John Waters’ Comical & Inspiring Commencement Speech: “You Too Can Fail Upwards” (2022)

John Waters has­n’t made a movie in quite some time, but that does­n’t mean he’s gone qui­et. In fact he’s remained as vis­i­ble a cul­tur­al fig­ure as ever by work­ing in oth­er forms: writ­ing a new nov­el, act­ing on tele­vi­sion, deliv­er­ing com­mence­ment address­es. His ded­i­ca­tion to that last pur­suit is such that he even kept it up in 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. That year he deliv­ered his com­mence­ment speech for New York’s School of Visu­al Arts not at Radio City Music Hall, as sched­uled, but in front of a green screen in Bal­ti­more — which, of course, only enriched the Waters­esque sen­si­bil­i­ty of the pro­ceed­ings.

Hav­ing been forced into the role of “vir­tu­al keynote speak­er,” Waters made up for it this year by deliv­er­ing, in per­son, a make-up com­mence­ment address for the SVA class­es of both 2020 and 2021. And he did it onstage at Radio City, a venue “known for fam­i­ly movies and the Rock­ettes. What the hell am I doing here?” As usu­al in this phase of his career, Waters express­es sur­prise to find him­self in the role of elder states­man.

“In 2020, the School of Visu­al Arts gave me an hon­orary degree for, I guess, caus­ing trou­ble,” he says. “This year, the Nation­al Film Reg­istry — yes, that’s part of the Library of Con­gress, the U.S. Gov­ern­ment, for god’s sake — select­ed my film Pink Flamin­gos, which New York mag­a­zine once called ‘beyond pornog­ra­phy,’ to its annu­al list of 25 cul­tur­al­ly his­toric films.”

Safe to say that, half a cen­tu­ry after its release, Waters’ most noto­ri­ous motion pic­ture does­n’t repel the estab­lish­ment as it once did. And indeed, here in the 2020s, how can an artist get trans­gres­sive at all? Waters has much encour­age­ment and advice for young peo­ple in search of new bound­aries to vio­late. “Out­sider old mas­ter paint­ings, nar­ra­tive abstract expres­sion­ism, impen­e­tra­ble pop, dec­o­ra­tive min­i­mal­ism, non-con­cep­tu­al­ism, video folk art, appro­pri­at­ed NFT”: these are just a few of the artis­tic ven­tures not yet attempt­ed that could turn their pop­u­lar­iz­ers into cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­na. “You too can fail upwards, if you try,” Waters insists, but you’ve got to do it with a sense of humor. “Mock your­self first. Then you can be as crazi­ly right­eous as you want.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Waters’ RISD Grad­u­a­tion Speech: Real Wealth Is Life With­out A*Holes

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

An Anti, Anti-Smok­ing Announce­ment from John Waters

David Lynch Gives Uncon­ven­tion­al Advice to Grad­u­ates in an Unusu­al Com­mence­ment Address

John Waters Talks About His Books and Role Mod­els in a Whim­si­cal Ani­mat­ed Video

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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