Robert De Niro Tells Graduating NYU Arts Grads, “You Made It… And You’re F*cked”

I’ve attend­ed my share of grad­u­a­tions and hence my share of grad­u­a­tion speeches—from politi­cians more inter­est­ed in stump­ing than inspir­ing their audi­ence; to local TV per­son­al­i­ties assur­ing grad­u­ates they too could become local TV per­son­al­i­ties; to the real Patch Adams, who wasn’t near­ly as fun­ny as Robin Williams in his less-than-fun­ny turn as Patch Adams. My expe­ri­ence has taught me that grad­u­a­tion speech­es gen­er­al­ly suck.

But not for the most recent batch of grad­u­ates of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, who got both brac­ing hon­esty and career val­i­da­tion from a speak­er most like­ly to give it to you straight. With his trade­mark foul-mouth gruff­ness, De Niro told the grad­u­at­ing class what every aspir­ing artist needs to know: “You made it,” he said, “and you’re f*cked.” The world, De Niro told his audi­ence, is not open­ing its arms to embrace art school grads. For all our pop cul­tur­al cel­e­bra­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty, the so-called “cre­ative class”—as we’re told again and again—is most­ly in decline.

Of course it’s nev­er been an easy road for artists. De Niro knows this full well not only through his own ear­ly expe­ri­ences before super­star­dom but from his upbring­ing: both his moth­er and father were bohemi­an painters with tur­bu­lent, fas­ci­nat­ing lives. And so he also knows of what he speaks when he tells the NYU grads that they “didn’t have a choice.” Where prag­mat­ic account­ing grads may be “pas­sion­ate about account­ing,” De Niro says, “it’s more like­ly that they used rea­son and log­ic and com­mon sense to reach for a career that could give them the expec­ta­tion of suc­cess and sta­bil­i­ty.”

Not the arts grads, the famous actor says: “You dis­cov­ered a tal­ent, devel­oped an ambi­tion and rec­og­nized your pas­sion.” Their path, he sug­gests, is one of self-actu­al­iza­tion:

When it comes to the arts, pas­sion should always trump com­mon sense. You aren’t just fol­low­ing dreams, you’re reach­ing for your des­tiny. You’re a dancer, a singer, a chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, a musi­cian, a film­mak­er, a writer, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, a direc­tor, a pro­duc­er, an actor, an artist. Yeah, you’re f***ed. The good news is that that’s not a bad place to start.

Maybe not. And maybe, for those dri­ven to sing, dance, paint, write, etc., it’s the only place to start. Grant­ed, NYU stu­dents are already a pret­ty select and priv­i­leged bunch, who cer­tain­ly have a leg up com­pared to a great many oth­er strug­gling artists. Nev­er­the­less, giv­en cur­rent eco­nom­ic real­i­ties and the U.S.’s depress­ing aver­sion to arts edu­ca­tion and fund­ing, these grads have a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult road ahead, De Niro says. And who bet­ter to deliv­er that hard truth with such con­vic­tion and good humor?

h/t @sheerly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Jim Car­rey Com­mence­ment Speech: It’s Bet­ter to Fail at What You Love Than Fail at What You Don’t

‘This Is Water’: Com­plete Audio of David Fos­ter Wallace’s Keny­on Grad­u­a­tion Speech (2005)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • MMATIAS says:

    More then ever before Cre­ative stu­dents will be the very peo­ple whom will be in the front line work­ing towards find real­is­tic solu­tions for the sur­vival of our species.
    The envi­ron­ment must have all our capa­bil­i­ties to CREATE INNOVATE ADAPT REINVENT basi­cal­ly make sense of the sud­den changes we as a race face in the next ten years.

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