I had the insanely amazing honor to be invited to deliver the commencement speech for the Art Department at UC Berkeley this year. In attendance were over 100 graduating undergraduates and a graduate class of six students. Along with their proud families and faculty members, it took place on a sunny day in the sculpture garden of the Berkeley Art Museum. I took the responsibility very seriously — this was the first graduating class after last year’s historic presidential election, along with a recession that is coloring the outlook of college students everywhere. I wanted to address what I see as a potential opening of sorts, a way to encourage and promote cultural capital in a time of faltering economic capital.

Following is a transcript of the speech…

“Cultural Capital in a Time of Recession”
by Stephanie Syjuco
Commencement Speech for UC Berkeley Art Department, May 2009

First of all, CONGRATULATIONS class of 2009! It is an honor and a privilege to be addressing you on this day, at this lovely museum, surrounded by your friends and families, your faculty and the UC Berkeley academic system. We have all come together to express our deepest pride in your commitment to your artistic practice and your pursuit of a degree of high value. Graduates, look around you and know that we stand by you to witness this day, and that we support you in your future. As an artist and teacher myself, I look forward to seeing you out in that place they call “the real world” as a creative peer within the greater art community. Again, my heartfelt congratulations to you all!

We are living in tough times and you must forgive me if I choose to structure this commencement speech for the art department in the language of economics. Indeed, it seems both appropriate and inappropriate – how to link together what goes on within an artist’s private space of production with the outside world of recession, politics, and restructuring. At times these spheres of existing seem vastly indifferent to each other. But I do think it’s possible, perhaps entertaining, and I’ll attempt to do so in a way that hopefully opens a dialogue about what your future challenges may entail.

I will not repeat to you the facts and figures of the current economic situation, this recession with a capital “R”. These things you probably already know, but if you find yourself blissfully unawares, you may be in for a bit of a shock after graduating and entering the job market. It is a daunting task to face a future in which economic prospects seem uncertain and the art market is contracting. Sales are down. Museums and galleries are cutting back expenses, art programs are laying off faculty and staff, while nonprofit arts organizations, that golden support system and lifeblood of young artists everywhere, are squeezing their resources to make ends meet. The international economic art party as it’s been known for the past decade or so is OVER and the reality is beginning to sink in. It was a grand speculation, a bubble, a fleeting moment that piggy-backed onto a larger wave of globalized flows of money. Not anymore.

So where does this situation leave you, me, us?– artists and cultural workers seeking to carve a place of relevance in society via our mostly private and solitary studio practice of metaphors, abstractions, and the ever-valued “process”? If I sound dour or dire about the current state of affairs, the art market and the economy, I don’t mean to. Economic downturns, as painful as they are, have happened before, have been survived, but also does change the nature of work being made.

Most importantly, I bring up the end of the party as a means to propose an entryway into a new beginning, a way to think right now about radically restructuring the nature and meaning of art and culture within a system that values economic capital and accumulation of wealth and has encouraged a system of art production that reflects quantity, production, and spectacle. Last November’s presidential election proved to me that within moments of cultural and political crisis, it IS possible to upset an existing regime and begin a path towards an alternative outcome. I encourage you, newly-minted art graduates of 2009, to begin thinking of your role now as an artist citizen – a representative of a creative value system that may not make sense to others, but is in dire need of representation, now more than ever. This “recession,” this societal moment of introspection and pause has created an opening of sorts, cracks in the system that we must sneak in to and set up camp, infecting as many people as possible with the notion that there is value in societal investment in CULTURAL CAPITAL. Not culture as entertainment. Not capital as in money. But the encouragement of a system that sees artistic practice as going hand-in hand with the health and wealth of a nation. You can do this by example – by personally valuing your practice and banishing thoughts of greater “usefulness” from your criteria of success. “Use” and “usefulness” need to be re-defined to include the marginalized and historically “accessory” modes of creativity and production, those forms usually referred to as art. Promote culture as capital. Culture is capital.

This wonderful place of academic and creative incubation that you’ve been a part of the past few years now releases you into uncharted territory. A vast reshuffling and reordering is taking place outside. Think of this as an opportunity, not a downturn. Shift the terminology, play with the definitions, and come up with your own means for infecting and redefining the values of this society. Let’s restructure and reorganize together, historical precedent be damned.

Now, perhaps more humorously, I offer the class of 2009 some tips that helped me immediately after graduating from a BFA program fourteen years ago and an MFA program four years ago. There is nothing super original about these tips, they just worked for me. You may have already discovered these things for yourself. Parents, you may not want to hear these, but I’m sorry.

–Dumpsterdive. It’s amazing what you don’t have to pay for, especially on a limited post-school budget. Just make sure you pull only the least expired food out to eat.

–Decide that sacrifice is not a sacrifice. If you are choosing to be an artist, don’t do it halfway. A painting teacher once said to me: “If you’re driving around in your car complaining that you don’t have enough money for oil paints, you’re nuts. You should sell your car and buy oil paints. Simple as that.” This isn’t about romance and living a quote-unquote “artist lifestyle.” This is about the necessity and the discipline it will take to focus as much time and energy into your work, that problematic and at times nebulous thing that you have been shaping and honing the past few years here. If you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will.

–Don’t stop. The odds aren’t in your favor, there are so many distractions, so many things calling for your attention. But don’t stop making work.

–Compromise your living situation to afford a decent studio. Make peace with the idea that you will be crammed into a flat with more roommates than you can handle and that’s the tradeoff for paying for your own studio, your own bit of space to make work. See it as an investment, and not an option.

–Treat others in the artworld with respect, no matter what position you think they occupy. There’s a lovely saying that you should always be good to that gallery intern because they will one day be the museum director. This is not a joke.

–Find a job that you are either totally uninvested in emotionally or one that allows you access to ways of working on your own art while on company time. In other words, sometimes that café job isn’t the greatest career choice but it’s a means of making some money, getting free coffee, and allowing you more time in the studio. I spent nine years working at a museum because of the free woodshop and fabrication facilities, which I quietly took advantage of as often as possible, sneaking my own work onto company time.

–Honor your intangible labor in the studio, even when you or others don’t see apparent results.

–Don’t always know what’s fully going on in your work. Despite what your formal training is probably telling you, leave some “X” factors to both confound yourself and give the viewer something to grapple with.

–Never be more interesting than your own artwork. Period.

–Love others and take care of yourself. It’s so easy to be selfish for the sake of “the work.” Take the time to invest in your relationships because they will nurture you in more ways than you can imagine—lovers and partners, especially. Balance your love of solitariness with your love for them. There is nothing sadder than a lonely art star.

–Change the terms under which you exist. To pilfer a few economic recession terms currently in vogue: Dismantle. Restructure. Reorganize.

Finally, I think it’s funny that the term “practice” is used when referring to having an art “practice”. This whole thing is not practice. THIS. IS. FOR. REAL. Now go and live like it’s the only reality you’ve got.

Congratulations again.
Thank you.