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Andres Serrano at KCAI Commencement: 'Art is a mystery to most people'

Photographer and artist Andres Serrano at the Kansas City Art Institute's 2012 commencement ceremony
Courtesy of Kansas City Art Institute
Photographer and artist Andres Serrano at the Kansas City Art Institute's 2012 commencement ceremony

This time of year marks a flurry of commencement speeches at academic institutions around the country. Scheduled speakers in 2012 include political figures, such as President Barack Obama, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg;  journalists like Ted Koppel and Maria Shriver (Poynter provided this roundup of advice from journalists for spring graduates); and broadcasters Ira Glass (a live stream will be provided on Friday, May 18, 10:30 am ET) and Jim Lehrer.

On Saturday, May 12, New York-based photographer and artist Andres Serrano was the featured speaker for the Kansas City Art Institute's 2012 commencement ceremony. According to the Art Institute, approximately 110 seniors received their Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees.

From Controversial to Collected

Andres Serrano (b. 1950) grew up in New York City and studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. His work has been on display in solo and group exhibitions in major institutions in the United States and overseas; it's also included in numerous public collections, including the Spencer Museum of Artat the University of Kansas.

Serrano is probably most widely known for his controversial red-tinged photograph, Piss Christ, depicting a small plastic crucifix submerged in yellow liquid (the artist's urine). First displayed in 1989, Piss Christ is one in a series of artworks including objects submerged in fluids, such as blood, milk, or urine. In the late 1980s, public arts funding also became an issue with this work; Serrano received $15,000, some of which came from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Piss Christ continues to cause heated discussion and some outrage because of its content. It's been vandalized in Australia, Sweden, and in 2011, it was attacked by hammers while on display in France.

Commencement as Exploration of New Relationships

Andres Serrano is one of the participating artists in the traveling exhibition "America: Now and Here" organized by artist Eric Fischl. This collaboration of visual artists, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians, and poets launched in May 2011 in Kansas City, Mo.

According to the Kansas City Art Institute: "Several artists from this exhibition, including Serrano, are speaking at commencements at schools belonging the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design. Their addresses will explore new relationships developing between artists and society and will be compiled in a forthcoming publication."

Andres Serrano's Remarks at the KCAI Commencement

A few weeks ago, when I was asked to come here to deliver a commencement speech, I asked my wife, Irina, to look up the ten best commencement speeches on record. But after glancing at a couple of the names of the people who gave them, I realized I couldn't compete with them, so why bother even reading them. Consequently, I don't know what a commencement speech looks like. I don't know if I'm supposed to talk about you or talk about me. I'm an artist and I was born in New York City. I grew up in Williamsburg in the fifties, long before artists and hipsters made Williamsburg what it is today. At the age of 15, I dropped out of High School and two years later, when I was 17, I attended the Brooklyn Museum Art School. It was a non-accredited school, and along with other misfits and lovers of art like myself, there were little old ladies learning to paint. After two years of art school, I decided I wanted to be an artist but I didn't really know what that meant. Back then, we didn't know about the art world. I only knew that I was born to be an artist and there was nothing else for me to do. Many people don't understand what it's like to be an artist. They don't understand the passion, the drive, the ambition, the frustration, the need to create. Art is a mystery to most people. They understand movies, they understand books, they understand sports, they understand Kim Kardashian, but they don't understand art. But what they do understand is money, and when art sells for a lot of money they figure it must be good. Some artists want money but many artists just want to express themselves. They have a need to create in the same way they have a need to eat, to breathe and to live. For some, it's the only thing they know or want to know. I never had any role models, no one I looked up to except for Bob Dylan and Marcel Duchamp. Like many of my generation, I wanted to be Bob Dylan. But the only thing Dylan ever told us was to "not follow leaders, watch the parking meters." But Marcel DuChamp taught me that anything could be art. If you called it art, then it was art. Artists were not meant to follow rules. They made their own rules because they answer to a higher authority: their conscience. It's not easy being an artist. It's not easy to be understood or accepted, even by those around you. It's not easy to live with yourself, let alone with others. Some artists are thought to be difficult. Some artists are said to be crazy. Some artists are called sick. Some artists, are just plain criminals and if they weren't making art they'd be dead or in jail. Actually, I did have a role model once, when I was in the 5th grade, and his name was Tommy Napolitano. Tommy was the coolest kid in school. He was the handsomest kid and the smartest kid in school. Everyone looked up to Tommy. I was in school with Tommy from the fifth grade to the eight grade. And every time I thought I was catching up to Tommy, in terms of height or intelligence, I realized that Tommy was one step ahead of me. Tommy was taller and smarter and better than any of us and I knew that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to catch up to Tommy. A few years later, when I was in my early twenties and I found myself strung out drugs on the Lower East Side living the life of a drug addict rather instead of an artist, I ran into an old crony of mine from grade school. I asked him how everyone was doing. And he said to me, "Well, you know Hector Falcon, he's got his company. And Robert Gonzales, he's also doing great." And as he's telling me about some others, I say to him, "Hey, what about Tommy Napolitano? How is Tommy doing?" And he looks at me with a long face and he says, "Well, the last time anyone saw Tommy, he was on crutches pimping on 42nd St." I smiled and thought to myself, "My God, Tommy is still ahead of me!" There is no right way or wrong way to do things. There's only your way. The way you think it should be done, the way it feels right to you. The way you have to do it even if it means disappointing some and getting Hell from others. The way it feels natural, the way it feels normal, the hard way, the good way, the way it makes sense to you even when it doesn't make sense to anyone else. The way you were born to do it. The only way you could do it. The way it makes you feel good about yourself. The way that makes you live with yourself. Some of you may want to change the world while others just want to keep it going. Some of you want to be a part of something and some of you want to live in your own world. Some of you will create for others and some of you will create for yourselves.  I'm sure, many of you had some good times and bad times here. You've grown and bonded with some people and disagreed with others. You've learned some things you can use and others you'll forget. But you stuck it out, through thick and thin, and for that, I'm proud of you. I'm proud of you for seeing it through, for not quitting or giving up. I'm proud of you for trying, for doing a good job and for doing a great job. I'm proud of you for being an artist, a sculptor, a painter, a photographer, designer, creator, and everything else you want to be. And most of all, I'm proud of you for being you. One day, you'll say to yourself, "Gee, that was a good school, that was a great school. I learned a lot at the Kansas City Art Institute. I learned about myself, I learned about art and I learned about people. I learned to figure out who I am and what I have to say. Those people, they were my friends, my family. That was my home and I'll never forget them. I miss them and I'm glad I went there." God Bless you and good luck.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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