BARD COLLEGE HOLDS ONE HUNDRED SIXTIETH COMMENCEMENT, IN A VIRTUAL CEREMONY, ON SATURDAY, AUGUST 22, 2020
Musician David Byrne Delivered Commencement Address
Honorary Degrees Were Awarded to Byrne, Multimedia Artist Laurie Anderson, Physicist Steven Chu, Composer Gao Xiaosong, Curator Thelma Golden, Brooklyn Public Library President Linda Johnson, Educational Historian Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, and Biophysicist George Rose ’63.
Bard College held its one hundred sixtieth commencement on Saturday, August 22, 2020. In the virtual commencement ceremony streamed live from the Bard College campus, Bard President Leon Botstein conferred 437 undergraduate degrees, in absentia, on the Class of 2020 and 161 graduate degrees, including master of fine arts; doctor and master of philosophy and master of arts in decorative arts, design history, and material culture; master of science and master of arts in economic theory and policy; master of business administration in sustainability; master of arts in teaching; master of arts in curatorial studies; master of science in environmental policy and in climate science and policy; master of music in vocal arts and in conducting; master of music in curatorial, critical, and performance studies; and master of education in environmental education. The program, which took place at 2:30 p.m. in the commencement tent on the Seth Goldfine Memorial Rugby Field, included the presentation of honorary doctoral degrees.
Owing to the severity and longevity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the College held a modified commencement. The events and ceremonies were held in real time, but, consistent with public health policies and regulations, access to them was limited.
Text (unedited) of commencement address by musician David Byrne:
Thank you. Congratulations to the brass ensemble. It’s very difficult to play together when you’re distanced. I heard a story from a musician the other day. There was a socially distanced orchestra that was playing, and some of the musicians said, “You have to gesture bigger, we can’t see you.” So, the conductor had to make it bigger than before, so that everybody could see.
This is certainly my first time talking to a live audience … performing, alright, to a live audience in many, many months. It’s kind of strange. It’s kind of wonderful. It’s strange and wonderful to actually be gathered in a group of people this much. I’m encouraged by this institution. I was invited to come here. I have some familiarity with this place. I understand what Bard stands for.
I recently worked with a Bard alumnus named Alex Kalman ’06 on a book. I’ve written about the Bard Prison Initiative, which I think some of you will be familiar with. And, I’ve read some pieces that Mr. Botstein wrote about music.
This place is special. I’ve been here, visited here a few times over the years. I saw an exhibition at the gallery in 2008. The gallery had been turned into a re-creation of the artist Keith Edmier’s parents’ house, with all its extreme ’70s décor. It was like walking into a movie set. And, you know, as you walk into a movie set, you know that it’s all fake, but part of you is still seduced into feeling that you’re in that place. There’s this kind of wonderful tension in something like that where you know it’s fake, but you kind of feel like you’re in the place at the same time, between the real and the artificial. We are in a world that someone has made that is just like this world that this artist made of his parents’ house.
His world, like our world, is unreliable. It’s based on unreliable memory and imagination. We all do this. We make these artificial worlds. The difference is, we have to live in them. A world that’s made like this, it can be a seductive lie, or it can be a revealing truth. On a thing like this, a commencement, I imagine it’s common to ask oneself, “Well, what comes next for me? What comes next for me as I leave this place? Will I be a different person? Will I be a different person than I was a month ago?” Well, I think we’re all different than we were last week. Things are changing incredibly rapidly. And then you ask, “What person am I now, and how should I be as that person? What do I love? What does that entail? What, if any, are the … obligations? Obligations to myself? Obligations to a larger community? How does one reconcile oneself, between one’s personal rights, one’s personal desires, and those of the community and the collective? What have I learned here? Has the world changed? Has the world changed [laughing] since the spring? It probably has. Has it changed into something far different than the world that I knew? Is that a good thing? Is everything I learned here, at this institution, now meaningless?” I don’t think so.
I’m very sorry for the world you inherit. We’ve left you a mess, the one that we made, the world that we made. But, there are reasons to be cheerful. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain, which has revealed both the worst and the best of what and who we are. Arundhati Roy, the writer, referred to this moment as a portal when we have unprecedented opportunity to change things, to cross into another world. In this moment, we have been both cursed and blessed. This is one of those moments that occur once in a while. Ideas that were taken as given, economic ideas, cultural ideas, etc., are being questioned, reconsidered. An era based on a set of biases and assumptions is ending. In a sense, we’re lucky. The portal that she mentions is opened and we have a chance to go through it.
I’m as a guilty as anyone else for waking up in the morning and feeling that nothing really changes very much. I have moments of despair and anger and frustration. No surprise. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” some mornings that feels like an empty platitude when I look at the news that morning. It sometimes feels like, oh, you know, same as it ever was. But that’s not really true. The real constant is change. We often forget or overlook the momentous changes in our thinking that we now accept as obvious, inevitable. But, in truth, nothing was inevitable. The changes that have happened, that we live with now, for better or worse, they’re here because we made them so.
Okay, here’s a few of them: slavery is now universally considered unacceptable. Two thousand years ago, Aristotle thought slavery was natural and necessary, but even then his contemporaries argued that it was unacceptable. These changes don’t happen overnight. Okay, here’s another one: women should be allowed to vote. If I said to anyone now that if you heard someone else say, “No, women shouldn’t be allowed to vote,” you would think that was completely ridiculous. It happened in the United States, state by state, one hundred years ago. In Saudi Arabia it happened five years ago, but it happened. Education, primary and secondary education, I think everyone accepts that it should be free, it’s a right for everyone to have it. This was not always true. Children were considered cheap labor. Eventually, maybe higher education will be considered a right as well. Interracial marriage: I think we all accept this now. We all accept this. It seems like, what’s the big deal? The Supreme Court made a ruling legalizing interracial marriage in 1967—not that long ago. Alabama has some laws on the books that counteracted the Supreme Court ruling, and those were overturned 20 years ago. Okay, gay marriage, we all know that this is now law, this is now legal. When I was a young person, if someone had told me that this would be legal and generally accepted, I would have said, “You’re crazy, this should happen, but it’s going to take forever.” But, just five years ago, in 2015, it was recognized as legal in all 50 states.
I can go on—infrastructure, clean air, clean water, things that don’t exist for us entirely now, but we do think of them as our right, and these ideas that we consider as part of our lives and how it is to live and how it is to be, it didn’t always have to be that way. It wasn’t always that way. This is something new in the world, and the world has changes. These changes weren’t predictable, and they weren’t inevitable. I’m a little older than some of you, and I can say that some of these changes, they weren’t expected. They weren’t expected to happen as soon as they did, and when they did, then they seemed inevitable. People make these changes. Things that seemed impossible have happened, and they will continue to happen. Try and imagine what radical and momentous changes in our thinking might happen next, and they will! We can imagine what they might be.
Okay, make no mistake, things can go wrong, things can go the other way. This country was ever so closely inching towards democracy, but, as in many other countries around the world, there’s been some serious backsliding. There’s no guarantee that change will be good. That part is up to us. And, so I ask myself, “How did these changes happen? Where’s the levers? Where’s the buttons? What’s the process? What can we, as a lone individual or with a little group of people, what can we do to have an effect?” I supposed you might ask yourselves the same questions. “Does my line of work have any wider resonance?” Not that every line of work has to focus directly or solely on social justice. I believe that the meaning of what we do, in our work and our lives, is more subtle than that. I’ll use myself as an example, okay? Most of the time I’m a performer and a musician, and it seems to me that music and performance affects people’s view of the world, not directly, not by me writing a song about climate policy or housing inequities, although I might like to do that. Rather, it works in a less didactic and not kind of text-based ways. It’s kind of a language without words. Music creates community. When I was young, I heard music on a little radio that was about the size of a phone. And, I realized when I heard this music that there was a world out there that was very different and wider than the little suburban town that I lived in. You’ve heard people say things like, “That song saved my life” or “That DJ saved my life,” and these are kind of clichés, but there’s a truth to it. Music can have that kind of effect. It reveals a larger world, and it brings people together because they know that there are other people out there like them. For someone else, it might not be music that has this effect. It might be the visual arts, theater, cooking, dance. It might be ways of thinking in education, sustainability, even economics can touch people about a new idea and it changes their thinking.
I also think that one discipline needs to influence all the others. There needs to be a lot of curiosity about what’s going on in other disciplines, and one discipline can, in surprising ways, affect another one. When I heard the music of James brown, as a young man, I came to realize that here is music where no one part is more important than any other. The melody is not played by one instrument, but it emerges out of the interlocking parts played by all the instruments. The groove is not just played by the drums, but it comes into being as a result of what everyone is doing. I sensed that, unlike traditional Western music, Brown’s music is nonhierarchical. In his musical model, we’re given an audio metaphor. We hear, metaphorically, a model of social organization and cooperation that makes us feel joyous and transported. We’re not kind of intellectually going through all of this, but I feel that we sense it. Here I sense is a social and economic argument made with music, and the transcendent feeling it brings, when you hear and experience it, is more persuasive that language. Music proposes a world. Metaphorically, it gives evidence of that possibility. An economist hearing James Brown might possibly see the world the same way. Of course, my model for cross-disciplinary influences comes from music, but it can go the other way as well.
I’m going to mention the first abstract artist, Hilma af Klint, who was influenced by spiritualism that was prevalent over a hundred years ago, turn of the last century. It had been proposed that one of the reasons for the wide enthusiasm for this spiritualism was because of the scientific discoveries that were happening at that time. The science was showing that there were invisible forces in our world. Electromagnetism, radiation, radio waves, X-rays. The entire world, ourselves included, are affected by these invisible and pervasive forces. Science proposed this world, a world that hadn’t previously existed in our imagination, and this affected how these artists worked. They realized that what we with see with our eyes is only part of what is there, and artists like af Klint and others began to attempt the abstractions to represent this world, a world of energy that go through buildings and go through our bodies. So, with art and science, we conjure worlds, and, over time, we who conjure these worlds, we ourselves change, and then worlds that we conjure, those change as well.
A couple of years ago, after I finished a music tour that lasted almost a year, I decided to go to India. I wanted to catch a traditional music festival in Chennai. It was wonderful. I saw a kid, this young kid in a kind of Elvis outfit playing Carnatic music on a saxophone. I saw singers communicating with drummers with their hands. And, I also went to Kerala, which is another state in the south, and there’s a kind of performance there called Kudiyattam. It’s an ancient form of dance drama. It’s about a thousand years old. In this dance drama, the performer begins the performance by metaphorically dancing into existence and kind of proposing a world. This will be the world that the story will take place in, kind of like Star Wars or Game of Thrones. It’s complete, it has a cosmology, it has a history, every detail. In the dance drama, the world building is not made with sets and props and computers. It’s conjured in the audience’s imagination, via singing and dancing and gesture. Like the actors in this drama, we, in whichever field we endeavor, we also dance a new world into existence—not just in music or theater, every kind of work and activity we engage in proposes a world. In the end of the Kudiyattam performance, the actors dismantle the world that they have made. Likewise, we destroy an old world, a worn-out world, the one we ourselves and others before us have made, so that a new one can be imagined and brought into existence.
ABOUT THE COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER
David Byrne’s recent works include the Broadway debut of David Byrne’s American Utopia (2019); launch of Reasons to be Cheerful—an online magazine focused on solutions-oriented stories about problems being solved all over the world (2019); the solo album American Utopia (2018), which was nominated for Best Alternative Album at the 61st Grammy Awards; Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, a theatrical exploration of the historical heroine, which premiered at The Public Theater in New York (2017); The Institute Presents: NEUROSOCIETY, a series of interactive environments created in conjunction with PACE Arts + Technology that question human perception and bias (2016); Contemporary Color, an event inspired by the American folk tradition of color guard and performed at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (2015); Here Lies Love, a 22-song theatrical production about the life of Imelda Marcos, authored in collaboration with Fatboy Slim, which premiered at The Public Theater in New York City (2013), traveled to London’s National Theatre for a sold-out run (2014–15), and was remounted at Seattle Rep (2017); Love This Giant, a studio album and worldwide tour created with St. Vincent (2012); and How Music Works, a book about the history, experience, and social aspects of music (2012).
In 2015, Byrne curated Southbank Centre’s annual Meltdown festival in London. A cofounder of the group Talking Heads (1976–88), he has released nine studio albums and worked on multiple other projects, including collaborations with Brian Eno, Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, and Jonathan Demme, among others. He also founded the highly respected record label Luaka Bop. Recognition of Byrne’s various works include Obie, Drama Desk, Lortel, and Evening Standard Awards for Here Lies Love; an Oscar, Grammy, and Golden Globe for the soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor; and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Talking Heads. Byrne has published and exhibited visual art since his college days, including photography, filmmaking, and writing. He lives in New York City.