An Open Letter to Young Artists: or 'Note to Self'

A committee of the Tisch School of the Arts solicited speech proposals from the student body for the upcoming 2015 Tisch Salute. My speech was rejected. It has since been revised, though the majority of the second half remains essentially identical. I took out a lot of jokes, because frankly, they were awful. In accordance with my subject, I am publishing my speech to honor the poignancy of its rejection.


The Underlined opening stage direction is read aloud.

(Approach the microphone slowly. Smile.)

(Hold for a lot of cheering and roaring applause)

Dear fellow graduates, Congratulations! We’ve graduated. This is a feat, and I hope you’re taking a minute to reflect on what it is, exactly, we’ve accomplished. I marvel at our accomplishments, and more so I am honored to share this monumental day with each and every one of you.

Before I continue on, I’d like to be “that guy” and take a minute to ask everyone to stop texting on their cell phones, and please, please — twitter the sh*t out of this speech and use one of these: (tape list of hashtags to front of podium: #NYU2015 #Blessed #SexiestManAlive)

Each of us has made sacrifices for our education: sleepless nights, spent too much on take-out, three part-time jobs, wow, way too much… on take-out. Many of us are graduating with unfathomable amounts of student debt and/or very anxious parents and are entering a work force without any guarantees. Now, amidst our graduation, we must all truly confront the question of what it means to be in artist in the world: to have a soul that demands to express itself, and to live in a world that often tells it not to. Katherine Graham once said “To love what you do and feel that it matters, how could anything be more fun?” To which I say, (close to the mic.) “Who is Katherine Graham — ?”

To our faculty. Thank you. You, professors, have shown us true generosity. I grew up occasionally hearing people say “Those who can, do — Those who can’t, teach.” Usually this was coupled with an anecdote of some prickly history teacher named Je-anne or your greasy Algebra teacher named Marc with a C… But I’d just like to say, in all sincerity, that proverb is as ridiculous as Jimmy Fallon. It is as unreasonable as Zayn leaving One Direction! If our society valued teachers as much as it valued lawyers and accountants and celebrities, we’d live in a very different world. The best teachers teach students how to teach themselves, because an education is not something you ever truly complete. If it were, it would be worthless. Rather, it teaches us to ask the right questions of ourselves and of others at every stage in life. Questions like, why should I make art? How can I collect useful information from every interaction I have? Are Kit-Kats a supplement for exercise?

The greatest lesson I learned at NYU was that I must relinquish my desire to persecute myself and others for being right or wrong in making art. No, that doesn’t mean: “lack a discerning eye,” but it does mean pick your battles wisely. It’s difficult to talk about words like these, right and wrong, in their essential meanings — similarly to good and bad, interesting and boring — because all of these words have been co-opted by our wildly unspecific contemporary vernacular and there’s always someone in the class ready to put up a fight when you bring them to the table for discussion. When I got to NYU that “someone” was me, I’m sure. And then I realized I was just terrified of life, pretending to know some truth — so I forgave myself, and then life opened itself up. I think forgiving myself was very important.

Life does not measure itself on merits of right and wrong. Sure, we, as human beings label murder as wrong and Amy Poehler as right — but life isn’t so concerned with those ideas. Life happens and often it is unfair. There, I said it. Polar bears eat baby walruses. Baby walruses! Humans can get bone cancer. It’s not right, and it is certainly not fair. But it’s life. And the scope of life is infinite and immeasurably beautiful. If art imitates life, why do we as young artists hold ourselves accountable for doing it “right“? Because we’re responsible people who are attempting to support ourselves with our passions. Sure. So, we’re left with the question: What will it cost me to pursue the thing I love, which is so intrinsically built upon the guarantee of no guarantees? Will I survive on my dreams?

While I was working at NYU’s La Pietra Campus in the Summer of 2013, a playwright named Mona Mansour was speaking to me about pursuing a life in the arts. I’m paraphrasing here, but she said to me: “I hate when anyone gives the advice, ‘if you’re good at something else, do that!’ Because it discredits the power of a person’s passion.”

This idea Mona shared has stayed with me since. I had heard the same piece of advice — I still do, and her articulation helped me to understand my own desires. What I have to remind myself, and what I’d hope for us all to embrace amidst our graduation (for solely selfish reasons, as it will justify my own behavior for now and evermore) is that to be an artist is to choose a life of challenge. It is to open yourself up to tolerate more. It is to say yes. And saying yes is hard. It is easy to say “no, I don’t agree.” It is harder to say yes.

The way of the un-forged path will be difficult. It will torment us and we will likely scar. But every bruise and tear will color our bodies with unique stories. This difficulty will be the source of inspiration. Michelangelo, yes Michelangelo, was not only a master sculptor and painter, but he was also a great poet! His writings of love often closely parallel his writings of creating art. A gift he left future artists in his writing, is the notion that love, and the feeling of passionate fire (in Italian lyric poetry, il fuoco amoroso), turns the human body itself into a work of art — the artist, an un-sculpted block and the source of passion, the imprint that transfers itself onto the canvas. Michelangelo helps us understand that if you are really passionate about something, when you nourish and condition that passion, you find you have made a life and path more interesting than what is right and responsible. Life will carve you as deeply as you carve it.

The myth of “comfort” as an end is ours to dispel. Comfort will lead to complacency and useless contentment, and before we know it, Life has left us in the dust… But, there is hope yet. We can hear no and seek infinite yes. It’s up to us. We can fight to win justice and we can love hard to ease despair. It’s in the yes.

There’s a sticker in one of the women’s restroom stalls of Tisch — so I’ve been told — that reads these four words: “Remember, you’re an artist.”


Photo by Kara Souza, C.F.P.C.‘s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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