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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 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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10 replies on “David Byrne’s Bad Advice to Columbia’s Visual Arts MFA Grads”

  1. Byrne sounds pretty amenable and downright positivist, at least compared to my favorite put-you-down from the former Dean of the Art Academy of Malmö, Gertrud Sandquist.

    She did a commencement speech where she told students that maybe 3-4 of them had a real shot at a career as an artist. Which was probably true.

  2. david byrne WAS a great musician. He IS a terrible visual artist. that is why he became a musician and not a visual artists. not because of compromises and art school. I think its quite obvious that his art installations have been spin offs of his music celebrity and not standing on their own merits. So of course he’s a downer at an art school. He’s an art school drop out.

  3. I remember my art school alma mater calling me many years ago to solicit donations, and sounding shocked to learn I was making a living in the arts. They pointed out that, after ten years, only three percent of fine art grads were still working in the arts. This is the kind of statistic that should be made crystal clear to art students in the first week of college, not in a commencement address. (And, in a side note, business and accounting courses should be an art school requirement.)

  4. It was a little muddled, but seems like Byrne was trying to say the odds are better that his stats convey for the committed artist. What would they have preferred hearing I wonder? Surely not more pep rally from their dean. Well…maybe they did deserve something a little more constructive.

  5. I don’t really have an opinion either way about Byrne’s speech or that he was expelled (what does that have to do with his speech anyway? Seems like an odd tidbit). I just wanted to pop here and say I would have given him an A+ for “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.” How sublime!

  6. Pompous, narcissistic, sadistic. It’s like saying: we all die in the long run, so why even bother living? Even if what he says is true, people should still run the race. As the cliche goes, you’ve got to be in it to win it.

  7. Talk about short attention span. Did no one watch the entire address? Mr Byrne makes clear that the point of showing those statistics was to say the numbers don’t measure the satisfaction of a creative life. He said make your own breaks and don’t measure success with money. I think it was perfect advice for any young artist.

  8. You can always look at it like how skank is Columbia that this is the best they could come up with for a speaker. Fact is, university grads produce university art produces university produces university …

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