Gloria Steinem

School of Visual Arts Commencement Address - May 9, 2017

Gloria Steinem
May 09, 2017— School of Visual Arts, New York
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It's at moments like this that you can't believe your life at all, you know.

I grew up in Toledo, hoping, praying to be a Rockette. Because I think girls grow up with their only signs of rebellion in show business, just like boys in poor neighborhoods grow up with athletics, you know, is their dream. And I just want to say to my 10- and 11-year-old self, I'm on the stage at Radio City Music Hall and it's better than being [a Rockette]. [applause]

I'm so happy to be here with all the leaders and the teachers and the board members of this great school of visual arts, all the parents and the relatives and the graduates and anybody else who helped pay the bills, all the spouses, children, lovers—you know who you are—and friends of graduates and all the people whose hard work has gone into creating this glorious day.

I'm so grateful and moved that you asked me to be here today, because I confess that I am and always have been hooked on graduations. They are the best of all possible traditions and occasions. They are personal yet universal, both an ending and a beginning. They are more permanent than weddings and until marriage equality, way more democratic. They are almost—almost—as much a step into the unknown as funerals, yet instead of the loss of ourselves they bring the hope of finding ourselves.

Now, we also enter graduations at many different ages, as full or part-time students, sometimes after pursuing other careers before finding the one of our hearts. And though I have spoken at a few other graduations, I have to say that you are the kinds of graduates I most envy.

Why? Well, I realized this long ago thanks to my dear friend Milton. I don't know whether he will remember this and I don't know whether I'm telling it right but I'm fond of the way I'm telling it so…. [laughter]

But he described to me a class where he was teaching on magazines and the making of magazines. Because magazines and therefore his class involve both word people like me and visual people like you, he created a design project that could be shared and also share that design is universal.

He asked each student to design their ideal day five years hence—so five years could free your imagination, right, because anything might have happened—and to design this ideal day from waking up in the morning to going to sleep at night. What did the room look like? What would you see, feel, taste, wear and do in your ideal day? It's a really great exercise, and it gives you an idea of the huge potential of design.

But what he noticed and what he told me and what I never forgot, was that the visual artist designed a day in which they worked and the writers designed today in which we had just finished working. [laughter]

This is why I envy you. Whether or not each of you feels the same about your process, it's likely to involve all five senses and truly absorb you.

Make no mistake—I love being a writer. It's the only thing that when I'm doing it I don't think I should be doing anything else, which as the French say is the test of métier, one's craft or talent. It's what you love so much that you forget what time it is while you're doing it and you would do it even if you didn't get paid—though I devoutly want everyone to get paid, and equally. [applause]

My joy in writing comes from having an idea and then from finally achieving it, but not so much from the tactile and visual and altogether sensory process that comes in between.

For years I also shared an apartment with Barbara Nessim, whom you probably also know, as a teacher here at the School of Visual Arts. She could listen to music while she painted. She said it freed her hand. I couldn't listen to music, especially if it had lyrics. I so envied her the joy of her working process.

I say this because the visual arts are more likely to employ all the senses, to be universal, understandable, and to have the potential therefore of bringing diverse people together, to be undivided by different languages or degree of education.

Yes, English is probably uniting a bigger proportion of the world than any languages of the past. And yes, we now have computers and the web and Facebook and Twitter and a president who governs by Twitter and also Instagram and other on-screen images that carry a meaning way beyond disparate languages.

But it's also true that if you go on the Google campus in California and look at the huge maps that they have of the world, with colored strings going up in real-time from all the searches that are happening on all the continents of the world, you will notice that there are parts of the world—especially in Africa and Asia—from which there are many fewer colored strings shooting up, because the literacy rate is low or because the access to computers is even lower or because there is no electricity at all, not even a generator with which to recharge batteries.

Actually, this has become the source of a fantasy that I hope if I say it today maybe it'll happen, which is that we need a big satellite in the sky beaming radio programs in hundreds of different languages so people on the ground with wind-up or solar radios, the kinds that require no electricity at all, can receive and that would be to me way more democratic than some of the divisive technology that we currently have. However, it still depends on words and it's still not as all five senses as what you do.

You in the visual arts—you have been creating humanly accessible and universal images since the first human handprints of red ocher that are still visible on African rock walls, since the cave paintings in the famous eight caves of France—where I want to say, archaeologists determined four years ago three-quarters of the handprints were made by women—I'm just saying.

And as your commencement speaker last year, Carrie Mae Weems, pointed out only 29% of the exhibitions were allotted…you know all those statistics, okay, let's just remember those handprints, folks.

That's because a few things like patriarchy, colonialism, slavery, racism, and nationalists all intervened, okay, but that was an error of history. We're going to go back to the past in an entirely new way.

We should be especially aware of the universality of image here on Manahatta Island. I'm so grateful to hear Wilma Mankiller quoted, because we are here and if you think of vertical history, this, we are now standing on the land which is part of the oldest and longest continuously running democracy in the world, on which our Constitution is based, before 90% of the residents were murdered by war and by imported disease.

If we studied human history when humans began, we would know that once, the paradigm of society was not the pyramid, not a hierarchy. It was a circle. It was a circle in which we as human beings were linked, we were not ranked, and is possible to go there again.

That ancient languages like Cherokee that Wilma Mankiller spoke and many others here and those of the Khoe and the San in Africa, the Africa from which every one of us here came, they had no gendered pronouns. A human being was a human being—what a concept. There was no word for nature, since humans were not separate from nature.

Now we are again struggling to get beyond the invented categories of gender, race, caste and class and nationalism, without knowing about societies that existed without them, even though they account for the overwhelming majority of human history.

At the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, there's a recorded lecture when you first come in and there's a young scholar saying there are two things, history and the past, and they are not the same. So we are beginning, I think, to look at the politics of history

But you in the visual arts, you bridge those gaps in knowledge between and among people now.

At the Rubin Museum, there was an exhibit of footprints over time, including the footprints of the Buddha, foot and handprints, and it ended with Grauman's Chinese [Theatre], where movie stars put their hands in the…. It made me feel totally different about Grauman's Chinese. I mean, we are doing something totally, totally traditional.

And more and more I see that we are relearning the universality and the connective tissue of the image in programs that prove the remembering and the healing power of art-making, for children who have been abused, too young for words; for returning veterans who image the results of a war they cannot speak; of the Ford Foundation where the damage done to citizens in this incarcerated nation where we imprison a bigger proportion of our people than any other nation in the world because prisons are run for profit; where the reparation of this damage is being explored through the arts.

There are so many things that we have to learn if we look outside our usual space and outside what we think of as the past. In one of the oldest cultures in Ghana, for instance, when someone does a harmful or unacceptable thing they are indeed punished with isolation. Perhaps because we are communal animals, isolation is a universal punishment.

But not like our solitary cells—a short period of isolation, and after that the person is brought back into society and there is a long ritual amount of time in which that person is told by everyone they know, every good thing they ever did in their lives and given a stone or a symbol of that good thing.

We could do that. We do the reverse, right? We continuously punish people, keep them from working, stigmatize them. There's so much to be learned if we go beyond our boundaries and now is the time we need to blast those boundaries.

Now is a time of division when a government and a president defeated by the popular vote—lost by three million votes, let's remember [applause]—which is causing us to get rid of the Electoral College, which was in any case a legacy of the slave states who had diminished voting populations and wanted the Electoral College.

Alright we are in a time of, in my life, maximum change. On the one hand great, danger—and I am not for a moment diminishing how great that danger is—and on the other hand we are woke. [applause]

I have never in my life seen so much organic, sustained, enthusiastic, inventive, creative, and fan-fucking-tastic activism as I’ve… [applause]

And what do we do when we march on Washington, which was the biggest march in history and which took place all over the world. We were getting calls from Nairobi and from you know and more surprisingly from Oklahoma, right. [laughter]

It's about…what we remember are the symbols—the hats, the photograph, you know. It is a rebellion of the visual arts, the arts of the heart, the arts that are not limited by language, not limited by technology—can be invited by technology, we're grateful for technology, but there is no substitute for being present with all five senses.

So I just want to say a deep thank you to all of you who are universal people, even more than us word people. You are going to be the most cohesive, universal, uniting carriers of this change, this great bridging of artificial difference.

And I also want to say that if each of you has even a tenth as much fun as Milton [Glaser] and I had at the beginning of New York Magazine and Ms. magazine and so many other things, that you are going to have the best of all revolutions, which means that if you want to have fun and laughter and sex and poetry and music at the end of the revolution, you have to have fun and laughter and sex and poetry on the way, okay? [applause]

And I can't wait to watch and see what happens. Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of this. Thank you.

SVA Commencement. “5. Commencement Speaker, Gloria Steinem 2017.” YouTube video, 20:58. May 11, 2017.