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‘We Are Woke!’ Feminist Icon Gloria Steinem and SVA Commencement 2017

On Tuesday, beginning around noon, a sea of buoyant figures in swirling red gowns descended on Rockefeller Center in New York City. Slowly disappearing into Radio City Music Hall, the some 1,170 students were gathering for commencement and graduation from the School of Visual Arts. In the auditorium, their robes billowed out over the velvet-red seats; the resulting camouflage effect seemed symbolically appropriate as a nod to their shared experience at SVA, in a last, unifying moment before they dispersed to start the next chapter of their lives.

Kicking off the program was a speech by Allison R. Schaller, soon to be an alumna with a BFA in Photography and Video. “As artists, we can think up anything. But it’s the creating, the doing that’s important,” Schaller said. “We know many of the world’s problems, and largely the actions we need to take, it’s acting on that knowledge that’s challenging. But luckily for us, we now have a leg up, as we are armed with an education. Find a cause you believe in, find something you are great at, find a passion and make it yours. And please do so with empathy for others.”

Next up was Lauren Eve Cantor, who was graduating with an MFA in Design. “For my bachelor’s degree, I studied astrophysics,” Cantor said. “One thing I loved about science is that there is always a right answer.” Her knack for finding them proved useful in corporate finance, and she quickly ascended the ranks. Something felt off, though, which is why Cantor enrolled at SVA, seeking answers. Instead, she discovered that truth in art is much messier than right or wrong. “Change is a constant in the life of an artist. At first this drove me crazy. But now I realize that this is our greatest skill,” she continued. “We are living in a time when the artist can again be synonymous with the activist.”

Continuing the politically-tinged dialogue, SVA President David Rhodes spoke about how citizens in a democracy have an obligation to parse out the truths in the deluge of information circulating in public discourse. Following this, the audience got to hear from two people who are no strangers to activism: famed designer and SVA Acting Chairman Milton Glaser, who stood up to introduce feminist icon Gloria Steinem as the commencement speaker, and someone he was proud to call his longtime friend (they met in the 1960s through the East Village art scene).

“In all of these years I've known her, I've never seen her act without kindness and decency towards anyone,” said Glaser. “The change in the fundamental relationship between men and women has begun—it's impossible to imagine this change happening if not for Gloria's presence and persistence.”

Stepping up to the podium, for Steinem, seemed to jog another memory. “I grew up in Toledo, hoping, praying to be a Rockette,” she said. “I want to say to my 10-year-old self, I’m on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, and this is better!” she declared to a cheering audience.

Addressing the students, Steinem implored them to realize their power as visual artists—namely, in their ability to appeal to sensations, even instincts, shared by all humans. “To be universally understandable is to have the potential of bringing diverse people together, undivided by different languages or degree of education,” she said.

The work that writers do, in contrast, takes shape internally, subject to the whims of consciousness, which are as fleeting as they are inscrutable, she implied. “My joy in writing comes from having an idea and then from finally achieving it,” she explained. “But not so much from the tactical, visual and sensory processes in between.”

It was not lost on the room that Steinem’s calls for unity had uncommon urgency. “We are in a time of, on one hand, great danger,” she said. “On the other hand, we are woke! I have never in my life seen so much organic, sustained, enthusiastic, inventive, creative and fan-f**king-tastic activism as I did doing the March on Washington.”

“What we remember are the symbols, the hats! It’s a rebellion of the visual arts, the arts of the heart, the arts that are not limited by language, not limited by technology," Steinem said. "There’s so much to be learned if you go beyond your boundaries and now is the time we need to blast those boundaries."

To watch Steinem’s full speech and the entire 2017 commencement exercises, click here.

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