David Byrne’s Bad Advice to Columbia’s Visual Arts MFA Grads

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David Byrne instructs Columbia MFA graduates in the ways of the world (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic, video via Livestream)

On the second track of David Byrne’s last album with the Talking Heads, he told the story of Mr. Jones, a pyrotechnic jack-of-all trades, “everybody’s friend,” straddling the creative universe of “rock stars” and the hum-drum of “conventioneers.” But when Byrne took to the stage last week, all wire-rimmed spectacles and club collars, to deliver Columbia’s Visual Arts MFA commencement speech, it wasn’t exactly yesteryear’s “big day for Mr. Jones” for the attending graduates. In what turned out to be a rather grim speech panned by Rachel Arons in the New Yorker‘s Culture Desk blog, the installation artist and New Wave pioneer was a generic downer, showing graduates a bleak slideshow of statistics culled from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP).

“[O]ne doesn’t need to absolutist,” Byrne explained — if you give up the focus of your academic concentration in college, you might still “make a life in the arts.” The accompanying graphs implied that many (perhaps forced) compromises await the students: most arts majors don’t end up following their dreams, at least not those measured academically. In a somewhat unsound denial, a Columbia administrator told the New Yorker: “Anecdotally I can say that 80% of our Visual Arts MFA alumni over the past 17 years are still in their field of concentration.”

In her response at Culture Desk, Arons makes a big deal of the alternate view espoused by the decidedly more ersatz musician Ted Nugent. Quoting liberally from a FreeRepublic.com post containing Nugent’s “advice to grads,” she concludes that her preference is for this “willful optimism.” Willful optimism is great, but by focusing on and panning David Byrne’s pseudo-realist message, Arons sort of flies over the central conceit of his speech, which is that he had to compromise, becoming a wildly successful musician rather than a wildly successful visual artist. It’s not the first slightly tone-deaf aspiring artist straight-talk offered up by a Byrne, but focusing on the hazards of career outcomes is an especially myopic choice for a commencement speaker — a toothless, accomodationist critique. Life might be fucked, but the great promise of the arts is that it isn’t immutably so. To say otherwise at an arts commencement speech is hardly straight talk — just ask David Byrne, who never really settled.

UPDATE 6/13 10:55 pm: A vocal Facebook faction has taken issue with this piece, so I think it’s worth clarifying what I mean. I find David Byrne to be a brilliant artist who gave a bad and boring commencement speech. Why? Because he repackaged a two-year-old survey as some sort of revelatory bit of honesty about careers in the arts — rather than talking about what made him a great artist, or discussing any of the myriad systemic issues that impact the creative classes (MFA tuition, student debt, the global arts economy), or literally any other topic that could prove edifying to his captive audience. Instead, he gave a speech premised on a defeatist idea piggy-backed on a widely-known economic fact.

I don’t think my argument is particularly outlandish — though it’s perhaps better stated by the girlfriend of one of the Columbia graduates, who told the New Yorker: “I was like, what’s with the wack statistics, man? I mean, they know that already!”

UPDATE 6/14 12:30 pm: An astute observer, Robin Cembalest, has written in, bringing to our attention this passage from David Byrne’s bio on a prominent Talking Heads fan site. Apparently Byrne was expelled from RISD, though it’s unclear why:

At Rhode Island School Of Design, David studied a functional design programme known as the Bauhaus Theory course. He also took a conceptual art course. The staff were not sure about David, particularly when he put on a performance in which he had his hair and beard shaved off onstage to a piano accordion accompaniment and a showgirl displaying cue cards written in Russian. The professors at RISD were less charmed, however, and David found himself out on the street. He had been at the RISD for one year.

The video of Byrne’s speech, which begins at the 01:18 mark.

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