2008 Graduation - Valedictory Celebration

Professor Carlo Lamagna, Faculty Speaker

Hello graduates and honored guests. I speak to you today from the vantage point of one who has spent his entire adult life in the visual arts, teaching, working with art and artists, in museums, art galleries, and alternative spaces; with historic preservation and advocacy for a variety of causes – in short, I guess I can say that I’ve led a cause-based life.

I tried to get out of causes, before I joined NYU. I thought I should try for a job in the corporate sector, with a salary to match, so I spoke with a friend who was an executive coach. She suggested I try answering a questionnaire that would indicate the kinds of jobs for which my previous experience and personality would make me a suitable candidate. There were a variety of related career choices that resulted – but most were disappointingly along the same lines – like social worker or counselor. But it was when I heard missionary that I decided to direct my energies away from a corporate career.

I mention all this to you because this academic year has been one of intense reflection for me, as it may have been for you. Art and art institutions engage with the social, cultural, economic and political concerns that affect us all. It’s only natural then, that the courses I teach, the theses I advise, and my own work in the field encourage holistic thinking about how we function in the world.

But when I was preparing for two of my courses, Exhibition and Display of Art and Material Culture, and the History of Taste this year, a surprising realization occurred to me. A highly sought after, hard to define quality that most people seem to desire or consider essential, kept surfacing over and over. Yes, I’m talking about being "hot". "Hotness" doesn’t seem to be a contestable virtue. Young artists enter a fevered marketplace in hopes of being the next "hot" find. Museums want to have the next "hot" exhibition – I’ve even heard the term "hot" museum education program. Can the desire to be the next "hot" professor be far behind? Everywhere you look, this quality is highly esteemed.

I found myself subliminally reassessing my own work using this compelling measure of worth. I made a list of some issues we examine and analyze in my classes: the value system for contemporary art; current concepts of quality and who determines them; the key importance of language in and about art and visuality; how museum exhibitions can go beyond spectacle – please the public, yet keep open the opportunity for deeper emotional and intellectual engagement. This gave me pause.

Then I thought about several of the theses topics I encouraged my students to explore this year - educational possibilities of transit art programs, cultivating the young cultural omnivore, intellectual access for adults with disabilities, artist communities and Second Life, Black philanthropy in the visual arts, even combating anti-Americanism through cultural diplomacy – being "hot" seemed more hopeless than ever.

Even my own session for the American Association of Museums annual meeting examined how low museum salaries make it difficult to develop new leaders from the field. Come to think of it, there were many young museum professionals there, and they were certainly engaged in this discussion – but does that make it "hot"?

I didn’t give up entirely. One of my class sessions in History of Taste focuses on changing images and concepts of the ideal body, so one phenomenon we discussed was our culture’s belief in the regenerative power of makeovers to change people’s lives, whether it be surgical, hair and makeup, or a new room décor. But a lot of the makeovers we see on television seem quite superficial and ultimately transitory. People may look and feel "hot" for a time, but their underlying problems usually remain unchanged.

Taking this analogy a step further, perhaps the makeover is a good idea – our society could certainly use one. We’re way beyond makeup and accessories – we need the complete works – a new power structure, equitable distribution of wealth and resources, access to education and culture, inclusion rather than exclusion, global perspectives rather than provincialism and xenophobia. We need a radical systemic makeover – but how can this happen?

Obviously the Boomers have failed to live up to their early promise – and that’s putting it politely. But your generation now has the opportunity to make its mark – so there’s still hope. I find it inspiring to work with people who are passionate, committed, inquiring and open to new ideas and ways of thinking – that’s you. As graduates of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development you have made choices. You’ve gained the knowledge, the skills, and the network - to make change happen.

Maybe being "hot" isn’t so important, or perhaps it’s up to you to determine what that really means. We don’t have to wait for others to tell us what will happen; we certainly shouldn’t wait for change. The best advocacy is proactive, not reactive. But it won’t be easy. We’re in a terrible rut, language has become co-opted and distorted; images are more and more the means of preferred communication, but they usually serve an agenda, some obvious, others insidious. The pressure of the market bears down upon us all – there are very few who will not have to resist being sucked into the system.

Judging from my own students, I know they can make change happen; they have the persistence, and the idealism – and I know that’s not "hot", to make a better world for themselves and those who come after them.

I encourage you, implore you, get out there and fight for what you believe in. Develop your own inner "hotness." And if a wardrobe makeover makes you feel better able to develop your vision for the future – go right ahead - there’s nothing wrong with that.