Last Updated June 20, 2008

Spring 2000 Commencement

American University
College of Arts & Sciences
Commencement Address
J. Carter Brown
May 14, 2000

Well, President Ladner and Provost Kerwin, and Dean Mussell, and members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, distinguished guests here, families and, of course, most particularly those who are getting their degrees today, my fellow graduators—sounds a bit like gladiators, I guess. For all of you, we are both seniors, except mine gets a movie ticket cheaper.

I too graduated, commenced, not that long ago as you heard after those 32 years at one institution—the National Gallery—and for my graduation, part of the faculty as it were our docents presented me with a book of quotes from kids that they had taken from around the exhibits. And, one day a docent apparently said, “Alright, children, we have explored portraiture, and landscape. Now we’re going to talk about still life. Does anyone know what a still life is?” A hand shot up. “Yeah, that’s a picture in which you think everything’s dead, but there’s still life in it.” Well that’s me after my graduation.

And for you with so much life ahead, I want to talk about integrating the arts in our lives. I didn’t coordinate this with Jennifer, but it is that same wonderful theme of broadening our horizons. At the galleries you heard we tried everything to bring art and life together, from the design of the East building as you walk into kind of an extension of the mall with trees and sky, and through our exhibition program, and through our extension program which goes all over the country outside the beltway to some 4000 communities in all 50 states.

Here at American University, you have a “borning” with Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center. I hear also a new theater in the works, and have recognized a great sculptor recently with an honorary degree, posthumously, Fredrick Hart.

Well, the most fundamental way to integrate the arts into the lives of everyone is through education. And I hope all of you will make sure your children get the arts all the way through: K through twelve and on into college. Because the arts address the whole person. Along the way there’s all kinds of gathering evidence now that schools who offer arts. That those who take it get higher scores in everything else. But we need it to equip a citizenry for a 21st century that’s going to be very different than the 20th, where the work force were largely robots which we now can do in our own virtual way, where we need thinking people. We need imagination and creativity. We also need audiences for the future in order to make the arts alive and viable.

Well, frankly it’s hard in this country. We still have a hangover from Puritan legacy in which the arts were considered the work of the Devil. And we have had a long time getting out of that. We’re a very pragmatic country. They wonder how much more money does it make you? And it’s considered a frill. Something on the periphery. But, what is interesting is that modern neuroscience has begun to be able to map and analyze where the emotions are in the brain and have recognized that the world of affect is inextricable from the world of cognition and thinking. That it’s all one and we’d better learn how to deal with it.

I had an opportunity to do this at the time of the Olympics in Atlanta, the 100 year anniversary, they asked me to do a show that was global. I thought, how do you bring all these diverse works of art together? And I thought why not for the very first time, do an exhibition on the basis of emotions in world art; from whatever corner of the globe or whatever century. And it was an extraordinary experience for those visitors. Some came out in tears. I got wonderful letters from a high school girl in the back part of Georgia saying that she hadn’t wanted to go because it was going to be like a museum, and they said you can visit the Mall afterwards, so she said okay. Then she got in, and she wrote me letter saying, “You’ve changed my life.” Suddenly these works of art began to open up something for her. Well, it’s true for the performing arts. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of involvement with the Kennedy Center. We now have a millennium stage where we stream things on the Internet everyday, 365 days of the years. And, as you heard, this television network, Ovation, which brings all of the arts into people’s living rooms and, we hope, into their lives.

Well, the arts are all around us in a very concrete way—whatever we try to do to avoid them—because our built environment is potentially a work of art. Luckily, here in Washington, we have one which is, in fact, a work of art; was planned by Major La Enfant who designed it and it has largely carried out his vision. And what’s interesting as you all go into the 21st Century is the increasing sense that what we really need is a sense of place. You know, you’d think that the Internet has liberated us so that it doesn’t really matter where you are because you’re in touch with the world anyway, but, by the same token, I think it’s leading to a general sense of rootlessness. We have already a notoriously mobile society. It’s part of our economic strength. We can move to where the jobs are. We’re all immigrants anyway, and so, even from the earliest natives to everybody have come to this country, pulled up their roots, and we need something to hang onto. That’s why museums are important and why cities are important.

Cities have had a hard time since WWII. You’re aware that the paradigm is that they have imploded. The flight of anybody who could afford it was to the suburbs to the shopping malls, and now what is exciting is that trend is being reversed. You see it in the District, we have a new arena, we have downtown now, we have life after work. Right down in the center of our city, it’s happening in Cleveland where they put an arena right down in the center of the old part. It’s happening in Boston, even the rundown 42nd Street is being revitalized. In Los Angeles there’s finally a “there” there. And the economic impact of this onto our cities is extraordinary. A great example is Newark. I hope you’ve been reading about the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which just opened up. That whole downtown area, which was just a high crime district, totally blitzed, has come back now with investment. They have open performances, outdoors, for everybody, and it’s just a very exciting trend.

Well, in architecture, we have an opportunity to contribute to that by great buildings. I’ve been lucky to be on the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, sort of the Nobel Prize for architecture, for the last 22 years, and when you get a Pritzker Prize winner like Frank Gary doing a building in a rustbelt countrified city if there every was one, Bilbao, Spain, who had ever thought of going to Bilbao until the Guggenheim Museum there has now been drawing people like a loadstone, the economics of Bilbao have now taken this tremendous spiral upwards.

It’s important to realize that design equals legacy, and that whatever you do, requires a decision and that one is going to have all kinds of repercussions. As Winston Churchill said, “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.”

And so, I’m here to talk about the rewards of being involved particularly in public service, and to leave with you one thought, that we can open ourselves to the enrichment of all the arts and seek out ways to help offer those riches to others. Of course, to make room for that requires time. Bernard Berendsen, my mentor, the great art historian, in his autobiography said, “I feel like a beggar on a street corner with a little tin cup, asking passers by to drop their spare minutes in it.” And, there was a similar analogy that I heard Chief Justice Renquist talk about how sad he was that he hadn’t programmed more arts time into his legal life because you really have to think of life as a supermarket where everything is priced not in dollars but in time—in minutes—and make your decisions.

As Kenneth Lark said, the great art historian in England, “The arts are man’s greatest challenge to death. They attempt to make the transitory permanent and the chaotic orderly.”

So, you seniors have a lot more time ahead than this senior’s got, but I can only hope that you’ll have the luck that that time will be enriched by your own intimate involvement in the arts, and by the genuine thrill of bring the arts into other people’s lives. Thank you very much.