LOS ANGELES — Commencement speeches are rarely memorable. Most speakers tend to steer clear of controversial or incendiary topics, relying instead on relatively safe monologues of congratulatory sentiments and career advice in their given discipline. Helen Molesworth is not most speakers.
Last Saturday, Molesworth — who was fired from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles in March, after four years as chief curator — gave a passionate commencement address to the School of the Arts and Architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in which she railed against white supremacy, “outmoded forms of thought,” and the “death rattle of our colonial past.”
Her speech began like many others, on a fairly benign and hopeful note. “I’ve decided to tell you how hopeful I am about the future, and one of the reasons I am hopeful is because of your generation. You guys have come of age against an extraordinary backdrop of actual and symbolic change,” she stated before citing a list of progressive movements that have sprung up recently, from #MeToo, to Black Lives Matter, to the water protectors at Standing Rock.
“But even though I am hopeful, it would be foolish not to mention how spectacularly messed up the world is at the moment,” she continued. She targeted “authoritarianism and nationalism” as threats to democracy around the world, as well as a new American oligarchy that “has inserted its values of profit and their inherent belief in money and wealth as the ultimate metrics of success into democracy’s most fundamental institutions: the press, scientific research, concert halls, the universities, museums.” For those familiar with the rumors surrounding her firing, it sounded potentially like a shot directed at MOCA’s board, whom she had tensions with before her firing. “The worlds of culture and art, the worlds you are poised to enter are striated with the pressure of these moneyed forces in ways we have never before encountered.”
Molesworth posited that art students are uniquely prepared to fight against these reactionary threats because of their experience with “the crit,” where art students critique, defend, and discuss their work with their peers and teachers. The crit is so important during these fractured times, not because it teaches us how to speak about our work, but because it teaches us how to listen. “Listening is the basis of empathy and empathy is the only way to think our way out of the stranglehold of the debilitating and outmoded forms of thought we have inherited from our colonial past,” she opined.
Through the process of listening, she linked one of the most enigmatic and divisive works of art — John Cage’s “4’33,” in which the composer sat silently before a piano for four minutes and 33 seconds — with a moment of contemporary political activism in which Parkland High School shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez stood silent for four minutes. “She was refusing to lead us or entertain us with her grief. She was asking us instead to listen, to ourselves, to each other, to the situation,” Molesworth noted.
Listening, as Molesworth spoke about it, is an active, not a passive action, one which artists can use to insightfully reflect on what is going on in society. “What I hear in this current administration’s culture of lying, bullying, hatred, and violence is not power but a death rattle,” she said. “Indeed I think we are bearing witness to the death rattle of our colonial past, and like all deaths from toxic diseases it will not be an easy or a gracious one … Now is the time we make sure to listen to the words, the feelings, and the silences of the many rather than the few … Now is the time for the artists who founded BLM, for the artists who founded #timesup, for the young drama students at Parkland, and you guys, the assembled artists sitting before me today, to bring your very special listening skills to bear on this extraordinary time of change.”
“What I most appreciated about her speech was the accessibility of it,” graduating senior Gabrielle Biasi told Hyperallergic via email. “I come from a family of immigrants, some for whom Spanish is their first language, who don’t hold college degrees, and who are not involved in the arts, but were all still able to enjoy and appreciate her speech. I didn’t want my family to feel alienated or foreign at our ceremony but she made her speech quite relevant to important political issues of today that go beyond the arts, which my whole family was able to connect to.”
Despite the heavy tone of Molesworth’s speech, other students came away with a genuinely optimistic attitude about their future. “‘I think ‘your generation is the first generation to come of age when we can say that white supremacy is dying’ and similar statements left the greatest impression on me,” said Alex Anderson, who just received his MFA. “These ideas, and the speech at large had a positively hopeful tone that suggested the post-graduate world we are entering as artists may not be as terrifying and draconian as our peers, mentors, and the media tell us it is. I hope she’s right!”
The entire commencement address can be found here.