Convocation is a bridge between the frenzy of returning to school and orientation—and the getting down to business with the starting of classes. This year, President Joseph W. Polisi kicked things off with welcoming remarks for students, faculty, and administrators. You can see some of his remarks in the orientation-convocation video.
Welcome back Juilliard! It’s truly wonderful to see you all assembled here and to welcome, in particular, our new entering class of 280 young artists.
You our students have worked very hard to get here and to stay here, and this afternoon I would like to dwell on the question of why you are here and what you should expect from a Juilliard education.
As to the question of “Why,” the uninitiated could look at you all preparing for an education at a distinguished institution, performing and experiencing some of the greatest works of art known to humankind and working with some of this planet’s greatest artists and teachers, and simply say, “Why not?”—but it’s not that simple. There was something driving you to get here, something that pushed you to work diligently, to overcome anxiety as you went on stage to perform, some extra impetus—although hard to describe in words—which told you that honing your technical skills and addressing the issue of what it is to be a communicative artist was worthy of your time and effort, and at the end of a performance or a rehearsal you felt a sense of personal accomplishment and joy.
But our global environment is not as focused on the arts as we are here at Juilliard. In my view, our world has become homogenized. Our digital media, with all their wonders, tend to take the nuance out of communication, and that nuance, subtlety, and intelligent thought are some of the treasures of the human experience, as well as essential elements in developing an artist’s psyche.
A few days ago in The New York Times, David Brooks wrote a column entitled “The New Romantics in the Computer Age.” His thoughtful premise was that there may now exist a counter reaction to the current vocational drive to see technology as the only way to realize professional goals in the 21st century.
Brooks writes that this new idealistic direction will be driven “by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism.” He continued, “People eventually want their souls stirred.”
As I speak to you, thousands of migrants from a horribly destructive war in Syria are trekking to what they hope is a better life. Yet we know that there have been many tragedies along their journey and that the inhumanity which has become a mainstay of the human experience throughout our history has surfaced again in the treatment of these vulnerable individuals.
Why do I bring up to you today this geopolitical phenomenon as you immerse yourselves in the performing arts? My answer is that as artists you can make a difference in the human experience, not necessarily by providing food or water or proper medical care to downtrodden peoples around the globe, but rather, by being the messengers of human values that bring empathy and nuance to our daily lives.
Now I am not claiming that exposure to and involvement with the arts can be a panacea for the world’s problems, but I am saying that without artists and their communicative messages, there is a much greater chance that our world will continue to sink into a morass of self-involvement and disregard for those less fortunate than we are.
Is this an idealistic view of what you might have before you as artists? Of course it is, but as David Brooks suggests, perhaps the world is ready for a dose of idealism at a time of political uncertainty at home and much desperation abroad.
As young artists, you should be prepared to address these moral and political dilemmas, which often can be put in some perspective through experiencing great works of art. And you should be dedicated to maintaining an environment—in our schools, communities, and ensembles—in which challenging as well as comforting works of art are presented to the public. You are not just actors, dancers, or musicians—you are future leaders who need to have the intellectual and moral ability to respond to these important questions in the time ahead with informed and reasoned answers.
So why are you here? My response to you is that you are the carriers of tradition; you are the ones who will decide if our future is a blend of confusing paths to mediocrity or a concerted, focused drive to excellence and empathy. And what you do individually and collectively this year does make a difference in how our world addresses the arts and the human condition.
You are serious young artists, and one would expect you to act seriously—well, not all the time, but you understand what I’m getting at. This year each of you should develop your own answer as to why you are here and what you can do to not only be better actors, dancers, musicians, but also what you can say through your art so that in the future there will be no question as to the importance of high-level artistic performances as part of the fabric of our society.
In closing, I would like to quote the words from a play by George Bernard Shaw that were made famous by President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy said that people “see things and ... say: ‘Why?’ … But I dream things that never were—and I say: ‘Why not?’”
You are the dreamers who we will rely on to move forward the great traditions that we place in your hands. Have a year full of joy, creativity, idealism, a bit of whimsy, and a clear determination to make your time at Juilliard one of intellectual as well as artistic growth.