ACAD Convocation Address

May 18th, 2006, Peter MacLeod

Honoured guests, assembled faculty and administration, families enduring the heat, friends who have troubled to put on nice clothes, new hair cuts and sharply polished shoes that are in attendance and, ahem, graduates. Graduates. Savor it and welcome. It is a great day and I’m very happy to join you to celebrate and to help recognize your accomplishments.

Canada has too few colleges of art and design. It has exactly four. It has too few artists and designers. It has too few people with your aptitudes and interests, your imagination and your abilities. Today you join a distinct and noble vanguard with a proud history – and if there remains any doubt – from cranky old grandfathers or snotty sisters about the wisdom of your choice and the risk that you have taken – let’s trust that your work and your success helps put all doubts to rest. You have surely earned it.

Now I need to say that I was as surprised as I was honoured when your president called and asked if I would speak to you today. After all, I don’t have all that many grey hairs. It’s my wonderful girlfriend, not me, who has the BFA. There’s no MacLeod body of work that you can see hanging on a gallery wall. By adult standards, my war stories probably qualify as minor skirmishes and playground spats. I’d look pretty foolish if I stood here and tried to illuminate your path by referring to my own.

So the well-worn road available to most convocation speakers is closed to me. There will be no references to “In my day…” or “Forty years ago when I was your age and starting out…” If this is going to work, I’m going to need to run in the other direction. Since I can’t look back, I can only look forwards.

In some ways this suits my disposition. As a young guy, still feeling my way, still finishing my doctorate -- in politics! – I spend a lot of my time asking questions about the way things work and they way they could work and I’ve come to see that looking forward has some advantages.

It’s a strategy that I think comes naturally to us as Canadians – perhaps especially here in Alberta.

Even if you don’t pay much attention to politics, you’ve probably realized by now that we don’t live in a regular sort of country. We don’t and can’t rely on the myths and nostalgia that binds together other nations. Though we may have a common decency, we share few common stories. For better or worse, we don’t think in historical terms because, with our funny jumble of cultures, with all the coming and going, history isn’t something we share.

 

Instead, we share the present and we share the future. Tomorrow is the thing we all have in common.

This orientation is enormously constructive and powerful. It’s the juice that has at certain times made Canada seem like an extraordinarily original and exciting place to live. And so, as a quality or characteristic, it’s important. It’s politically significant. It means that a country like Canada is not a work of art, but a work in progress. Our society is still an ideal to be achieved. Despite all this infrastructure, Canada, like Alberta still remains to be built. The future is something we must give form to.

And I guess that’s why I – some guy who thinks about politics – am so glad to be invited to speak to you folks, who happen to be graduates in the business of creating new forms, designing new strategies and processes, who are skilled at asking bold questions, taking new ideas and generating new shapes.

Today forward you may call yourselves designers and artists, but your material is the stuff that makes the future we inhabit. Though it’s fashionable to talk about an economy populated with knowledge workers, you are graduating today as future workers.

And its here, in our shared concern for tomorrow, that our worlds – the political and the aesthetic -- start to converge, that the political significance of your choice to become a member of a creative profession meets up with the first question any democrat or thinking citizen must ask: what is my vision for the community of which I am a member? Is a better society possible? How might it be constituted? What might it achieve?

Now these are heady questions, but as graduates, you are capable people. They are not trick questions, but neither will I pretend that they are fashionable questions. And yet, they are questions that every creative agent must ask -- Because unless your artistic pursuit is a wholly private endeavor, then creativity entails the responsibility of considering how your actions and designs square with the society of which you are a part.

Now the catch here is that if I follow this line of argument you might rightly nail me for advocating some kind of socially responsible creativity – which sounds about as sexy and invigorating as de-alcoholized beer. Socially responsible creativity is a lousy rallying cry. Nobody has ever stood at the barricades and yelled: What do we want? Socially responsible creativity! When do we want it? Sometime that’s convenient for you.

After all, isn’t the point of good design and art – isn’t the freedom of your profession exactly the freedom not to be responsible, not to be social – instead, to be willful and solitary, wasteful and messy – to speak back to authority, whether it wears a fancy robe, or wields a nightstick, an opinion poll, market survey or edits a glossy magazine?

Isn’t the purpose of good design and art to take risks? Isn’t experimentation the key?
Doesn’t a kind of irresponsibility lie somewhere close to the heart of all artistic endeavor?

If the answer to these questions is, as I think it should be, a loud, emphatic yes!, then how are you to square the imperative of responsible creativity with the necessary reality of creative irresponsibility?

And it’s here with some quizzical looks, sore heads and twisted tongues that the debate usually stalls out – at a dead end -- in a place where the necessities and ethos of your profession appears to offer immunity from an explicitly constructive social role.

And this I think is too bad. It’s unfortunate because as a society we’re paying a hefty price for this paradox. The price we’re paying is the exclusion and self-exclusion of people like yourselves – remarkably talented people -- who frankly are contributing too little and being invited to contribute too little to the society we are still in the midst of merely sketching.

In too many realms, from the design of everyday things, from private goods to public systems, the technicians, accountants and engineers are doing the work of designers and artists. The results of which are too familiar: ghastly housing, deadened streets, a super-sized consumerist glut, a culture left with Costco but without quality, where big must be better and where the disposable trumps the durable. It’s in the fabric of our cities, in the weft and weave of our homes that we can see that the deliberation and conscience that good art and design affords is absent in too many ways from our everyday lives. This yields only a mindlessness and, in its way, the worst kind of conservatism, inducing the belief that what is isn’t merely good, it’s the best we can hope for.

I think in many ways this is because we have all become confused about what constitutes responsibility – that we believe that responsibility implies a kind of conservatism -- an acquiescence to the norm -- that it means supporting the status quo and maintaining the convention. Instead of challenging what we don’t like, throwing up new ideas and provocations and palpably engaging with the special force that is the conscience of the eye – the eye that sees, the eye that registers, the eye that objects to ignorance and harshness and inequity, we turn away. We turn to private matters and personal concerns. We exempt ourselves and trust that a blind eye, like an invisible hand, will be a suitable proxy for political imagination.

We opt out because opting out is easy. More than easy, it’s seductive. It’s easily varnished with the righteous shellac of moral indignation. And among those fortunate enough to have had a formal education in artistry and design, this seduction sometimes has a way of becoming fashionable. It hardens into a cool disregard, a professional kind of snobbery dressed head to toe in black, an elitism justified by knowledge permitting the illusion that you are exceptional.

It’s important that you understand, here and today, that this is the moral hazard of your work. It will always tempt you, and what you’ve got to understand is that this attitude – this failure of imagination and misunderstanding of social responsibility is the exact enemy of the creative freedom you espouse and rightfully demand. The real essence and power of social responsibility lies not in the convention, nor the exemption, but in the disruption. It is your skill at drawing together both critical and constructive – essentially entrepreneurial -- abilities and engaging with the world that has always made the work of artists and designers a progressive and creative force. And as a society, because our challenges are many -- some pedestrian, some profound -- we urgently need more disruptions, more innovation, more ingenuity. So don’t ever hold back. Never fail to assume this responsibility.

I was reminded recently that Charles Eames, the great twentieth century American designer was once asked ‘What are the boundaries of design?’. He replied, ‘What are the boundaries of problems?’

I think we can agree that this is a flattering and expansive definition of design. And in almost everyway I think Eames is right. Design should never be purely instrumental – its usefulness as an analytic tool is growing but it is still badly undervalued. I’ve already said that you are future workers, because your work concerns the making of the world we soon will inhabit. As Eames would have it, you’re not only artists and designers, but problem-solvers.

But this doesn’t mean you’re to be fix-its or succumb to easy arrogance. This is another urge worth resisting. The twentieth century shows starkly what gross dangers are done when either politicians or designers believe that they and they alone can solve problems, when they subscribe to the myth of perfectability. Your job as problem solvers isn’t to solve problems, it’s to produce better problems, gentler problems and to make problem-solving as shared and distributed an activity as possible.

I hope this is making sense, because it’s not how we are accustomed to thinking. Certainly, what I’m offering is a strange kind of professional advice. Solve problems by sharing problems and producing kinder problems. Make disruptive innovation your professional responsibility. Remember that the alchemy of your work is the act of experimentation that sometimes leaves lead as lead and that sometimes produces something new and wholly precious.

I started by saying that Canada has too few people with your aptitudes and this strange alchemical ability. If it feels like the value of your work is not always well-understood – your disruptions not always appreciated --know still that we need them. And what we need them for is a public project -- It’s a project bigger than any party – a project that is often alluded to, but rarely said. This project is the task of turning wealth into a richer kind of well-being.

Thomas Jefferson, the great American architect-president, famously said that politics and design are indistinguishable. It’s a sentiment worth reflecting on – and strangely, it was no less a politician than Winston Churchill who gave us further insight when he declared that “first we build buildings and then they build us.” Jefferson and Churchill – I wish I could add a Canadian name – were saying much the same thing. They viewed politics, art, and design as reflexive and constructive disciplines. And in a country as rich as ours, we badly need a politics of well-being, a popular politics of personal and public choices that can only be realized when bonded with the care of artistry and the sensibility of good design.

A pale version of this politics is already being played out because with your insight that everything is malleable -- every human form the consequence of choice -- you know that design for good or ill is always working on us. Architecture, for better or worse is always containing us. Art is always informing us. What’s made public becomes political – it is, whether with ignorance or intention, an assertion of a world that’s wanted.

This is why I think your profession carries such extraordinary promise. It has such a special license and covenant with society that I’ve begun to wonder whether perhaps this occasion ought not to be marked with sometime more.

After all, today new doctors must take their oaths. Engineers are being fitted with rings. Architects will get their stamps. Perhaps there ought to be a special sacrament for artists and designers: A declaration that yours is a personal endeavor with public effect. It is to challenge and disrupt, to comment and provoke, to sooth and to comfort, to inform and delight, to create and to kindle: To be fully human, and above all else, to remember the conscience of your eye.

On behalf of everyone here, your family and friends, the faculty – you are standing today in a circle of admirers, having completed one long cycle of learning from the time you were little until now, when a new cycle is set to begin -- feel grateful and be proud and know that while the next step may not always be clear you are needed greatly and there is so much to be done.

Without faddism, without slave-ishness, stay brave and keep us new. Keep us pointed towards tomorrow.