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Commencement Archive

Commencement Address 2000

Judy Chicago, May 14, 2000

Although I have given several commencement speeches, I became quite nervous at the prospect of composing remarks to present here at Smith, the reason being — and my apologies to the male students who are here today — I care passionately about female education and I wanted to say something meaningful to you. In my previous talks at various co-ed commencements, I had to be careful about what I said because I didn't wish to exclude the male graduates, something that would have been easy for me to do given my overwhelming desire to address the young women.

In preparation for composing my remarks, I spoke to your beloved president, Ruth Simmons, who urged me to share with you some of what I have learned during the nearly four decades of my career. Let me begin by saying that I have lived the life I wanted to live and even though it has often been difficult, I have no regrets about the path I chose. However, I do not quite know how much of what I have learned should be shared with you, in part because I am still not sure whether my parents' failure to warn me about what the world was like helped or harmed me in the end.

From the time I was a young child, I wanted to be an artist and to be a part of art history, a history that I saw represented at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I visited every Saturday from the time I was 5 years old in order to take art lessons and wander through the galleries. From childhood, I was encouraged in this goal. I was raised in a family that believed in equal rights for women, which was quite unusual at the time, though I did not know this as my parents never told me that their beliefs were not shared by most other people of their generation.

So it should come as no surprise that no one ever pointed out to me the lack of women artists in the Art Institute's collection — even less than the 5 percent that comprise our nation's art collections today. At any rate, in addition to being raised to believe that I could be and do what I wanted, I was also taught to believe that the purpose of life was to make a contribution to a better world, an attitude that today, in what is sometimes described as a "post-feminist" world, is often seen as quaint, particularly if one's idea of making a difference concerns the status of women.

Many of my friends bemoan the fact that too many young women are unwilling to call themselves feminists, all the while benefiting from the hard work of our generation. I, however, have a different view, one based upon my own experience. When I was in school at UCLA, there were two tenured female faculty members (two more than there were for a good many years thereafter). In fact, one of them had a collection of women's art.

I would imagine that many people here who are familiar with my career are thinking that I must have really been inspired by these women and by the art collection. On the contrary, I wanted absolutely nothing to do with either of them, nor was I interested in the collection as I could not imagine why anyone would collect "women's art" exclusively.

Like many women of my generation, I was brought up to believe that what men did was important, a perspective that was not conveyed overtly, but rather through the fact that almost everything we studied was by men. That this was a contradiction to my own desire to do important work did not deter me from pursuing my goals with determination and incredibly hard work.

Also, I absolutely did not want to be called a "suffragette," which is the term that was thrown at me whenever I — who might have been described as a young, proto-feminist — tried to challenge the overt sexism of my male teachers and later, that of the L.A. art scene of the '60s, which, if described as macho, would be considered an understatement. It took me ten years to realize that even if I didn't wish to identify with other women, in the eyes of the art world, my gender figured prominently — and negatively.

My singular goal was to be taken seriously by my "fellow" artists (there were few women artists who were visible then). In order to achieve this, I felt compelled to move away from my natural impulses as an artist, impulses that revealed my gender. For even if art has no gender, artists do, and it is often the case that one unconsciously reveals aspects of oneself when one creates art. In my case, my forms tended to be biomorphic and feminine, which was definitely a no-no at that time, the end of the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and the beginning of minimal art.

It took me a decade of denying my natural impulses to decide that it wasn't worth it, that I had best be who I was. Would it have helped me if my parents had told me that even though they believed in equal rights for women, not everyone shared their beliefs? Would I have been spared the years of moving away from myself? Or would it have only made me give up before I had even tried? There is no answer to such a question, for who can predict what "might have happened," but it did trouble me when I was working on these remarks, as I didn't want to be discouraging to you in any way.

In my conversation with President Simmons, she told me something that surprised me, that many students work for a few years before entering graduate or professional school. This is quite different from my own experience, which involved going directly to graduate school and then into the rough-and-tumble Los Angeles art scene of the '60s.

I must say that almost nothing I learned in school prepared me for the reality of professional life — with one exception. During my first year in graduate school at UCLA, one of the local art stars came for a year's residency. He was quite different from the rest of the faculty, who tended to be more teachers than artists. Moreover, he was handsome, dashing and tough.

He allowed me to visit his studio and to see, for the first time, what a "real" artist's life was like, thereby exposing me to not just the glamour of the art world, but to the many challenges involved in an artmaking life — for example, the need to support a studio and a lifestyle that seemed both frightening and exciting in its level of risk. It was he who first introduced me to the "something's going to happen" way of living, which involved never getting a full-time job because one's studio work was full-time enough.

This meant living from month to month on meager earnings and hoping that "something would happen" so that the next month's rent could be paid. Many of you will be surprised to know that I have lived this way for most of my life, only recently moving into a home of my own and with it, having to deal with the responsibility of a mortgage.

Of course, things were quite different then; the international art market was just developing and had certainly not yet extended its reach to the West Coast. There was no notion of reaping any real financial success from art, which was good for art but bad for artists. This is in very great contrast to today, when everyone thinks they are going to be art stars or make a fortune on the Internet.

Last fall, I taught for a semester at Indiana University in Bloomington, my first formal teaching job in more than 25 years. Although my studio class was open to both men and women, only women enrolled. They were from 26-60 in age and all of them had experienced leaving school and facing the void of having no studio, no equipment, limited money and a lack of context and stimulation in terms of being around other people who were vitally interested in art. Before very long, they all stopped making art. Their solution to this problem was to re-enroll in school, sometimes repeatedly, which only served to put off the moment of truth, as it were.

My class was a project class aimed at addressing this very problem, that is, the gap between art school and art professional practice. My students were provided with a group studio and my course was structured to help them move from concept to artmaking to exhibition in the I. M. Pei-designed university art museum, an intense process that involved long hours of work on their part.

Along the way, I learned something very important. Without meaning to, most of our educational institutions infantalize women. Although it is difficult for all students to make the transition from school to life, it is harder for most women students because, no matter how excellent their education, few of them are schooled in how to become independent in the sense that I am describing; that is, feeling able to generate what they need for themselves rather than being dependent upon others, be it family, husbands, significant others, friends or even alumni.

Once I recognized this, I encouraged my students to find a way to make their work without depending upon the facilities of the university so that they would have some experience of what it would be like after they left school. I spent a considerable amount of time during class discussing what was involved in art professional practice, something I had only learned by accident, thanks to the happy accident of the residency of the aforementioned art star. Unfortunately, my education in the art world came at the price of having to endure many comments like "you cannot be a woman and an artist too."

When I met this fellow, I — like any of my students at IU — had no idea that becoming a professional artist involved establishing and supporting a studio, generating money for supplies, sustaining myself in the face of the world's general indifference to art, and most of all, being able to stand up to criticism, which is particularly difficult for women as most of us are raised to want to be loved — I know that I was.

Regarding criticism, another thing I learned from my artist mentor was the following: "Never read reviews," he told me. "Just count the column inches of the article and note how many reproductions of your work are included. Then go back to work. That's what counts — to keep on working, no matter what." Had I not been given this advice, given the piles of bad reviews I've received, there is no way I would be standing here before you, presumably because of my "success."

But how was I able to achieve such self confidence that I could overcome my need to be loved, learn to generate the money I needed to make art and run a studio, and, most important, disregard what others thought and continue with my own vision, even when it was publicly ridiculed — as it has often been? My explanation rests in my childhood and the love and support I received from my parents and also, the lessons I learned from my father about the crucial importance of history, although I cannot recall his ever including women's history in his lessons.

I was fortunate in having received such an upbringing.

However, it would have not been sufficient had I not applied my father's lessons about the importance of history by investigating my own heritage as a woman. A few years back, I was at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, where I was engaged in discussions about their becoming the repository of my papers, which, happily, has occurred.

Mary Maples Dunn, then the director (and a former president of Smith) asked me whether my archives should not be in an art institution. My answer was that my art belonged in such institutions but that I would not have survived as an artist had I not known about my female predecessors and that, consequently, my papers belonged with theirs. It was only through my discoveries of the stories of such women as Elizabeth Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth that I was able to overcome the many obstacles I encountered.

When I experienced rejections or disappointments, I thought about Elizabeth Blackwell's experience in medical school in Rochester, New York. For the two years she was there, no one ever invited her to dinner and she was sometimes spit upon by women in the street. And I thought: "If she could do it, I can do it." When I became discouraged, I thought about Susan B. Anthony and how she had stood firm for 50 years, helping to change many of the discriminatory laws against women that allow us to stand together in this place today. And I thought: "If she could do it, I can do it." When I felt hurt by the attitudes of my colleagues, I thought about Sojourner Truth and how she had stood up to ridicule, humiliation and prejudice in order to bring her message to the world. And I thought: "If she could do it, I can do it."

I mentioned young women's discomfort with the word "feminist" — I hope that, like me, many of you will come to see that in disowning that word, you disown the history that will allow you to do what you want to do. For only by standing upon the shoulders of your foremothers is it possible to achieve all that you are capable of doing, a lesson I learned painfully and which I would like to pass on to you.

In terms of learning, I should like to again talk about something that I learned — also at IU last fall — in order to share another lesson with you. A male graduate theater student enrolled in a seminar class I team-taught entitled "Feminist Art: History, Philosophy and Context," asked if he could add a performance section to the exhibition of my project class. He wanted to recreate some of the performances I had done with my students during the '70s at "Womanhouse," one of the first openly female-centered installations. Also, he wished to employ my pedagogical methods to create new, more up-to-date, performances with a group of female theater students.

I was quite enthusiastic about this idea and looked forward to seeing what the students might come up with. As it turned out, a number of the original performances involved the theme of conflicting desires. The most effective of these pieces focused on one young woman and a clown, who kept bringing her balloons which she first blew up, then attempted to juggle.

These were labeled "education," "friends," "career," "relationship" and "baby," all important parts of life but too much for anyone, no matter how able they might be.

I believe that one of the pernicious lies that has been told to your generation is that one can "have it all." Although I can't explain how I knew it, I always knew that this was not possible.

Again, I looked to history and discovered that those women who had achieved at the level at which I had set my sights had been childless and those that were not had suffered constant guilt at not being able to meet the demands of both their work and their children. And, believe me, I understand the irony of bringing this up on Mother's Day.

Although I would be the first to say that this situation is not a fair one, I must also state that I would hate for you to discover that choices must be made after you had already made those whose consequences will shape your life for years to come. I believe that it is important to be clear about your goals and to be willing to shape your life in a way that makes them possible to achieve.

I realize that I have said some things that probably are not popular and that if you follow my advice, your choices will not always be popular either. But if I am truly to pass on lessons about what I have learned and also, what I have done to achieve my own successes, I would be less than honest if I did not include some uncomfortable facts.

In closing, let me congratulate you on your graduation, wish you success in your chosen careers, and wish for you the sense that you have made a difference in whatever sphere becomes your own. Last but not least, I feel obliged to tell you that feeling that my life has had a purpose has brought me the most intense satisfaction, a satisfaction I hope that you all will experience in the years to come.