Joseph W. Polisi addresses Creative Arts graduates

Joseph W. Polisi

Joseph W. Polisi

Joseph W. Polisi spoke to School of Creative Arts graduates at the school's mini-commencement ceremony in the Spingold Theater Center.

First of all, how fortunate you are to have as the president of the university a person who respects and loves the arts.

It is really a great honor for me to express my congratulations to the graduates of Brandeis’s School of Creative Arts. At the university commencement ceremony this morning, I was deeply touched by the contents of the citation that was read when I received my honorary doctorate for the university. I was touched because, usually in these matters, there is mention of endowment growth, of building projects, and other highly material topics – but not today. Rather, the citation noted the importance of artists understanding the world around them and the extraordinary importance of the arts as profoundly powerful vehicles through which we better understand the human condition.

I was also touched by the contents of your school’s website – a rather rare occurrence in today’s world. The site spoke of the “belief that art is the great legacy of human accomplishment” and that your school provided an education for you to become “accomplished artists and engaged citizens,” a philosophy that meshes well with themes that I have put forward at Juilliard through the concept of the artist as citizen. Finally, I was taken by the expressed belief that the artistic experience can be a transformative one that links “generation to generation – across time, boundaries and cultures.”

In a true and real sense, great art transcends the mundane and the mediocre. In the twenty-first century there are many issues confronting you as artists and scholars that did not exist fifty years ago. In recent years, the very arts to which you have dedicated your studies have been put in question as positive, or even important, forces in our nation and in our culture.

The assumption that the arts are essential elements of our environment as human beings has been weakened by the extraordinary power of the media, the diminishing of our primary and secondary school systems, and the general perception that the arts are only for a tiny portion of our population who have not been buffeted by the spiral of poverty, crime, and disease that has torn into the heart of this nation.

But I would contend, ladies and gentlemen, that this final assumption is totally false. In fact, it may very well be the arts – and you as artists and as scholars – who can provide the stimulus and focus needed to energize this nation at this crucial time.

Today I want you to think about the unintended consequences you’ll encounter after you leave this campus: situations that should be viewed as opportunities rather than liabilities. I deeply believe that those engaged in the fine and performing arts in the twenty-first century will be asked to be multi-talented as performers, designers, teachers, administrators, and advocates for the arts. The old paradigm that you will be absorbed into the profession through sheer talent and diligence is an exceedingly rare occurrence if it ever existed in today’s world.

More and more I see young people flourishing in their professional pursuits through “thinking out of the box,” so to speak: coming up with imaginative and new ways of presenting their artistic discipline to new audiences, in new venues. Owing to the less distinct role of the arts in American society today, the profession will look to each and every one of you for your leadership; for your artistic ability, your honesty, vision, creativity, energy, and your sense of mission as you present your artistic endeavors in different places, to diverse audiences who may have various expectations of how your art will speak to them.

The great twentieth-century composer Edgard Varèse once said that there is no such thing as the avant-garde; there are only people who are late. In critically scanning the arts environment in America today, one can observe many disturbing circumstances. But if history has taught us one thing, it is that the profound achievements of humanity have often been reflected through the performing and fine arts and that these achievements have permeated the souls of millions of our co-inhabitants on this flawed but brilliant planet in a way that has opened their eyes to the beauty of the human spirit. You represent the hopes of the future in your chosen field. Take your education and transform it into an inner energy that radiates in your artistic output, in your personal relationships, and in your careers. Never lose that inner direction in this  very honorable mission.

And perhaps most important, never compromise your personal or your artistic integrity. Never settle for anything but your absolute best effort – an effort that may be exhausting and frustrating, but that will ultimately serve you in good stead as an artist and as a human being.

Before I conclude, may I say thank you, and echo the words of the president, congratulations to all the parents, family members, caregivers and friends who are here today who have supported these wonderful graduates.

I say thank you because you allowed them to follow their artistic instincts at a time when vocational elements are so closely linked to a college education. And please don’t ever sell short the exceptional values that these graduates represent, which are sought after in any field of endeavor. I’m talking about imagination, creativity, determination, discipline, focus, and joy in developing their work. Plus I know for sure that they’re the hardest working students on this entire campus.

I end with a favorite story that does talk about artistic integrity and the power that it can have over the commercial world:

When the noted American composer William Schuman, who later became President of the Juilliard School and Lincoln Center, was a young man, he was asked to assist the well-known Broadway producer Billy Rose in coordinating the musical portions of an elaborate review entitled The Seven Lively Arts. The presentation would include new songs by Cole Porter, new choreography by George Balanchine, and a musical interlude by no less a composer than Igor Stravinsky, who eventually entitled the work Scenes de Ballet.

When the Stravinsky work arrived, Rose was concerned to see that the instrumentation for the composition required a much larger orchestra than the one Rose wished to use in the pit for the run of the show. Rose asked Schuman to immediately contact Stravinsky to see about reducing the size of the orchestra so as to reduce the weekly payroll for the musicians. Schuman was, of course, tremendously reluctant to begin such a sensitive process with one of the giants of twentieth century composition without some assurances that Stravinsky would agree to re-address the orchestration.

In an effort to start the process, Rose sent the following telegram to Stravinsky: Your ballet a colossal success. Would be even greater success if you agree to certain modifications in instrumentation.

Stravinsky wired back: Quite content with colossal success.

I wish you a life filled with happiness and fulfillment in all you address personally and professionally. With your talent, dedication, and determination, I know that you will all achieve a colossal success.