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John Waters’ Words of Wisdom to Graduating Artists: “Never Blink”

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It’s a highlight of college graduation season: Words of wisdom from Mr. Know-It-All.

For four years out of the last eight, writer and filmmaker John Waters has delivered a commencement speech to students graduating from a prestigious arts school.

In past years it was the Maryland Institute College of Art, the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and the Rhode Island School of Design, where he gave a talk that was later turned into a book, Make Trouble.

This year it was again SVA, offering an in-person make-up ceremony at Radio City Music Hall for Class of 2020 and 2021 graduates who previously had only a virtual ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Waters, 76, had addressed the 2020 SVA graduates on Zoom from his living room in Baltimore.

The author of a 2019 book entitled Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder, Waters worked in plenty of his trademark humor, railing against “hetero plumbers’ cracks,” the fashion police, and stylists who tell male movie stars to walk the red carpet wearing three-piece suits with no shirts underneath. “Lock ’em up! Lock ’em up!”

Because SVA is an art school, he also slipped in some gleefully subversive guidance about making a living as a creative person, advice that has served him well over the years.

First, don’t call yourself an artist, he told the graduates. Let others decide that.

“It’s not up to you to call yourself an artist,” he told the graduates. “That’s a good review about your work. It’s written in the future by a critic who hasn’t even been born yet. Besides, calling yourself an artist makes the public think you are obsessive, crazy, or unemployed, which you probably are.”

Second, nothing comes automatically.

“You have to work, work, work” for everything, he said. “There’s no shortcut to writing a book. A painting may take a year or a second to complete but to decide to start it can take a lifetime.”

Third, don’t be an asshole: “Be creative but not pretentious.”

And above all, a theme he has sounded before: Once you’ve had your first taste of success, he said, “Never blink. Someone is always waiting to steal your thunder. In the early ’80s, Debbie Harry blinked and everybody tried to steal her career. But Deborah Harry reinvented herself a million times since and will end up first across the finishing line of talent and fame.”

 

Following is the text of John Waters’ remarks to the SVA graduates, delivered in New York City on June 27, 2022. He saved one of his biggest zingers for the end, when the school gave him a Doctor of Fine Arts degree, making him Dr. Waters.

Thank you very much. Wow. Radio City Music Hall, known for family-friendly movies and the Rockettes. What the hell am I doing here? Me, I’m more of a Cockette kind of guy and my movies, well, they’re actually sort of filthy. But here goes.

I’m here to inspire you for the second time, give you hope in a new way. Well, I got thrown out of most of the schools I went to and since then not one person who has hired me in the arts has ever asked me if I went to college. But so what? That was then, and this is now and boy, things sure have changed.

In 2020, the School of Visual Arts gave me an honorary degree for I guess causing trouble. And this year the National Film Registry—yes, that’s part of the Library of Congress, the U.S. Government, for God’s sake—selected my film Pink Flamingos, which New York magazine once called “beyond pornography,” to its annual list of 25 culturally historic films. A movie convicted of obscenity all around the world. You too can fail upwards if you try. Yes. Move on to madness. Graduate to grandiosity. Commence to commercial creativity. You’re openly artistic. Anything is possible.

It’s been a coma diploma dreary two years, hasn’t it? Home is definitely not the room where it happens. But thankfully you voted to have this ceremony in person. Finally. Yes, we’re all shot up with the newest vaccines, ready to contaminate the world with our unbridled optimism. Bring on the next strain. We’re ready. I’ve had all the shots. Pfizer. Moderna. Johnson and Johnson. I’ve mainlined ’em, skin popped those little muthas. Both arms. Both legs. Behind my ears. I’ve even fired that secret third booster shot I copped on the dark web.

Antibodies? I snorted them months ago. And that new pill they’re talking about? Shoved up that suppository just last night. Yep, it’s time to emotionally duct tape ourselves to our seats. The day has come. We’re going to blast off into the infected future. COVAIDs, Omi-SARS, Hepatitis Z, we’ll kick your ass.

But first, you have to reinvent everything, including the word ‘artist’ as a job title. It’s not up to you to call yourself an artist. That’s a good review about your work. It’s written in the future by a critic who hasn’t even been born yet. Besides, calling yourself an artist makes the public think you are obsessive, crazy, or unemployed, which you probably are. Are artists born with talent the same way babies are born blonde or with skins of many different colors? Dirty blondes can go platinum, but they need a colorist’s skills and knowledge. Any race can produce successful artists, but often minority ones must act up to get the museum director’s attention they’ve always deserved.

But doesn’t a real artist hide that special talent, make fun of it, and subvert their gift to infuriate the uninitiated and grab the attention of the intellectual powers-that-be? Are all good artists liars and swindlers, or are they prophets and mind readers? It’s the same thing. You are the lucky ones. All you need is one good idea. One idea that might eventually sell for $200 million or, better yet, not at all in your lifetime, so they can later call you a genius ahead of your time. Either way you’re history, in the best sense of the word.

But you have to think of something new. But what? What hasn’t been done? I’ll tell you. Outsider Old Master paintings. Narrative Abstract Expressionism. Impenetrable Pop. Decorative Minimalism. Non Conceptualism. Video Folk Art. Appropriated NFTs. Collectors want to be challenged, shocked, scandalized. But come on. It helps to make them laugh too. Knock yourself first. Then you can be as crazily righteous as you want.

Go beyond political correctness to political erectus. Stand up for lunacy. Start your own next radical movement. Gays Against Guns is a great organization. But how about Gays Against Hetero Plumbers’ Cracks? Or Lesbians Against Bridal Shower Celebrations in Men’s Leather Bars? The Deconstructed Fashion Police? You bet. Defund the stylists! Their newest fashion atrocity? Male movie stars wearing three-piece suits to premieres with no shirts underneath. Lock ’em up! Lock ’em up!

And why oh why are many recording stars now nude on the red carpet? What happened to feminism? Ever hear of the Comme des Garcons Lump & Bump gown that blocked and deformed the male gaze before it had a chance to leer? OK, these dresses were expensive. But is there something the matter with a simple black turtleneck? Sharon Stone wore one from The Gap to the Oscars and caused a sensation. Tilda Swinton accepted the Best Supporting Actress Award dressed in full couture without a stitch of makeup, astounding fashionistas with her well-scrubbed shiny face, and proving what a brave artist she really is.

Facelifts? Graduates of any age, don’t do it. I get modeling jobs because of my wrinkles. Instead of hair transplants or elaborate wigs, shave your head. Tattoo a large cerebrum on your skull and call it a brain-lift. You’re the smart ones. Never let anybody forget that. Be opinionated. Never suffer fools, but do not be an asshole. Hopefully this is a thin line you’ve learned how to cross here at the School of Visual Arts.

Praise what others hate and dismiss what the great washed public loves. Never try to make people feel better with your art. That’s for psychiatrists. Make them feel worse for having contempt before artistic investigation. Be creative but not pretentious. Challenge yourself with impossible tasks. If you are continuing your education, write your next doctorate in disappearing ink and dare your professor to fail you. Rewrite William Burroughs’ cut-up novels by putting them back together in order and calling it Restoration. There’s a great French novel called A Void by Georges Perec where the author purposefully never uses the letter ‘e’ in the entire book. Now that’s a challenge. But an even bigger one was for the translator, who had to do the same thing successfully in a different language.

I challenged myself to film a children’s version of my X-rated Pink Flamingos called Kiddie Flamingos for a gallery show I had in New York. Try something similar. How about Fifty Shades of Grey reimagined as a tribute to the monochromatic paintings of Gerhard Richter? You too can be a crackpot intellectual if you just try, try, try. But you have to work, work, work. There’s no shortcut to writing a book. A painting may take a year or a second to complete but to decide to start it can take a lifetime.

Fashion? What you wear is important, and you can help others present themselves to the world with what you design. Think of the un-coolest outfit imaginable. Embrace it. Exaggerate it. Spill something on it. Snag it. Put the wrong dry-cleaning instructions inside it and presto! A style is born. Remember, if you are young, you are cute. Period. Mink Stole said to me recently, “I looked at old pictures of myself as a teenager when I thought I was unattractive and then I realized, ‘Hey I looked pretty good.’” There’s no such thing as an ugly young person. Well, except on Zoom, where everybody looks terrible.

The late great author bell hooks once said she read a book a day, and so should you. ‘I don’t have time,’ you may grumble. But yes you do. Get off Twitter, where you’re giving all your material away for free, and pick up a good hard novel in hardback. Another important piece of advice: After your first taste of success, never blink. Someone is always waiting to steal your thunder. In the early ’80s, Debbie Harry blinked and everybody tried to steal her career. But Deborah Harry reinvented herself a million times since and will end up first across the finishing line of talent and fame.

OK, before I forget. My parents told me the early bird gets the worm. And I thought they were right until some wiseacre cracked, ‘But the second rat gets the cheese.’ Be that second rat. Don’t get arrested on the front line of the next demonstration. Be a little farther back, so you can run. Pick a role model in your field but don’t imitate them. Use their originality to get to the next level. Appropriation is always the work of the second rat. But no matter what the Supreme Court rules, sometimes the stolen cheese is fresher than the worm who had to squirm to first get noticed.

OK, parents. You poor, poor people. Firstly, I salute you for believing your children are artists. What an empowering, loving thing to do. But will these artists ever leave home? Did you actually see their positive COVID tests or were they faking like they used to do with the elementary school nurse, quarantined and no longer weaned? Great. Boomerang kids, they call them, and they keep coming back. Thank you, SVA, you gave them virtual classrooms and we got their in-person messes. Their vaping, their vegan demands, bong hit odors, even non-binary sex noises coming from their childhood bedrooms, while you have to sneak into the attic crawl space for an old-fashioned private heterosexual kiss.

Student loans, they moan, moan, moan. OK, parents should argue, let’s change places. You live here and take over the mortgage payments or rent out your dorm rooms [on] Airbnb and give us the Dough-Re-Mi. We’re doom-erang parents now and you’re getting out. No? OK, we’re moving into your student housing, screwing up your WiFi, eating meat, listening to ’80s rock, and shaving off our pubic hair even though you complain we’re 10 years too late for that trend. How do you like it?

OK, another day is coming. We won’t have to live in this post-David Cronenberg world forever. We’re sick of being sick. Let’s count our blessings and toast the ones who didn’t make it here today. The ghosts in the empty seats. The ones with financial issues. Or personal ones like alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide victims, and, yes, we must never forget the stupid.

Not everybody is as brilliant as you are, so get over yourself. Act dumb today. Haven’t you studied enough? When you walk across the stage to get your diploma, do a popper. Or be a supermodel and work it, baby, work it. You’re on the runway to success, so why not strut your stuff? Artists can’t make fools of themselves. We call that taking risks, being edgy, transgressive. There are no actual jobs out there in the marketplace for you anyway. You have to create and develop your own insane opportunities, and believe me, that’s when the real fun begins. Congratulations, and thank you.

 

At the end of his speech, Waters was given a Doctor of Fine Arts degree, making him the first person to receive two doctoral degrees from SVA, after the one he received in 2020. He told the audience he plans to put it to good use.

“A doctor? What perfect timing. I plan on entering the abortion field immediately!”

The graduation ceremony was held days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, making abortions illegal in many states.

Maryland, where Waters lives, is not one of them.

“Come on down to Baltimore!” Waters told the audience. “I’ll gladly defy the Supreme Court. Birth control, I’ve got a trunk full of Plan B I’ll sell you cheaply. And Clarence, don’t try canceling gay marriage. I’m an ordained minister and I’ve been marrying couples for years. And with this honor strengthening my spiritual power, I plan to continue.”

 

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