Graduation Speech -- Bill T. Jones

29 May, 2000


Don't you want to have your freedom?
Don't you want to have your freedom?
Don't you want to have your freedom?
Soldiers of the Cross.

Every round goes higher, higher
Every round goes higher and higher
Every round goes higher and higher...

Lovely, isn't it? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It's lovely but it's almost too easy... good old-fashioned religion. You know they say, African-Americans can sing the phone book and it sounds profound. It can be a cheat, and excuse me in front of such an august company of thinkers to come out with such a performative strategy. I am a performer. And in my world, sometimes a performer means you are lacking intellect. I am a performer. And words like performer equate with narcissism, self-indulgence, alienation, self-involvement, all qualities that have been exorcised from the curriculum of your school, I understand.

Artists are not necessarily nice people. This is true. Artists are often times, excuse the terminology — assholes. Artists are often times people who are very, very angry. They are angry on the Freudian level. They are angry on the level of economics, race, sexual preference. They are railing against things they barely understand. And we hope that these gifted, oftentimes, seductive people have some sort of a "moral compass" we hope.


The day is long. The task is great. We are not obliged to finish the task but neither are we allowed to ignore it. This is what I understand the Torah teaches. My friend Arnie Zane, a Jewish, Italian, homosexual man, when he died this is what the Rabbi said. This man was barely forty years old, who was so gifted, and was so pissed off that he got cheated. So here I am today. And I'm trying to remember something that a great woman said to me.

Bessie Schoenberg in a gathering like this, speaking to the grooviest, downtown audience of avant-garde makers of culture. She said, "Be outrageous!" Seventy-five years old, survived the war, she had seen it all twice. She said to us, those of us who had stripped in public, those of us who'd flipped the bird, those of us who had done everything possible to shake up the status quo. She said, "Mmm-mmm-mmm, you're not there yet." What was she saying?

I think to myself sometimes, what is all of this at the service of? When I make a new piece, when I'm given an award like today. The only thing I can think about art making is that the artist number one does not have to do, excuse the terminology, a goddamn thing. The artist should be the freest person in this society, running naked, literally or metaphorically, through the streets, thumbing their nose at all dogma, at all teachers, at all authority. We like that don't we?

But an artist is a person. And a person has a mother, a father, a social group, a history, a future. The person is a part of some thing. Therefore, what does the artist want to do if they don't have to do a damn thing? What does the artist believe is worth doing? It's kind of cool, isn't it; to be all alone and angry knowing better than all the mediocre people around us, but it's even cooler if we could actually love something. Love it so much we would die for it. In my company the bodies are every shape. I have a woman this tall with breasts, a behind, something you don't see on the dance floor. One of my favorite partners was Larry Goldhuber, who was four hundred pounds. There are black people, white people, skinny people, there are gay people. Men dance with men, women dance with women. Anyone can dance with anyone. Why? Because it's a division of a social notion that we are more alike than we are different.

So I say to you, what can I charge you with? I'm a forty-eight year old, old radical. A pathetic lot. Oftentimes, when all of their ideals are down around their feet and they are left empty, all the screaming is over and they look at you guys. I've decided I'm not going out that way, I'm gonna' dance in one door, I'm dancing out the other. I want my dance to be bigger and more generous and you know what? When people say to me at cocktail parties, "Oh, I have two left feet, I'm too fat, I'm too old," I'm saddened by that. Dancing is like your voice, dancing is like the genitals between your legs. It's a gift to you. Everyone can do it. I danced with a woman with no arms and legs three years ago in Vienna. What was that dance? It was sexy, it was real. And if dancing is a symbol of what it means to be alive, I dare you to dance bravely. I dare you to be fierce, and I dare you to be outrageous and generous.


Gonna' use my arms,
gonna' use my legs,
gonna' use my fingers,
gonna' use my, my, my imagination.

Thank you very much.