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John Waters giving his 2015 commencement speech at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Today may be the last day of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience,” John Waters recently told the 2015 graduating class of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in his commencement speech. Waters, the audacious artist, actor, director, and stand-up comedian, alternatively nicknamed the “Prince of Puke” and the “People’s Pervert,” described Hairspray as “a Trojan horse: It snuck into middle America and never got caught,” and added, “You can do the same thing.” Throughout his hilarious and wise speech, Waters encouraged students to pursue daring projects while working their way from the inside — “you need to prepare sneak attacks on society.”

Though Waters says that in “the fine arts play is work” — adding, “what other field allows you to deduct as business expenses from your taxes gangsta rap, … even vintage porn, as long as you use it for research?” — he also doesn’t undermine the importance of persevering. For years he’s been waking up every day at 6am to come up with his “insane” ideas. “Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before,” he said, but to succeed in your disobedience also takes a lot of work.

First, be an active citizen:

Remember, you must participate in the world you want to become a part of …. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field. If you’re a visual artist go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in. Watch every movie that gets a negative review in the New York Times and figure out what they did wrong. Read, read, watch people on the street. Spy. Be nosy. Eavesdrop. And as you get older, you’ll need youth spies who will keep you abreast of new music that nobody your age has heard yet.

Be an insider, not an outsider:

These days everyone wants to be an outsider. Politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, agism, fat-ism — but is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider so 2014? …. Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind and really shake things up and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider. Like I am! …. Think about it: I didn’t change. Society did. Who would’ve ever thought a top college like RISD would’ve invited a filthy elder to set an example to its students?

Listen to your enemies, and make them laugh:

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid, to you. Refuse to isolate yourself, separatism is for losers.

Waters on the trigger warning:

The amazing concept I’ve heard about that you’re supposed to warn students if you’re going to talk about something that challenges their values. I thought that’s why you went to college.

Trigger number one:

Don’t hate all rich people. They’re not all awful. Believe me I know some evil poor people too. We need some rich people. Who else is going to back our movies and buy our art? I’m rich! I don’t mean money-wise, I mean that I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every graduate here today.

The side note to the parents:

The truth of maturity will come to families if every member is patient. I look back and wonder how understanding my parents were …. My parents made me feel safe. And that’s why I’m up here today. And that’s what you should try to do to your children, too. No matter where you get your children these days.

The final trigger:

Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully. Design clothes so hideous they can’t be worn ironically. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression not lazy social living. Make me nervous …. It’s time to get busy. It’s your turn to cause trouble. But this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.

Elisa Wouk Almino

Elisa Wouk Almino is a senior editor at Hyperallergic. She is based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

9 replies on “John Waters Tells Young Artists to “Wreck What Came Before””

  1. As much as I adore the work of RISD students and believe that this school is doing good things for art and design, I can’t help but find this slightly sensationalistic. When I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, there were some students who truly adopted the “wreck what came before” approach, and I can’t say that it usually led to worthwhile art-making. From my experience, the best art is made by those with a deep appreciation for art history, not juvenile, quasi-revolutionaries.

    1. Is it impossible to have a reverence for art history and be revolutionary at the same time? Don’t you have to know and appreciate what came before to know what to negate/destroy?

      1. Wrecking things beautifully is what makes culture move. There’s no mutual exclusivity between being well informed and loving and hating institutionalized work. Most great institutionalized work wrecked what came before it as well. Waters’ point is just that. He, who was a terror to the norm and traditional art world is now in his later life looked upon as an innovator and worth institutionalizing. Making it early is a sign you’re just following the rules well, not challenging them.

        Waters’ best point is to make clothes that are ‘so hideous they can’t be worn ironically’ — that so upturn the notion of function (practically or aesthetically) that they are fundamentally something new, and which do not just forward the currently dominant agenda.

  2. What John Waters is saying is genuine and true. I related it to Gay activism which was particularly poignant during the 80’s with groups like Act Up. It was also a time when the arts were decimated by AIDS as millions died, many of them artists. This also lead to fierce pitched battles with the far right who saw AIDS as god’s punishment. The beauty of Waters Commencement Adress is that it is relevant to all young artists now.

  3. What a relief, compared to all those tired, tiresome, sincere, saccharine “go out into the world and make it a better place” commencement speeches. I’m all for improving the world but not if people can’t also still be their own funky selves, and not if the world doesn’t still have room for doing that. There’s way too much “I want to be a huge success immediately, and so I’m going to do what sells” going in the art world now, which makes for (1) bad art and (2) a not better world.

  4. Some good stuff there – use humor, be unconventional – and some cute crap. Waters seems to be justifying the system because he did ok with it selling decadence (not pejorative – I love decadence, but it’s field of reference is what sucks and is reactive to it, rather than creating something better). I don’t know anyone who is intelligent who hates rich individuals (well, there is Donald Trump, and…. oh well), or wise people who hate anything, and the rich are just like the rest of us, excepting their money. The problem is what they do with it using corporate capitalism oppresses, injures and kills everybody else and ruins the earth, and that has to change, or none of us will be doing anything, let alone playing with art.

  5. His advice is now very conservative, as artists have been doing it for nearly 60 years or so. Time for a new revolution and solution to the problem of art inequality. Perhaps “affirmation” and “inspiration” to great endeavors.

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