An Address To The Fall Convocation of The

December 18th 1999

Honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors, faculty colleagues, college staff and, most importantly, graduating students:

To be invited to address you on such a day as this, a day of ceremony, congratulation and celebration, is an unexpected honour, and I would like to thank the students, faculty and administration of the organizing committee for offering the privilege to me.

It is over half a century since I first set foot in a college of art—a fact which prompts me to reflect not only on what has changed in colleges since then, but also on whether I have changed, and on what wisdom I may have acquired: sobering questions, at least for me. And the answers are sobering. “Wisdom” said William Blake, 200 years ago, “is sold in the market where none come to buy;” and, more disconcerting, he added that it is “bought at the price of all that a man hath.” There I think he confuses wisdom with sainthood, or even martyrdom—but, either way, it seems beyond my reach. And he never mentions “age” except with disapproval, perhaps because reaching the so-called “age of discretion” often means retreating within a protective carapace and taking all your real opinions with you. However, in Blake's “Proverbs of Hell” you can read, “If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” I find that more encouraging: my follies seem to come without the slightest effort! And yet, upon reflection, I'm not sure that he meant those follies that come easily, but rather those which in the end come down to persevering in the face of opposition and received opinion. There may be something to be said for that.

Blake was the subject of much informal discussion among friends of my art student days. We liked the early Blake because he was an apostle of liberty, especially the liberation of artists from academic precepts and the liberation of sexuality from conventional constraints, both of which we found appealing. He was even a bit of a slacker: another of his, aphorisms goes, “Damn braces; Bless relaxes.” I'm sure he got that right, although my generation, brought up in the great depression and the second world war, has little talent for relaxing—which may explain the charm I find in so-called “slacker” movies (even when Winona Ryder “slacks” on credit cards belonging to her absent dad).

I must confess that in those early student days I did not read analyses of Blake, and felt quite free to delve into his work without the help of Northrop Frye. This was a mixed blessing, but it confirmed what Blake's contemporary, Coleridge, said of poetry—that it gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood—a maxim that I find applicable to all the arts. You have been taught at NSCAD to give accounts of your work, in order to deter you from re-inventing the wheel. But in the public domain, such explanations, while they may give wider access to your work, can often be futile and even self-destructive (I have come away from some, entirely disillusioned). In 1885, when Whistler gave his notorious “Ten O'clock” lecture to explain his work, his neighbour Oscar Wilde wise-cracked “Be careful James, or you’ll explain yourself away… better remain incomprehensible, like me!”

In fact being only “generally understood,” is your destiny in any case, as you will know if you have taken semiotics courses, or read the early texts by Marcel Duchamp. Years ago, to underline the inevitability of this, The Times of London would look every day for statements by critics that were diametrically opposed and publish them side by side. For instance, after the performance of a symphony, The Times would quote from critic “A” who had asserted that “the entry of the brass was ragged,” and then from critic “B” who'd said “the entry of the brass was lively and precise.” No day went by when The Times could not find such contradictions—most often in the context of performing arts, but sometimes in the visual arts as well. In other words, The Times was really underlining that, before we can place our reliance on what the critics say, they must reveal their tastes and tendencies—must have distinct identities.

Of course, reviews are different. As if to circumvent the practice of The Times, the new Canadian journal Lola sometimes gives us three reviews of the same show at once—all brief, all “cool” and reading as if they come from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X. I must say I enjoy its flip “insider"” tone and its flirtatious bits of erudition. I would not want to lose the levities of Lola. But neither would I like to see the end of all “un-cool” contention, especially in our national newspapers, from which it seems to disappear increasingly. I hope I do not speak across too wide a generation gap when I say this, for I believe that journalism rises to the level of art criticism only when one knows the writer can say “no” and say it well. No critic worth the reading marks A+ on every door.

The emphasis is different for historians: the critic judges works, but the historian judges critics, and, more importantly, other historians. So, while art history expands our understanding of the arts, it does not necessarily lead to the increased enjoyment of them: the very opposite may be the case. The history of art, in other words, is done for the enjoyment of history—something not always understood. But it was understood by the ancient Greeks, who loved history and gave historians a goddess, or “muse,” of their own to inspire them (that is, literally, to “breathe into” them). Her name was Clio, and her mother's name was Mnemosyne, which, significantly, means “memory” (and it is obvious how much historians need both). And to indulge in a bit of one-up-man-ship, I might add that there was never a muse to “breathe into” practitioners of the visual arts, whether designers, ceramicists or anything else. It is true the word “museum” is borrowed from the Greek word for the temple where the muses dwelt, and the invention of museums 250 years ago was a smart move on the part of visual artists to edge nearer to the status of historians, but there are still no muses in museums—so on the score of inspiration historians still have the edge (You don't agree? You would if you were ancient Greeks!).

As a student in a big metropolis, I had the advantage of superb museums. I walked each day by the great architecture of the past, by private dealer galleries, theatres, concert halls, libraries and other intellectual institutions, the chief of which for me was London's Institute of Contemporary Arts—a club where you could find the best of London critics amidst aging surrealists, young architects and designers, or various celebrities just passing through—as well as jazz idols such as Cleo Laine (now there’s a name for you: Cleo!). And in Paris, where Europe’s twenty-something generation descended in the summer to take courses, there were the bistros and cafés around the University, while somewhat later, in the New York of the 1960's the whole art world, seemed to meet each night in a bar called “Max’s Kansas City.” The educational richness of such places was summed up a hundred years ago by the novelist George Moore who wrote, “I was never at Oxford or the Sorbonne, but I was at the Nouvelle Athènes!” The “New Athens” was a café whose clients were painted by Degas, and where Moore talked for hours each week with Manet, Degas, Zola and Mallarmé. And, as you know, the highest honour that a European artist or poet sought in those days was an invitation to stop by at the Mallarmé apartment on a Tuesday evening.

NSCAD students at one time came close to Max’s Kansas City by staying at the NSCAD Loft in New York, defunct now for several years. However, we do have an informal scene in Halifax and you really can hear thoughtful conversations in the Economy Shoe Shop or the Khyber, and the college's visitor programme brings a succession of new voices to the city. What NSCAD students seem to lack today is somewhere on the campus to replace that social meet-and-mix facility once known as the college cafeteria.

Furthermore, not counting those of you who have enriched the college by coming to it from around the world, up to ten percent of you graduating today have taken advantage of the NSCAD “off-campus” or exchange programmes to spend your senior year abroad, not only in the West but in the cities of the East as well, and there are students in India, South Africa and Japan, as I speak, while several here today have been in China. And you will have discovered NSCAD alumni in leadership roles in many places. NSCAD alumni manage design portfolios, or direct or curate in galleries and museums, in Perth and in Toronto, in New York and in London, in Reykjavik and in Tallahasee. Some alumni teach at NSCAD, and one has been president of both the Emily Carr College of Art in Vancouver and the Ontario College of Art and Design, whilst others hold Deanships and departmental chairs in colleges and universities across the country, and two of Canada's art journals are actually edited by our alumni. Not only that, but some among you will have come from high schools in the Maritimes where your teachers were NSCAD alumni too. In short, whether you have studied off campus or not, these indicators show you have received the best that Canada can offer, here in Halifax. You may say “It takes no ghost come from the grave to tell us this.” But I thought it worth reminding you that, though tomorrow you will be “off campus” in a rather final way, there is a wider college campus, thronged with NSCAD graduates like you, that stretches to the four comers of the world and waits to welcome you.

I have mentioned assets that, as a student, I found in the big city, and it was just as well for me that they were there. Fifty years ago art education was an old tired horse. It deposited my generation on the street directionless and uninformed. But it prompted the reforming zeal with which that generation tried, successfully, to get things changed. In other words, the generation that you represent may walk the same walk and have the same ink, paint or clay stuck to your hands, but you do not talk the same talk—for art education in the second half of the twentieth century has developed from the intellectually impoverished to the intellectually overwhelming. And that I find ironical: at least my generation did not suffer from the current information-overload that tends to veto one's initiatives. Indeed, it was in part our ignorance, I’m sure, that gave us unwarranted confidence as we campaigned for educational reform—and there is nothing like confidence, whether warranted or not, to get things done. If you find confidence the chances are that you will grow to fit your job.

Much of modem art, for instance, came from misunderstanding the works of others (and I have tried to say just how inevitable that was). The Paris cubists largely misunderstood what Picasso and Braque had done, and the Russian Futurists were totally confused about Italian Futurism—while the first abstract paintings were made by Kandinsky on theories that in hind-sight seem quite laughable. And yet we do not laugh—but rather look with awe on what Kandinsky had the confidence to do. Art, craft and design, like literature and poetry or music, come from making art, craft and design, or poetry, not thinking endlessly about them. In short, to reap you have to sow, and to sow you have to get off your—er—couch!

Not long before my retirement, during a sabbatical leave, I stayed a few days at the college’s loft in New York to which I have referred. No organized group was present—just two or three alumni passing through, eight different students taking time off from Halifax, and two or three who were at Cooper Union—most of them strangers to one another. I can tell you that the NSCAD loft was not the Ritz, but I have the warmest memories of those students—of the easy sense of community they generated, their helpfulness towards each other, the quiet way they moved around if others were asleep, the way that there was always one of them to organize and cook a meal for ten, while afterwards the rest of us would do the chores, (your parents here today may not believe this, but it was true of them, and I am sure it would be true of you).

The students with whom I lived for those few days were shortly to be identified as belonging to “Generation X.” (the title of the novel I've already mentioned). Reviews of this book often described its central characters as “alienated” (the word comes up frequently to describe those whose lifestyle expresses discomfort with the social norms of our society). But people alienated from the social norms of consumerism, competition and “getting ahead,” are not necessarily alienated from human values. Indeed the opposite may be true (as the ethical leaders of the world keep telling us). And the advantage of an art college education is that it leans upon such truths. It even reaffirms the value of leisure (which we too often confuse with sloth, one of the seven deadly sins of the Christian church). Here too the dear old Greeks made clearer distinctions. Our word “school” comes from their word for leisure—for them the leisured were thus permanently at school, with time to philosophize so as to become what Plato called the “Guardians” of the state. When students today are deprived of leisure, as many surely are, they are not by that high standard truly at “school” at all. But the students at the college loft, when I was there, were very much “at school,” in the profound sense of that word. The creation of the NSCAD loft was a stroke of educational genius—and its sacrifice upon the altar of expediency is something to be mourned.

As you may know, your own generation has recently been dubbed the “Nexus” generation—again in a Canadian publication—this one, with the title Chips and Pop, published last year by three young advertising-executives (“chips” meaning computer chips and “pop” meaning popular culture). Their aim of course is to put money into the pockets of their clients by identifying the way your habits, attitudes and spending patterns differ from those of Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X.” We all know of the effort to create what is called “generational obsolescence.” The mechanism and power of peer group formations was already well studied in North America by 1950 when David Riesman published his classic text The Lonely Crowd. Indeed, I actually observed the process by which in 1959 the London Press Exchange published a series of papers to persuade British corporations to catch up with the USA in this respect. The target market was, as now, the generation between age 15 and age 25, and the aim was to persuade that generation to restyle its tastes every five years or so. At the time it all seemed quite benign. But what ensued was the unwitting creation of an explosive political force—for thus, ironically, were forged the bonds that held together a sequence of youthful movements that extend down to the demonstrations in Seattle just three weeks ago, movements which have served to raise the consciousness of vast numbers of humanity across the world.

When I left art school I was scarcely conscious of the nuclear threat, the cold war, the Korean War, or McCarthyism in the United States. My insecurities were closer to home, and I would not blame those of you today who said the same—racism, misogyny and violence may well live on your street and, unlike many corporations, you will be required to pay back government loans, while bringing up a family. But the decisions of the World Trade Organization also come close to home. For good or ill, they will affect you sooner than you think. Today things change at exponential rates. The human genome project will be completed next year in half the anticipated time, and you will be required to decide on more than genetically altered foods. Three weeks ago the Rev. Jesse Jackson gave a chilling address to the United Nations on the plight of Africa—its narcotics, its parentless children and its AIDS crisis, saying “there will soon be no-one left to whom to say ‘turn out the lights’;” whilst the narco-crime is now so intricately involved in international business that, if it could be successfully prosecuted, the banking system of the world would fall apart.

So: are these matters for despair, as we approach that-over-rated calendar convention, the year 2,000? I do not think so. They mean that we must struggle to endure, whilst history shows that such has always been the human lot. The scale of suffering has never been so great, the risks never higher; but the means by which to combat suffering grow each day, and the best informed historians can only gasp at our capacity to build amidst the chaos and disaster of the past. We even still have saints: think of Doctors without Borders, or Nelson Mandela, or the liberation priests of Latin America. And there are heroes in the Italian Judiciary, and martyrs here in Canada—although today we call them “whistle-blowers” and leave them to their fate (If I could leave you with a slogan for today, it would be “Whistle blowers of the world unite!”). And nor should we forget those ironies of life by which, as T. S. Eliot put it, “Virtues are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.” History bears witness there, too.

That quotation comes from Eliot's poem “Gerontion,” written when he was 32, about an old man reflecting on history and his own frailties—a poem for which he borrowed an epigraph from Shakespeare's play Measure for Measure, which reads “Thou hast not youth nor age, but, as it were, an after dinner sleep, dreaming of both.” I can identify with that—and, “dreaming of both” has been my project for this afternoon.

It remains for me to congratulate you all on the achievements that have brought you here today, to reiterate the high esteem with which we all regard you, and to wish you, the makers of tomorrow’s visual culture, the best of good fortune as you grasp your new responsibilities and step into the next phase of your lives.