One of the most important creative voices of our time, multidisciplinary artist and MacArthur Fellow Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) is, to this day, the only African American woman to have been given a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Below are excerpts from a speech she delivered on May 18, 2016, when Weems took the stage at Radio City Music Hall, stood before the graduating class of New York’s School of Visual Arts, and gave one of the finest commencement addresses ever — a meditation on the measure of a life and the demands and sustained passion of making art.
As we move through our lives, I want you to ask yourselves: How do we measure a life? By what means and by what measure? Do you measure it inch by inch, step by step, crawl by crawl? How will you measure your lives is the most important thing — not only for you, students, but for all of us. I am asking myself this question constantly: How do you measure a life?
Do you measure it day by day or year by year? Do you measure it by yesterday or by today? Do you measure it by the miles walked or the mountains climbed or the valleys explored?
How do you measure your life?
By the dreams imagined or by the hopes dashed? By the wisdom of wise words spoken or by the sorrow of silence? By the wealth accumulated or by the amount spent? By the monument built or by the walls scaled? By defeats and/or by victories, large and small?
Do you measure it by the forgotten or the remembered? By all the near-misses and the exhaustion, or by the ability to endure? How do you measure your life? … By the suffering of friends and enemies alike? By the end or by the beginning? By those who walk with you to the very end of the precipice, by the friends gathered around you, by the support that you are offered? How do you measure the life?
In the remainder of her speech, Weems intimates that success in life has something to do with wresting meaning out of our impermanence:
I think about myself as dust in the wind, and I’m going to be here just for a hot second — that’s about it. When you think about the vastness of the universe in which we dwell, we are dust in the wind — and yet we are here (given the rare opportunity to shine with our art)
Weems then went on meditating on what the upheavals of our time mean for the creative artist striving to find meaning through their work. You can listen to the full speech on Youtube or Vimeo.
Selected Works of Carrie Mae Weems, from the Kitchen Table Series, 1990-2003