We’ve been watching you for a while. On the way to our jobs each day you’re hustling along the sidewalk, all portfolios and backpacks. There’s been an intensity to you lately that we think we understand. It’s that time of year again. We know you’re excited and we’re happy for you. We wish, in fact, that we could gather you all into one of the lecture halls for a few minutes to tell you just how happy we are about your graduation, and maybe a few other things.
Of course, you don’t know us, and there’s little reason you should listen to what we’d like to tell you. We’re not authorities on what you’ve been studying. We’re just the older folk you thread your way through on the way to that early class. We’ll understand if you’re impatient as we hem and haw our way through a few false starts, because we’re not used to speaking to a crowd. It will only take a moment though, so if you’d be kind enough to humor us….
The world awaits your imminent…wait, that’s wrong, sorry. We’ll try again. The world is unaware, oblivious, to your imminent disgorgement from this year’s uncomfortably distended academic gullet. That’s better. Certainly more accurate, and really, maybe it’s best that way because it’s difficult for us to understand the nature of your achievement. “Master of Fine Arts”…does that mean Advertising? Will you be designing those flashing Google ads we see on our screens? Maybe we’ll see your film school experience showcased in a TV spot for irregularity? Or will you write the jingle for it?
Maybe we’re being unfair. It isn’t your fault the degree has become debased. We know you’ve suffered for your talent. Worked your way through school at those odd jobs, at odd hours, with no money. Stared glassily into the glowing maw of the Great Devourer, your fingers frozen over the keyboard, praying for something, anything, to inspire them. We understand that. We’ve even done some of it ourselves–at least the odd jobs and no money parts. We’re thinking you might feel it’s your time to get PAID, and we certainly wanted that, too.
The difference, though, between you and us is we hadn’t any artistic talent. We can’t draw. We can’t even hold anyone’s attention with an amusing story. Setting up camera shots? Forget it. Not a clue. We’re grinding away at our careers, those evolved odd jobs, and if the money’s better then it was, well, that’s all we’re ever going to have in our lives. We won’t know the joy of creating something greater than ourselves, a work that lives beyond our last breath. Our only crack at immortality is children.
We’ve out-lived a certain amount of envy for those who could do what we couldn’t, people like you, for whom the Muses come to attention and dance on cue. It’s your self-expression we’ll be spending money on the rest of our lives, your view of the world we’ll talk about at work. We’re cool with that. So if we demonstrate a little exasperation with you from time to time, it isn’t because we think we can take your place.
If you should notice us fidgeting in our seats fifteen minutes into your new film, our faces betraying something very much like tedium, don’t worry that we’re plotting to re-shoot your scenes. Or if you see us leafing restlessly through your novel, putting it back in our bags, unread, or catch us leaving the gallery quickly after a cursory look at your show, it doesn’t mean we’re unhappy with you.
We want you to know we love all of you, including the folks who will go on to bring us more of those television “Reality” shows, or whatever exciting new genre they ultimately morph into. We have a soft spot, too, for poets and painters whose work isn’t meant to be understood. Also, of course, the writers, freshly baked in huge batches, uniformly browned and sweet, all made from exactly the same ingredients. Filmmakers of the “Death by a Thousand Cuts” school tickle our fancies as well: all those flash-edited tidbits and pixilated diarrhea, squirting across the silver screen.
Because even the worst of you mirror us to some degree. We have to love you because anything less would dredge up a lot of uncomfortable stuff about ourselves that we’re not ready to deal with just now. You’re what we have at this point in time. Let’s leave it at that.
What we’re doing today is giving out gifts. We have something for every student as a token of appreciation for your graduation. After thinking long and hard about what would best help your careers along, we’re pleased to be able to offer a few things you might find useful.
Let’s begin with one last shot at killing the beast with a thousands heads. You’ve been warned already against choosing the MFA path for the career opportunities. If you still entertain the notion of making a killing in the fine arts, or any nonsense remains about a private jet, or million dollar pied a terre, there’s still time for you to pursue a business or law degree. If the artistic life is merely more glamorous than harnessing yourself to the kind of work we have to do, we already know what your work will look like, and what we should give you. It’s an idea so boffo, so money-in-the-bank-sure that it must be whispered. Here it is: To the best of our knowledge, no one has done a novel or film about bocce ball.
It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, but if you decide to accept this gift, do it right, please. Don’t cheat us out of what we’ve come to expect from your kind of art. Writers, remember to keep it positive, life-affirming, and warm. And while we’re talking of warmth, don’t forget to put some pets in the piece, with lots of cute dialogue from master to mutt. We love those puppy-dogs and kitty-cats. They’re such non-threatening characters. We’ll expect a few dark moments in your work, so long as there are plenty of hints that success is the order of the day. We like our successes to be readily apparent, too. Don’t give us something drawn out, incremental, ambiguous. We can read about Iraq if we want to explore the pleasures of that kind of success. Write something we can give as Christmas gifts.
The number of shots in the film should approach that of the known galaxies. Fire them at us rat-a-tat-tat from your machine-gun lens, nano-second jewels blasting us to orgasmic bliss. Who needs long shots? The scenes end up looking too much like our lives–kind of slow. Speed everything up. Make it look exciting and chic and you’ll make us exciting and chic. Kind of. Pull out all the stops and show us what you can do. Give us the genial screw-up pulling himself together against overwhelming odds. Think of bocce ball as the moral equivalent of war. Give us the slo-mo ending, with everything riding on the last play. And please give us some golden sunlight bathing everyone in butterscotch-hued triumph. We already want tickets.
You should also think about getting into promotional art. Nobody does a good book or movie poster anymore. Artists, get in on this gold mine and you actually will sell one of your paintings. Or if you want to make real money, your classmates will need lots of brightly colored promotional material for their novels and films. Make their acquaintances. And do we have to even mention the internet potential? We look forward to cute little bocce balls bouncing cleverly across our screens. Repeat this until its part of you: A lot of good artists worked in advertising. Really.
Maybe you don’t want our gift? Maybe you would like to make your own statements, something a little more ambitious than bocce ball. That’s fine with us because, to be completely truthful, we’re a bit tired of that type of thing. We think we’d like to be made uneasy. Yes, we’re more than ready for some troublemakers who might occasionally withhold a happy ending, or give us the kind of happy ending we didn’t know we wanted. We’re willing to try that, if you are, though it’s difficult to ask of you because, as you know, it isn’t a good plan for your career. The chance at a house in a gated community will likely go. No gala receptions for your new novel or film, or gushing, congratulatory e-mails. You’ll be attending pot-lucks instead, and reading e-mails from people who wonder why you can’t write or film something warm, and you won’t know what to say in return except that it doesn’t feel right for you.
We know what you’d be giving up and, if it’s any consolation, you’re the people we dream of—being, if we had cutting edge minds and the guts to play it straight. Too much of our money is wasted on easily digested art, on puppy dogs and butterscotch triumph. When we feel like stretching ourselves, we’ll be coming to you. We haven’t given up on the idea of being an informed public that demanded the very best of art. A hundred years from now, we’d like it said that the Western Tradition remained strong during our time. You’ll be carrying our sword in that fight.
If you’re determined to break your hearts by refusing to give us what we’re comfortable with, then we need to give you a different gift, in the form of a warning: Don’t expect too much from your education. Oh, we know it undoubtedly tightened up your writing. Your brush strokes gained additional authority. It helped you master some of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Don’t let comfort with technique fool you about why you’re here on this planet. You exist to have good ideas and suffer the consequences. School ground an edge on your talent, but the ideas were yours to begin because that’s who you are and that’s how art works.
Your education was arranged to make your career easier, but your career won’t be easy. You’re afraid of not making enough to live on and we feel for you. We’re afraid you won’t, too. But there are other things we’re just as afraid of. We fear the tyranny of the multi-book deal and best-seller lists stretching to infinity. Sequels marching tirelessly over the horizon scare the crap out of us. We fear those wine and cheese art extravaganzas like poison. Most of all, we’re scared of art as product. It’s cruel, but we’d like you to have just enough to do what you have to do.
You’ll be called elitist by those who haven’t found a convenient way to make money from your work. Get used to it. Get used to fighting back. In the twenty-first century, when our country has fallen from its leadership in too many categories, isn’t some elitism exactly what is needed? America re-invented a particular type of it more then two centuries ago, a kind of preferment the world had not seen since the Hellenic civilization. It was not the elitism of blood, of tracing family ancestry back to royalty, or Plymouth Rock. Not trust fund elitism either, pitiful nobodies propped up on Mommy and Daddy’s money. It was the notion that good ideas trump blood and purchased status. It was revolutionary then and it’s still revolutionary. Yes, keep telling yourself a bit of the right kind of elitism might just be the ticket.
You can do this. Good ideas are your stock in trade. They’re your double-edged sword and we’re hoping you’ll cut us up even as you slice yourselves thin. We go to work every day hoping for someone to startle us, someone whose education hasn’t neutralized them, rendered them harmless. That’s you. Put something in your work for us. We promise not to look away, or, if we do, we’ll come back to you, we’ll keep trying. Don’t forget us after graduation. Wherever you end up, we’ll still be on our way to work every morning; wishing, hoping, dreaming of you.