than a decade the United States will become a “minority-majority” country, “moving from white to brown to a nation of dark-skinned people,” Weems urges graduates to consider their individual role in making sense and making use of the enormous, complex sociocultural changes we’re living through:
Now, everybody that is really, seriously thinking about what the future is, is really looking at this profound cultural shift, profound ethnic shift, profound color shift… This is really important stuff… We’ve entered into this exciting, extraordinary moment in time — something that America has never seen before — unprecedented.
As artists, creative thinkers, how will you respond to this shifting sand, this shifting tide? How will you use this moment to begin to craft new modes of thought and being and purpose? As artists, what effect will this have on your creative output and even the course of your exploration — the questions that you ask and how you ask those questions?
Responding to the shift will require, I think, extraordinary imagination … and deep, and deep, and deep innovation… This is really your moment, absolutely — and you really must seize it.
I want to talk to you for a moment about success. I have no idea, really, what this means — what this will mean for you — but I do know that, sooner or later, each and every one of you will have to determine for yourselves what success and what failure are. You will have to establish your own standards — mine will not necessarily work for you.
Working as an artist is one of the most difficult things I do, and at the same time it’s the only thing I can possibly do.
I want you to think about this for a moment, for now. I want you to think very, very deeply and profoundly [about] what it is that you really want and what it is that you need in your life, and what it is that you need from your practice. I do know what it needs from you: Art is demanding — it takes its toll on you in a very profound way.
Making art is extremely difficult, requiring tremendous courage, enormous sacrifice, great risk… Knowing this, you nevertheless stand at the precipice and you leap into the abyss, into the arms of uncertainty. Open and alert, you respond sensitively to the world around you, and it causes you a great deal of pain and tremendous trepidation. But, of course, these are the natural byproducts of a closely examined life.
You work and you work and you work and you work and you work, and you are determined to wrestle this thing to the ground, making art… But your vision is not yet formed, your work does not yet bear that distinctive mark, your unique hand, your DNA… In your despair, you toss and you turn, crying yourself to sleep night after night after night, endlessly doubting, endlessly doubting your ability and sometimes feeling like a motherless child. I have been there — I know. Searching high and low for your own voice, for your own expressive utterance, you lead yourself down paths that dissipate… Confused and fuzzy, you begin to imagine that all the forces of the world are conspiring against you…
And yet, and still, the pursuit — that driving thing called art — hounds you, and you don’t know any rest. And, determined to make a way out of no way every day, you rise up and you hit it, own it, go into your studio… Art is a demanding mistress.
Weems ends by reminding graduates — this class of artists just coming abloom — that their fate will often be forked by difficult but necessary choices, choices like those between commercial pressures and creative integrity:
You have to make commitments. You have to decide who you are going to serve.
Complement Weems’s masterwork of the genre with other timelessly electrifying commencement addresses: Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood (Wesleyan, 2004), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000), and Parker Palmer on the six pillars of the meaningful life (Naropa University, 2015).
Published May 27, 2016