David Byrne’s Graduation Speech Offers Troubling and Encouraging Advice for Students in the Arts

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne: How Archi­tec­ture Helped Music Evolve

David Byrne: From Talk­ing Heads Front­man to Lead­ing Urban Cyclist

David Byrne Gives Us the Low­down on How Music Works (with Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Lev­itin)

How David Byrne and Bri­an Eno Make Music Togeth­er: A Short Doc­u­men­tary

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.


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