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Art offers uncertainty, museum official tells Stanford graduates

STANFORD -- Those who doubt the importance or power of art need only look to recent American politics, art historian Kirk Varnedoe said in his commencement address at Stanford University Sunday, June 14.

Support for the arts "is close behind sexuality and reproductive rights as a symbolic battleground on which issues of our national purpose, our collective morality and tolerance are being contested," said Varnedoe, who is director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

"I generally take it as a rule of thumb," Varnedoe said, "that anything that comes in a close third behind existence and sex clearly merits some attention."

Debates about the "rights and powers of the creative imagination" have pulled apart some once closely associated pairs like art and culture, he said. "Culture is now a positive - even better, a fundable - term of entitlement and solidarity (the more cultures the better), while art has become a four-letter word, suggestive of the dirty doings of some deviant elite."

Politicians with a variety of ideologies "are busy these days warning you that imagined worlds - from Mapplethorpe to Murphy Brown, and from rap music to Romantic poetry - will enslave your thoughts, determine your politics or morals, and guide your deeds in some specific way, for good or evil," Varnedoe said.

"But art's strong suit is not delivering specific messages and inciting concrete deeds," he said. "Art may instead be at its most powerful - and most uncomfortable for authoritarians of all stripes - when it orchestrates perplexity, fails to conform to what you already know, and instead sends you away temporarily disoriented but newly attuned to experience in ways that are perhaps even more powerful, because they are vague, rogue and indeterminate."

Modern art, Varnedoe said, offers the radical idea that "living with uncertainty and open-endedness" can produce a sustaining, soul- satisfying culture.

From Picasso's scrambled faces to Andy Warhol's soup cans and beyond, Varnedoe said, the history of modern art has been a "recurrent pattern of impertinent individual acts of imagination . . . which produced the broadest conceivable changes in our way of looking at and thinking about the world, and in the way we represent life to ourselves."

One of art's critical functions, both for individuals and for society, is to propose new worlds, Varnedoe said. Even more crucially, "art can make you pay attention to things you take for granted, make what you think you know be strange to you, and thereby change your relation to life's actualities and its possibilities."

Without this transformed understanding, he said, "you may remain deaf to music that might resonate with you, blind to forms that might become the touchstones of your vision, and pass through your life without living it."

Education is a never-ending process, Varnedoe concluded. He advised the graduates to "think of the formal education you've had so far, the diploma you're about to receive, as being sort of like the seat of your pants: You can rest on it, or just use it to cover your butt, but you use it best and most artfully when you fly by it."


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