Faculty member C. Dale Young spoke to the July 2014 graduates of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. We are pleased to share his inspiring remarks here:
Art and the Humanities are always, it seems, dead or dying. And strangely enough, these assertions have been going on for centuries. Even the poorest of translations of this passage from a court document dating back to the Yuan Dynasty of China reveals this:
“Very few now appreciate the intricacies of proper calligraphy. It is also very clear that the old Masters of stonework are dying off and with them all of our stories that they so dutifully depicted. Even our poets have lost the ability to help us understand our nature. What we need are academies, some way for our Masters to pass along their skills. But the Masters have little desire to teach. They are busy with their art. Without teaching, without study, our arts will die.”
What astounds me is that by the early third of the Ming Dynasty that followed (a period of renowned artistic creation in China; some of its products still around today considered priceless), there were in fact the very schools or academies this dreary and forlorn court administrator had felt important 200 years earlier. In these academies, an artisan trained under a group of master artists. The artisan could not be called an artist until the Masters deemed him or her so. The artisan would create a piece of art, and then a Master, sometimes many Masters, would review that work. When errors of execution were found, the Masters would administer a strike with a bamboo pole across the back of the artisan for each error. As time passed, the artisan made fewer and fewer of these kinds of errors. For errors in judgment, the Masters would slap the artisan in the face. One hard slap to “wake him from his stupor.” As time passed, the artisan would make fewer and fewer errors of judgment. Eventually, he would show the Masters a piece of work for which they could find no errors. At this point, the artisan was referred to as an artist. An artist would have to create for many years and even surpass the Masters’ standards to then be called a Master Artist.
I in no way want to imply that we among the faculty at Warren Wilson employ these rather fascinating methods for educating artists, for educating writers. But I find it very interesting how over centuries and centuries young artists have apprenticed themselves to those farther along in the Art. Nothing more. Nothing more should be taken from this anecdote of how art was taught in the Imperial Court of the Ming Dynasty.
For the parents, partners, loved ones, and children of our graduating students here today, I want to make clear that the times of great anxiety you may have witnessed in your graduate about packets, revisions, books to be read, annotations, critical work, the essay, the thesis, etc. was in fact done out of love and joy and not out of fear. At no point in their time here was caning or slapping used. And to the parents, partners, loved ones and children of the graduates, we thank you for understanding all the demands that have been placed on them over their time here with us. We thank you for understanding why they couldn’t wash the dishes, run to the store, watch a movie with you, etc. But believe me when I say that they did it not out of fear but out of joy. Regardless of whether or not I have convinced you at this point, we thank you for all of the support and love and encouragement you have given the members of this fine group graduating today. They would not be here were it not for your help and understanding.
I know we are a strange bunch, that we hide away reading books, thinking about books, writing work for books. We are a very odd group of people, we writers. But the reality is that writers love books. We love them so much that we eventually reach a point where the only way to love them any more is to also write books ourselves. Many of us as children got lost in books. Books changed us. In them we found escape, we found other worlds, and sometimes we found ourselves. One of the saddest memories I have is being a sixteen-year old boy having finished reading E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice. There within its pages, I found myself, realized with great surprise that there were others just like me in the world. I was so moved, I wrote Mr. Forster a letter only to then discover that he was already dead.
We live in a world that has a mad lust for technology, for objects and things, more and more things. We live in a time when everything appears to happen faster. The men and women we tend to call heroes today are the statesmen, the athletes, the entrepreneurs. But somewhere out there are the young women and men who are in search of themselves. Somewhere out there are people desperately wanting to be woken from their slumber. Somewhere out there, a newly retired person wants to find out who he or she actually is after a lifetime of work. And so, my heroes are not the statesmen, not the athletes, not the entrepreneurs. My heroes are the ones who look inward and outward to tell us about ourselves, who show us who we are and who we can be, who allow us a chance to inhabit another place and even someone else’s mind with their art. My heroes are the artists. I couldn’t be prouder or happier of the fact that the writers in the room chose this path, chose to create art, chose to write.
So, you have studied, written, revised, thought deeply, and even danced. Yes, danced. For those of you sitting here today awaiting your diplomas, you have done the work to be, in the words of the Masters among the Imperial Court of the Ming Dynasty, no longer artisans but artists. And I know I am not alone in saying I hope you will continue that work in order to become the Masters. Ours is a life of work, important work, the work of looking within. But always, there is joy in this work. There is joy. And it is that joy why we continue on, why despite millennia of death announcements, the arts still live, our Art still lives. Congratulations to our graduates. Congratulations to my heroes.