The 2016-17 School Year Begins

Juilliard's president, Joseph Polisi, gave the convocation speech at the opening of the 2016-17 school year.

 (Photo by Nan Melville)

Juilliard convocation is a tradition that goes back to the presidency of William Schuman, who inaugurated it in 1946, and was revived by President Joseph W. Polisi in 1995. This year's welcome—for 875 new and returning students—included a bittersweet recognition of the recent deaths of Jim Houghton, director of the Drama Division, and jazz faculty member Joe Temperley. It also highlighted Juilliard's increasing digital presence and culminated in the technological feat of a video about convocation being shown at convocation. To see it and other examples of our burgeoning video library here. And here's an excerpt from the speech.

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You, our students, represent the future in the arts around the globe, and we will look to you for leadership and creativity in fostering a robust climate for future artistic experiences.

We live in a time of considerable ideological and political conflict. Regimes overseeing countries around the world are often deaf or blind to the plight of their people, and we are faced on a daily basis with human tragedies through terrorism and war that reflect the callousness of our global community. This troubling political environment manifests itself in a different fashion in America today. Whether Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, independent, or Green, there is a perception that the level of incivility in our political discourse rivals the worst moments in the history of our country. Rather than dwelling on policy issues that will determine how the country is governed, we hear instead a cacophony of accusations and bitterness from both principals and surrogates that rarely addresses the best elements of the human spirit.

I bring this topic up now because you as artists will need to decipher the extraneous noise around you and find your place in this essential political process. This process will define the ethos of the United States in the future, and will also have a profound impact on the rest of the globe.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about the current political environment, presenting the argument that we are in an era of what he termed “identity politics.” Brooks writes that today's America is “Manichaean.” This term is based on the beliefs of an ancient Persian religion that clearly “divides the world into opposing forces of light and darkness. You are [either] a worker or an elite. You are American or [a] foreigner.”

Brooks continues, “Seeing this way is understandable if you are scared, but it is also a sign of intellectual laziness. The reality is that people can't be reduced to a single story. … Identity politics … [essentially] breeds suspicion, cynicism, and distrust.”

Now, if we look at the role of the arts in our global society today, I would contend that some of its purposes are to clarify the human experience, to dwell on the complexity of our existence, and to bring a sense of revelation, sadness, joy, and all the many other human emotions to each of us as functioning human beings in a social ecosystem that binds us globally. One need only recognize today's various vehicles of social media to realize that we are brought together in an endless dialogue that influences our decisions and our way of life.

But in this digitally connected world, it is sometimes prudent to look to an earlier time when human values were perhaps considered in a different way. Listen to what the distinguished Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a concurring opinion of a case in 1927:

“Those who won our independence recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. … [T]hat it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope, and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; 
that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”

Although these words were written close to 100 years ago, they represent a logic and clarity of thought that is sorely missing in our 21st-century digital dialogue and in our political discourse.

Last week, our new undergraduate and graduate students had the distinct privilege of hearing the members of the Juilliard String Quartet present a riveting performance of Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 1. This is not only magnificent but highly abstract music. Beethoven never intended it to be a so-called tone poem and, therefore, there is no literal story to be told through the music. But yet, when I listened, my emotions and intellect were stimulated by the complexity of the overall composition, the intellectual depth of the musical structure, the genius of economy that Beethoven created. As the second movement ended I turned to Dean Guzelimian and said, “Isn't it wondrous how Beethoven took a tiny melodic motive and turned it into a fantastic musical universe?”

This act of experiencing fully a work of art, I believe, brings out the best in us as inhabitants of this planet. This process celebrates intellectual inquiry, nuance, complexity, and joyous emotion. This is the process; these are the goals that are part of your role as artists in our society. Your world should not be Manichaean. You must understand the many varieties of light and darkness that are at the core of humanity, and present your art in that way.

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.

I have no clarity as to how our presidential election will turn out on November 8. I can, however, assure you that the art to which you are dedicating your lives possesses a profound longevity that will exist well beyond this election. It will be your role, individually and collectively, to be sure that the subtlety and joy embodied in the arts continues to be supported and to flourish so that it can enrich our souls in these turbulent and confusing times. I know that you are up to the task, and I also know that your quest in this mission will make our world a more caring and empathetic place.

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