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Hilton Als at the Poetry Project’s Eileen Myles & Friends event, May 3, 2014 (image via

The New York Review of Books has published the writer Hilton Als’s excellent commencement speech this year at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Drawing on figures from Truman Capote to Jean Rhys to Kara Walker, Als delves into what it meant to him to become an artist, and what it should mean for the assembled graduates in turn. Though he waxes generously romantic on the “lawless” New York of the 1980s, he also speaks fondly of his education in Columbia’s art history department, a field that “involved so many of the things that enthrall me, still, such as cultural production, politics, aesthetics, and words.”

Most importantly, Als exhorts the erstwhile students to remain faithful, in their art, to the world that gave rise to them:

The artist’s memory is a dangerous, necessary thing. Never disavow what you see and remember—it’s your brilliant stock-in-trade: remembering, and making something out of it. Artists remember the world as it is, first, because you have to know what it is you’re reinventing; that’s a rule, perhaps the only one: being cognizant of your source material.

The lyrical and thoughtful address, which I recommend reading in full, is a refreshing departure from last year’s tone-deaf sermon on the waning promise of the arts delivered by waning artist David Byrne to Columbia’s graduating MFA students.

h/t The Rumpus

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Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.