Maya Lin, SVA Commencement Address, 2018

Maya Lin

Sculptor and Architect

When American sculptor and architect Maya Lin addressed the graduates of New York’s School of Visual Arts, class of 2018, she recalled her own commencement ceremony. She was distracted – she had just won the competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Bold and minimalist, the memorial was completed in 1982, when Lin was in her early twenties. Widely regarded as one of the most important monuments of our time, it receives over five million visitors each year.

The memorial’s success, however, was not always a given. It was shocking from the get-go. Her critics were unconvinced that someone so young – hardly out of school – and a woman as well, could pull off such a high-profile commission. In addition, everyone wanted to weigh in on her design, including male mentors with the weight of years of experience behind them. Yet Lin, who has since achieved international success as an artist and designer, stuck to her vision (‘Youth gives us a sense of being invincible’). In her speech, she describes her own fears and anxieties about the artistic life and the ‘singular’ creative process, advising the graduates to move past self-doubt by embracing intuition. She tells them, ‘… you should not be afraid to offend anyone, to question everything, to reinvent yourself and to rethink the world.’

SVA Commencement Address 2018

I believe everyone has a role and a responsibility to make the world a better place. Because the alternative is for us to help make the world a worse place, or to stand by and do nothing.

I believe that how you choose to relate, respond, and try to shape your time is very much a part of your evolution as an artist. Art can be both a leader and a mirror of the time we live in. Artists can see things that others can’t.

We can present the world in a new light and get others to see a new truth, a new future. We can help to imagine and create a different world. Don’t be afraid to get involved, don’t be afraid to care. Believe that your one voice can make a difference. May you never lose that, that passion, that drive, that poetry.

I am struggling on new works all the time, trying to find new ideas and give them shape. It is the same struggle for all of us. And you are not alone….

And now, as you graduate here today, you are becoming part of a larger artistic community. One that stretches back into time, that creates a dialogue, a conversation with your fellow humans through all times.

I see it as a collective creative consciousness. Through art we know how people saw their world a thousand years ago. And through our art people a thousand years from now will see us.

I think it is amazing that William Shakespeare’s words written four hundred years ago can still make us cry or laugh. Or that I stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica in absolute silent awe. Or watching Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow makes you feel how connected we all are to one another, and how much human suffering is being endured around the world.

How will your works be read and felt one hundred years from today? Or one thousand years from today? So today I ask you to become part of that conversation and to find your voice in this wondrous creative continuum. And I ask you, what would you like to say?

Believe that your one voice can make a difference.

Maya Lin