How could David Byrne never have given a commencement address before? As an experienced public speaker, a well-known creator who has carved out his own cultural niche, an advocate of things (such as cycling) beloved among world-changing young people, the founder of a band with a surprising multi-generational appeal, and a man with no small command of Powerpoint, he’d seem to make an appealing choice indeed. His first commencement address ever came this year at the Columbia University School of the Arts, and, viewable from 1:17:00 in the video above, it has certainly made an impact in the internet. The message some grads and fans have taken away? “If you chose a career in the arts,” as the New Yorker‘s Rachel Arons puts it, “you are, basically, screwed.”
“A pie chart, based on 2011 data, showed that only three per cent of film and theatre grads, and five per cent of writing and visual-arts grads, end up working in their areas of concentration,” she writes of the visual aids delivering Byrne’s grim initial message. “A subsequent bar graph showed that, according to those stats, fourteen writing and fourteen Columbia visual-arts graduates will go on to careers in their fields, and eight theatre and eight film grads will go on to careers in theirs.” But firsthand reports from the ceremony don’t describe a too terribly shaken Columbia graduating class, and even Byrne took pains to emphasize, or at least emphatically imply, that truly worthwhile careers — such as, I would say, his own — lay outside, or in between, or at the intersection of, definable fields. And why would you want to work in the same field you studied, anyway? To paraphrase something Byrne’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno said about technology, once a whole major has built up around a pursuit, it’s probably not the most interesting thing to be doing anymore.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.