On Wednesday, at Manhattan’s famed Radio City Music Hall, artist Carrie Mae Weems delivered a powerful commencement address to 1,100 graduates of the School of Visual Arts. “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,” Weems told a crowd in red caps and gowns adorned with yellow flower logos.
The MacArthur Genius Grant-winning photographer has spent the past 30 years in documentary, tableaux, self portrait and oral history, focusing on African-American life. Punctuated with her video “A Woman in Winter,” Weems’ poignant meditation touched on the particular challenges of an artist’s life (“Art is a demanding mistress”); the pitfalls of “endlessly doubting your own ability” (“I’ve been there –– I know”); the role of creative thinkers in today’s shifting sociopolitical climate (“Our fight for equality still exists”); and “the difference between the art world and the world of art.”
Instead of delivering didactic soundbites, Weems posed questions upon which anyone, not just young artists, could do well to reflect. She spoke as if reading a long poem:
How do you measure a life? Do we measure it inch by inch, step by step, crawl by crawl? How you measure your lives is the most important thing not only for you students, but for all of us. I am asking myself this constantly. How do you measure a life? Success, failure –– what is it?… You know, I think of myself as dust in the wind. And I’m gonna be here just for [snaps fingers] a hot second. And when you think about the vastness of the universe in which we dwell, we are dust in the wind. And yet, we are here. To mark this moment … This way you will spend your time, measure your lives, is all up to you.
Weems grounded these sweeping questions in the realities of today’s sociopolitical landscape, pointedly addressing the sexism and racism she’s long explored in her art. “For you artists, young and old, there’s simply a few facts we have to remember,” she said. “They tell me if you’re a woman or a person of color, you have a little bit of extra work to do.”
Some of the figures she cited: Of all the solo exhibitions at the Whitney from 2007, 29% went to women. To minorities, less. In the year 2000, the Guggenheim gave solo exhibitions to zero women. In 2014, that number went up to 14%. “I was the only African American in the history of the museum to be given a solo exhibition at that space,” Weems said, to massive applause.
“We know that equality, our battle and fight for equality still exist. The numbers tell the story,” she said. Even so, we are in “an unprecedented time: By 2020, 2025, right around the corner, soon thereafter this country will become a minority-majority country. Moving from white to brown, to a nation of dark-skinned people … What does this profound shift mean for us socially, politically, culturally? I think in part that the rise of Donald Trump is profoundly linked to this shift taking place in the country.”
How artists respond to this shift is crucial, Weems said. Artists like Mark Bradford, Mel Chin, Suzanne Lacy, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Rick Lowe are setting a “phenomenal” example of how to be “involved in a fine art practice that is coupled with the art of social and civic engagement.”
“Their practice is mapping new territory for how you will work. You don’t have to be like them, but they are developing new modes that are seminal.” More questions followed: “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? As artists, what effect will this have on your creative output? Knowing what you know, how will you engage? How will you practice now? What will your practice be? What are you committing to? How will you measure your life? How you pursue the level and depth of that commitment, responding to that great shift, will require extraordinary imagination and deep innovation. This is really an extraordinary time. It’s really your moment. You really must seize it.”
To watch a webcast of Carrie Mae Weems’ commencement speech at School of Visual Arts, go here.