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Richard Serra Commencement Speech at Williams College, 2008


Richard Serra
If Not Now, When?

It means a great deal to me to receive an honorary doctorate from Williams College, because so many graduates from this institution have directly contributed to and supported my artistic life. I want to take a moment to mention a few before I get on with the address: Glenn Lowry, Kirk Varnedoe, Michael Govan, Tom Krens, Rusty Powell, Jack Lane and James Wood. When I think about it, it’s remarkable that this institution has had such an impact on the culture of this country.

Now to you, members of the class of 2008: Today is your day, your rite of passage. You are the subject. One period of your life is ending and another one beginning, and today we have gathered to witness this event, this ritual. We call this occasion Commencement Day.

When I look out at this graduating class, it is obvious to me that a generational gap exists between us which does not allow for an easy transfer of experience. I also realize that advice is hard to give, but nevertheless I will venture forth with a few tips, a few suggestions. I wanted this address to be about you and not about me; therefore, I decided to preclude a personal narrative. I am well aware that most commencement speakers present themselves as models by reflecting upon their achievements, but for me it would be disingenuous to weave my autobiography in and out of this talk. I don’t believe you will learn much from personal anecdotes. Nonetheless, the advice I will offer is the result of my life’s experience.

You are going to have to rely on yourself to manage the world, to make the world intelligible and in so doing not allow yourself to be victimized. Identity need not be found in rejection. There are going to be disappointments and defeats along the way. You will make mistakes but don’t blame others for your errors, don’t deceive yourself. By placing the blame on others you will be unable to judge yourself and this lack of acknowledgment will only further compound your initial error. Admitting a mistake is usually a relief, if not a benefit.

If possible, don’t suffer fools gladly. Give little heed to those who will attempt to quell your aspiration for there will be many who want you to be as they are. Give them the shortest shrift possible whether they be friends, classmates, parents, teachers, whom so ever. You must begin to forget all the voices that are buzzing around in your head, and you may find it necessary to say no to the demands of the many who claim that they have only your best interest at heart, because ultimately you cannot become the person they want you to be. Don’t forfeit your uniqueness to be like everyone else. There will be many voices of conformity, many preaching defensive platitudes that are driven by fear. Shut them out, if only because what they consider to be the safest solution is always based on the most paranoid condition. Fear is poison. Resist it. Don’t talk about what you should do move on to what you need to do, in fact, what you must do, what you want to do, what you love to do.

If your education thus far has taught you anything, I hope it is to challenge yourself and thereby challenge others. Your education gives you the right to question or even negate its value. To make a contribution is your obligation and responsibility and at this moment of transition, as your status shifts and your future beckons, you have to make some choices.

There will be many choices, many decisions, many options, many difficulties that will confront you. You may find that most of the presumptions that you now hold no longer apply to your new status; that it may be necessary to step outside of society’s definition of what is acceptable. The anxiety you may feel at this moment is one of expectation, a healthy desire to move on. There may be a lot of clichés that you have to get rid of in order to proceed. You may think you are on solid ground only to realize that you are in free fall. If at this juncture you are undecided as to which path you ought to pursue: not to worry. There may be choices you make that prove to be false starts, take them in stride, test many waters, for ultimately the elimination of options will only make your decision more resolute. This is not the time to play it safe, it’s the time to take risks, the more the better: if not now, when?

Rather than being told which tools are available for which ends it is more useful to invent your own tools: As Audre Lorde has pointed out, “ ... the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Rules are overrated. They need to be changed by every generation. That is your most important mandate: If it’s not broken, break it. One way of coming to terms with the prevailing language of a cultural orthodoxy is to reject it. It may be necessary to invent tools and methods about which you know nothing, to act in ways that allow you to utilize the content of your personal experience, to form an obsession and to cut through the weight of your education. Obsession is what it comes down to. It is difficult to think without obsession, and it is impossible to create something without a foundation that is rigorous, incontrovertible, and, in fact, to some degree repetitive. Repetition is the ritual of obsession. Don’t confuse the obsession of repetition with learning by rote. I am suggesting a form of inquiry, a procedure to jumpstart the indecision of beginning.

The solution to a given problem often occurs through repetition, a continual probing. The accumulation of solutions invariably alters the original problem demanding new solutions to a different set of problems. In effect, as solutions evolve, new problems emerge. To persevere and to begin over and over again is to continue the obsession with work. Work comes out of work.

But solutions need not only be the result of constant repetition. There is another route, not so structured but rather free-floating and more experimental but no less obsessive. It is to be found in the activity of play. I cannot overemphasize the importance of play. The freedom of play and its transitional character encourage the suspension of beliefs whereby a shift in direction is possible; play ought to be part of the working process. Free from skepticism and self-criticism play allows you to relinquish control. Playful activity provides an alternative way to see, to imagine, to do, to make, to think otherwise. In play there are no ends, there are only means, however, means inadvertently can lead to ends. Rules can be made up as you go along or even in hindsight.

Coupled with obsession is obstinacy and by that I mean, stubbornness, willfulness to persist in spite of the odds and when facing your own helplessness. To follow the arc of your own path and not be dissuaded takes a certain amount of confidence, passion and intensity, for how you do what you do will confer meaningfulness on what you have done. For me process has always taken precedence over results if only because without the “how” there is no “what.” Letting process take precedence over results does not necessarily guarantee that something new will emerge. Transgression is difficult to visualize, let alone conceptualize. Recognition takes time. No matter what form your thoughts take, follow them. If you don’t care to follow through, others will not take you seriously. There are not going to be a lot of free rides or life savers out there. Most of you are going to leave this privileged bubble and enter the reality of your worth. You must learn to embrace your uncertainty and continually ask questions. Before you arrive at conclusions keep in mind that we are all biased and have built-in prejudices. Be aware of them before you pass judgment. To bring something into existence, to make, to write, to form is already a familiar exercise to you. The challenge is going to be to probe the unfamiliar, to forget the certainties and rather deal with your insecurities and contradictions to achieve the unprecedented.

Your private thoughts matter and you must protect them. The anomalies that are particular or even peculiar to each of you define the edges of your individuality. Fight for them and nourish them, because finally it’s only your own individual perception that’s going to give reality a meaning. If you don’t make the case for yourself, no one else will. Value your private sensations and sentiments but beware of the distortions by analogy and metaphor. The constant need for referents prevents direct experience. Experience does not always need to be compared and related. The habit of recalling stored imagery subverts both what’s present and what’s being re-called. Analogies and metaphors fail to impress a solid image on us. I have no problem with the virtual reality on your screens as long as you are aware that it is virtual. My concern is that experience by proxy is a poor substitute for the reality of the interactive space we inhabit. As a sculptor I believe that perception structures thought and that to see is to think and conversely to think is to see. The virtual reality of the media, be it television or internet, limits our perception in that it affects our sense of space. It immobilizes our ability to apprehend actual physical space. Don’t let the rhetoric of simulation steal away the immediacy of your experience. Keep it real, keep it in the moment.

No one perceives anything alike, we only perceive as we are and it is our individual reality that counts. Charles Olson said it well:

There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such
many as mass, there are only
eyes in all heads
to be looked out of

Thanks for having me.
Congratulations to each of you.

June 1, 2008