Student Speaker - Thom Browne, BGS Theatre
(Singing) “As we go on, we remember all the times we had together.”
Thank you for indulging me. I cannot tell you how much of an honor it is to deliver a speech to the school that boasts the highest job placement rate, highest average starting salary, and just unveiled a brand new building for its students. Ahem, sorry, I accidentally got the notes for the School of Engineering speech. Jokes aside, I am truly honored to get to speak with you today on behalf of the School of the Arts. As an English and Theatre major I was also honored this year by having both of my areas of study grace Forbes Magazine’s top 10 most useless majors. You can laugh but all of your majors were on there too. Yes, film, theatre arts, dance, visual art and graphic design all make the list as useless. But hey, at least we aren’t those philosophy hacks, am I right? I say I was honored by this list because I don’t think it is right be offended by it. You shouldn’t be offended that your major is on that list. You should be offended, however, that a journalism student compiled that list. It appears she was not one for irony. She also probably saw no irony when she walked over to the art department at Forbes to see what graphics would accompany her words.
I mentioned engineering earlier because Forbes also published another list this year called “Top Ten most Valuable Majors.” Six of these ten were a type of engineering. Six. Just in case the arts majors in the room forgot how to do fractions that’s more than half. Engineering is valuable of course, but how did they go about calculating that value. Do engineering majors go on to be happiest people in the world? Are there lives more worry-free? Has more than half of the world’s value been created by engineers? Well it turns out that the value was calculated entirely on the idea of monetary return on investment—how much money you make based on how much money you put in. Interesting. I don’t think I am wrong when I say that my parents were worried when I chose to study theatre. I don’t think I am wrong when I say lots of our parents were scared when they heard what we were studying. And I don’t think I would be wrong if I said many of them would have rested easier if we had come home and said we were going to study chemical engineering. They likely would have asked themselves less questions. Questions like: Will my child be able to feed himself? Will my daughter be able to afford rent? Is my son ready for the world, will he MAKE enough money? Well I would like to talk to you about value and what artists MAKE.
In 1852 Harriet Beech Stowe published her famous abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It showed the injustices of slavery and within three years it was the best-selling novel of the day. Theatre troupes began to adapt the novel for the stage and when people saw the cruel acts committed against their fellow man happen to real live people not just words on a page, abolitionists tensions peaked, the south succeeded and the war that ended slavery in our country began. Years later Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe “the little lady who started the great war.” But I like to think those performing artists had something to do with making that happen.
In 1977 an elderly woman from Wellsville, Kansas named Elizabeth Layton was in the midst of a battle with severe depression and bipolar disorder when she began taking art classes. Her self-portraits dealt with social issues such as capital punishment, AIDS, homelessness, ageism, and racism, each one challenged people to walk in the shoes of the less fortunate. And when her work received national attention and numerous offers she would not sell it because it meant more to her than any dollar amount. She paid to enroll in a few classes and art saved her life. Talk about return on investment.
1983 a screenplay by Edward Hume became a made for TV movie called The Day After which followed characters in Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear explosion. Well at the same time we were in the midst of a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union while President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev sent threats of nuclear destruction back and forth until a copy of the film landed on their desks and they decided, you know what, total nuclear war might be a bad thing. That’s right people, a made for TV film stopped nuclear war. Art made stubborn, grown men reconsider.
Art may not make a lot of money. But art, makes me stay up for 48 hours full of passion and not even realize I am losing sleep. Art makes me empathize, it makes me feel pain with those who are suffering not feel pity for them. Art makes the sick and depressed smile. Art makes you have perspective. Art makes you laugh, cry, question, think twice, dream. Art makes me and you and all of these graduates feel happier than we ever have and that is bigger than any return on investment calculation I have ever seen. Art makes a difference. And artists know it. So we will write, and film, and paint. We will dance, and sing, and laugh. We will care, and inspire, struggle, and create and we may have to work part time at Starbuck’s but I don’t give a damn what Forbes Magazine has to say about it. You can call art inspiring. Call it bold or colorful, not your style, hard to understand, and completely confusing but don’t you dare call what we do useless. Thank you.
See Thom's speech on YouTube!