With a freshly-minted M.F.A. in painting, it’s time to take Chelsea by storm, right? However, instead of simply fantasizing about a spread in Artforum, there are other important matters out there: war, famine, genocide, and the rise of Asia.
This afternoon, globetrotting New York Times columnist Nick Kristof discussed such grave issues in his commencement speech for the School of Visual Arts, held at Radio City Music Hall.
Mr. Kristof began with a story about first arriving in China as a correspondent, and being told by the outgoing Times reporter that the apartment was bugged. So hammer in hand, he broke into a “little recessed cubby hole” and found some electronic devices. Mr. Kristof had read up on the culture, and knew a bit of the language, so he translated: “electronic sound-carrying device.”
“I felt kind of prepared and arrogantly self-confident in a way that only journalists can,” he said. “In a way, students sometimes can I suppose.”
Mr. Kristof then threw the question to the audience of what to do next: leave the bugs, destroy them, or “use them to feed disinformation to the Communist Party.”
Not surprisingly, the third option was the most popular with the rabble-rousing art students.
But then a friend came to Mr. Kristof’s door.
“We found out what an ‘electronic sound-carrying device’ is in Chinese: It’s a doorbell buzzer.”
So don’t be so cocky, kids! And speaking of Asia….
“Your future is going to be determined as much by Asia, as much shaped by Asia, as your grandparents’ generation was shaped by Europe,” said Mr. Kristof.
“The world that we think of as very normal is a very anomalous one,” he continued. “This period of western dominance and Asian weakness is one that is coming to an end in this century. You need to be ready to be shaped, not only by Asia, but by the larger world as a whole.”
And travel, travel, travel! (Otherwise, there could be consequences).
“The invasion of Iraq, and other mistakes, came in part because not enough Americans understood the world beyond,” said Mr. Kristof. “In retrospect, the most remarkable intelligence failure since 9/11 didn’t have to do with W.M.D. as such, but it was the assumption that Iraqis would great us with flowers, as liberators. I think that if more college graduates of my generation had traveled abroad, then I think we wouldn’t have made that mistake.”
Do something about world poverty!
“Can we shake off the numbness that allows us to look the other way as 30,000 people die everyday, including today, of the consequences of poverty,” he said. “That is, by the way, the equivalent of a Virginia Tech shooting every 90 seconds, and goes on 24/7.”
And then Mr. Kristof closed his speech with a story from Darfur that involved sex slavery and the beheading of a father in front of his two daughters by the Janjaweed militia. Mr. Kristof’s aid worker friend returned home, and broke down at the sight of a simple birdfeeder in her backyard.
“Something as simple as a birdfeeder looks completely different when you’ve been to hell and back,” he said.
There was a pause, and a few gasps from the audience.
“To you graduates, congratulations,” said Mr. Kristof. “Party this evening! But also, after you’ve recovered from the party this evening, go on and save the world.”
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