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

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

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