Neil Gaiman has a message for graduates: "Make Good Art." That's the point of his stirring 2012 commencement address at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, widely disseminated across the Internet, which is like David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" for a different generation, a call for self-expression and the courage to invent your own life.
These, of course, are classic tropes to share at a graduation; I think of the 2005 Stanford University commencement at which Steve Jobs warned, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."
And yet, Gaiman's speech is inspiring not because it offers any cautions, but rather because it eschews the whole idea of caution, suggesting instead that it's in our best interest to break — or even better, to ignore — the rules.
"If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do," he says. "And because nobody's done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that again." What he's getting at is a fundamental faith of the creative life — that rules can be the death of imagination, and that in order to live the lives we want, we must be able, first, to envision them.
Gaiman's address has just been released as a small hardcover, under the title "Neil Gaiman's 'Make Good Art' speech" (Morrow: unpaged, $12.99), and if the page design (by Chip Kidd) can be a bit intrusive, the ideas, the enthusiasm, continue to resonate.
Essentially, Gaiman is arguing in favor of engagement, of staying in the moment and appreciating what we've got. But what makes the speech remarkable is its focus; because it was delivered at an art school, it is all about how (and why) we make art. For Gaiman, art is redemptive, not because it makes us somehow better, but because it allows us to speak from the very center of our selves.
"Whatever discipline you are in," he says, "whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do, you have one thing that's unique. You have the ability to make art. And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that's been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones."
"Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do. Make good art."
It's easy, tempting even, to dismiss that as so much wishful thinking. But Gaiman is right. It's not that good art saves us, not in the long run anyway. But in the making, or in the appreciation, it offers us a way of connecting, of understanding, and averring, who we really are.
As it happens, I'll be at a graduation Thursday afternoon: a class of high school seniors, many of them looking to make careers in the arts. That's a scary prospect, now more than ever, and we, their parents, would be lying if we said we weren't anxious about how they will find their passage through the world.
But Gaiman brings something important to the discussion, which is the conviction that, if we believe it, we can do anything. "[B]e wise," he writes, "… [a]nd if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would."
Self-delusion? Maybe. But without a little bit of self-delusion, who would ever risk aspiring to a creative life? No, what Gaiman's elegant and moving little speech has to tell us is that it is up to us to decide who we are and how we want to function, even (or especially) when the world around us insists otherwise.