For the first time at the University, Visual Arts students and Art History students celebrated their graduation together, followed by a get together at the Holme Building at Camperdown campus. Mark Ledbury, Director of the Power Institute, gave a wonderful speech the received a lively ovation. It impressed upon all attendees to look to art and creativity for the enrichment of our futures.
Mark had this to say, “In May I was privileged to speak at a graduation ceremony in which not only were many of our Art History majors among the graduands, but also many artists graduating from Sydney College of the Arts. I used the opportunity to talk about just why and how art matters in society, and for those of you interested, I’m linking here to the speech I gave.” Below is his graduation speech:
Professor Caine, Associate Professor Masters, distinguished guests, graduates, families, my marvelous colleagues,
Thank you for inviting me to address this brilliant new generation of creators and thinkers, and their loved ones and supporters—I’m honoured and I wish in my turn to acknowledge the Gadigal People on whose unceded ground the University and its campuses exist, and pay my respects to Elders past present and emerging, and to the cultural and pedagogical knowledge embedded in Aboriginal culture and custodianship of Country.
I am a very lucky man: Asked what I do for a living, and when my first go, “I’m an Art Historian” meets with bemusement, I begin again, trying desperately to avoid humble bragging or just bragging: Oh, I teach the history of art and human visual expression. I teach this to brilliant students at the university of Sydney, often outside the classroom and even sometimes in Paris—at which point my interlocutors will do one of two things, or even both at the same time: scoff at the seemingly obscure or even unimportant nature of what I teach, (“what use is that?”) and / or ask longingly how on earth I ended up so happy in my job.
I want to come back to this odd dual reaction, but first I just want to say that days like this make me especially happy- graduation is a vital celebration of a milestone in the life of a distinguished group of students, makers, researchers all of whom have achieved great things and will be leading figures in the cultural life of this country and region for decades to come. Congratulations to you all, and to your parents, supporters and friends gathered here to celebrate with you. We’re all pleased and proud to have played our part in the complex process that is university life, and to have helped foster interests, hopes, skills, dreams.
Let’s get to “What use is that”: Don’t let anyone tell you you’ve not done a vocational degree, by the way. First, because art is a calling, a vocation, and because of course, you’re on the way to becoming what everyone needs in these days of artificial intelligence and real human dumbness- that is to say: critical, creative providers of the actual stuff of life, part of the new energizing and productive art force that will generate ideas and artworks, conversation, debate and culture; and/or, through the curation, preservation and dissemination of cultural legacies and objects, contribute to collective memory and histories, and create vital capital of all kinds for Australia. (just a reminder that the Arts and Cultural sector, writ large contributed $111.7 billion to Australia’s economy in 2016-17 (according to the Government’s own statistics) And that beyond this, multi-billion dollar international companies owe their lives to both the visual art and the encounter with it- would instagram have come about without its co-founder, Kevin Systrom spending a term in Florence studying photography, I wonder?… And as we know that artists lives are lives spent managing risk, innovation and opportunity, another key requisite of all lives lived in the twenty-first century.
I could go on, but that is to be tempted to be instrumental, to turn to the economic use of art only- no indeed not: Art’s value far outstrips any number of billions on GDP, and should not be the accessory of data science and social media. I have the great good fortune in my post here at the University to be the “Power Professor” which although it sounds like a hubristic title of a Marvel comic super-villain, (nerds among you will recall “professor power” ) but is in fact a role named for the vision of a University of Sydney Graduate, John Joseph Wardell Power, (1881-1943) who, after medical degrees at the University of Sydney, became a surgeon in private practice in London and then on the battlefields of World War one, after which traumatic spell he gave up his career for the life of an artist, became part of the fervent intellectual, artistic and political mix of interwar Europe. During that time he advocated, via his art, writing and actions, for complex understanding of art as representing, grasping some of the
underlying structures of all human life, as a skeleton structures a body. He also protected persecuted artists and fought fascism in his own way. He gave his gift (the largest ever given to the University at the time) because he believed Australia needed to experience and understand the complexity and depth that art brings. Power’s aim was not to put fluffy art on gilded walls, or fuel superior dinner party conversation, or even establish a billion dollar company- but to inspire real reflection on art as a significant actor in all our lives.
Power’s legacies include the MCA, the Art History program that many here are graduating from today, the Power Collection of art (much of which we’ll be able to see again when our marvelous new Museum opens next year- come back and see it!) and much else.
For Power, then, and for me, art was vital, because it was about the fundamental things of life, our grasp of and interaction with the physical and environmental world; human striving and desire, in all its forms; beauty, death; belief; struggle and resistance
That’s my answer, (in short, ‘Why don’t you study art’?) to those sneering interlocutors who doubt the relevance or interest of what I do, and your best answer, perhaps to all those questions over the degrees you’re all graduating with, might be to ask “why aren’t you an artist?” and I want you all to remember to be confident as you assert this, as you inevitably face the challenges of uncertain funding, narrow -seeming career paths, the condescension of the uncomprehending, etc.
But let’s also celebrate, guilt free, the fact that art is a pleasure. The thrill of seeing life- transforming art or moving images is probably part of many of your journeys here. The excitement, wonder and sheer compulsive beauty of works of art shouldn’t be a guilty privileged secret but shared widely and celebrated openly. As studies have shown, again and again, pleasure is good for us, visual pleasure makes us more well, attentiveness to the
visible world is massively beneficial and art provides real therapeutic help . (see Nobel and Stuckey, 2010) And some of my most special moments as a teacher happen as I stand with students in front of works of art and feel the effects of that encounter ( Indeed, some here today have witnessed my over-excitement in Paris)… because it reminds me of my own transformational moments, seeing close up the expressive toes of David’s Brutus in 1789, or as a teenager standing in front of “Who’s afraid of Red Yellow and Blue IV” in West Berlin in 1986, a work of great beauty and , simple power that had been set upon by a neo-nationalist as a “perversion of the German flag” -; or again, weeping and marveling at Jane Campion’s An Angel at my Table: watching Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon for the first time as a teenager and wondering how it came to be so visually beautiful and what a crazy and seductive fiction it all was- my subsequent research agenda (eighteenth-century art; fictions of art history, music and theatricality) have their germ in these encounters.
Before I get washed too far down stream by the current of beneficial pleasure, I should perhaps also acknowledge that art is also challenge, provocation, a bringing to light, and has a major social role in helping us see our world’s and our society’s less pleasant sides- from environmental degradation to the consequences of injustice, violence and prejudice. But it does this by being inventive, creative, compulsive- compelling us, arresting us, seducing us, guiding us one way or another – into thinking things through and facing the sometimes unpalatable realities of our world.
That’s a vital role for the artist, filmmaker, curator and cultural actor in our world today, a world in which, increasingly, and sadly those who should be bold, face truths, act with justice and lead us wisely, instead look away, throw up their hands or worse, actively seek to prevent
clear-eyed and critical vision. Artists don’t have to be as extreme as the great French Jacques-Louis David and sign revolutionary death warrants, or orchestrate the cultural politics of the Commune like Gustave Courbet , (both of whom went to prison for their trouble!) but probably do have a duty
to be engaged- one of the consequences of engaging in art, as John Power noted, and as the work of Dacher Keltner and his lab at Berkeley is showing, is increased concern, empathy with others ,and awareness of social realities- and this engagement with the social and physical world, sensitivity to its changing aspects and complexions, empathy with the dispossessed, is a skillset and mindset you’ve been trained in, you can all bear witness to, teach and spread…! Bob and Roberta smith, the artist, famously argued that every school should be an art school- to which I would only add that it’s time to put the artist in charge.
And that’s why maybe I should close where I opened ,with the millennia of cultural leadership, stewardship and creativity that shaped this country, as reflected in the extraordinary diversity of indigenous Australian art and visual culture . To quote again from a Government report:
Indigenous Art and visual culture: “is a living demonstration of the continual connection to land, family, dreaming, culture and place that dates back many millennia. Arts practice is a fundamental part of the way of life for Indigenous artists and communities” –
We all do well to remember that connection to land, family, dreaming, culture and place is about as important a summary of the important things in any life as could be given, and that our aim is to learn from indigenous communities and make Arts practice and knowledge of art a fundamental part of the way of life for all australians.
So, congratulations to all of you, celebrate hard! (the art world loves a party!) but come back, keep in touch with each other, (because you’ll need solidarity cooperation and deep friendship to carry on!) and with us, because there is nothing that delights us more as teachers than the stories of our students’ continued flourishing. I wish you all every possible success and happiness. Thank you all for listening.
Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) graduate Gillian Clare Kayrooz receiving her graduation certificate.