5.12.18 | Dear Students: on authenticity and artmaking

2018 CCAD President’s Commencement Address
Dr. Melanie Corn


Dear students — since arriving at CCAD two years ago, I’ve tried to share my thoughts with you about events in the world and happenings on campus that impact us as a community. So, before you walk across this stage and officially become graduates, I’d like to address you as students one last time.

Dear students.

This moment we all live in is a time of many contradictions; one of the most perplexing contradictions to me — and maybe it’s because I’m old enough to not live my life on social media but young enough to wonder if I should be — is that our world is both very mediated and, yet, very immediate. We are constantly sharing stories about our lives — instagramming our meals, tweeting our views on politics and popular culture, snapping our hangouts, puppies, and achieved hashtag #squadgoals.

But, despite the frequency of those stories, most are highly mediated. We arrange our breakfast plate and find the best filter, we hone our political wit to the perfect number of characters and emojis, we stylize every post to craft the perfect image of our supposedly unfiltered authentic selves.

These messages build our personal brands. And, yes, as artists and designers, we need to know how to market and brand ourselves. But, the real breakthroughs – whether they transform culture or commerce — occur when honesty prevails.

It is against this backdrop where everyone curates who they are and the stories they tell about themselves, that I would argue that the most daring, the most pioneering, act for creatives today is to tell our truly authentic stories.

Stories are, now, more than ever, the way we can relate to one another, learn from one another. Even fictional, fantastical stories that have a core of authenticity and truth make for great art.

In coming to Columbus to be president of CCAD, I’ve had to tell my story a fair number of times. In my first two years here, I’ve managed to create a pretty good 30-second narrative about who I am. It goes something like this: “I grew up in the Chicago suburbs but spent 23 years in California. I came here, and I was shocked by the low cost of living. I love that my 10-year-old can ride his bike around our incredible suburban neighborhood.” I talk about how I try to get my West Coast friends to move here because Columbus is amazing (and felt super justified, by the way, when Yelp called Columbus the No. 1 hipster city in the country last fall)! “‘Do I miss the Bay Area?’ Well, I miss a good Mission-style burrito every now and then!”

But I think creative practice, especially in our highly collaborative environment, requires sincerity and authenticity. And there’s no room for inauthentic hipster irony if you’re faced with real threats.

We are in a moment here in the United States where we celebrate that kind of ironic sense of being anti-everything. And not having a sincere connection to anything. Unfortunately, these attitudes are often a big part of the art world.

But, we can’t afford to be ironic anymore. I’m a Gen-Xer: we practically invented irony. And, I’m saying it’s time for a little more authenticity. When you have a life or death journey ahead of you, you can’t afford to be distant.

This is not easy. But, in the complex and contradictory time in which we live, the most difficult thing is also the most important thing. Our values are being questioned every day, as is our foundation as creatives, thinkers, and believers in facts.

We, as artists, designers, and creatives, need to embrace the spirit of authentic storytelling, because we are all on a life or death journey. Stories are the way we can relate to one another, learn from one another, gain a sense of empathy for one another. Yet, sadly, there are so many stories going untold.

People of all ages, colors, and experiences have stories that need to be heard. DACA students have stories that need telling. Our neighbors struggling with the opioid epidemic have stories that need telling. Stories of bullying and of sexual harassment need attention beyond a hashtag. Life or death stories abound — and it will take more than an ironic tweet to tell them. It will take art.

Call me an idealist, but I believe artists and designers do more than bring beauty to our communities — though that’s important too. We are also the storytellers who can change minds — and change the world.

So, here’s my authentic story that goes a little deeper than the typical public talking points: I do love my idyllic neighborhood and truly think Columbus is fantastic, but I sometimes struggle with the move from a progressive West Coast bubble back to a more polarized Midwest. I love my job and know I’m good at it; even so, sometimes it’s a challenge to balance being a great mom and partner, as well as a successful leader. And, as a cancer survivor, I know what “life or death” truly looks like.

As president, I try to use my platform to share an authentic narrative, to trade in silence — or that tempting irony so often found online — for caring, compassion, and a desire to lead a fight for all that is right.

So, I’ll forge ahead being my true self. And, students — dear students — as artists, designers, and creatives, as “almost alumni,” so should you.

I encourage you to tell your true story — and to use your skills gained here at CCAD to help tell the stories of those who cannot tell their own.

You’ll be a better storyteller, a better creator — and a better person — for it. Thank you.