Commencement Speech — May 6, 1994
Remarks at the 111th Annual Commencement of the University of Southern California.
by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
October 9, 1992
One of the ways a university demonstrates its values is in its selection of honorary degree recipients. Let me read to you the first sentence of USC’s role and mission statement:
“The central mission of the University of Southern California is the development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit”
The three individuals we honor today share that rare ability to inspire, electrify and enrich all of humanity.
Dr. George Lucas and Dr. Steven Spielberg have revitalized the essence of the classical myth and storytelling for our technological age. In their bodies of work, they share an ability to present what is classic and entertaining as well as thoughtful and transcendent in American culture.
Dr. Ella Fitzgerald has preserved for future generations the extraordinary musical heritage of American jazz and popular song. She has recorded more than 2,000 songs that have touched both jazz aficionados and popular music audiences. She is perhaps best known for her ability to take a dated song and elevate it into a timeless art.
Dr. Fitzgerald, Dr. Lucas and Dr. Spielberg are insightful and creative artists who have changed the face of popular culture.
As we performed the ritual of hooding our newest doctorates, I was reminded of Matthew Arnold, the 19th–century British academician. When he assumed the chair in poetry at Oxford, Professor Arnold delivered a lecture on the Hellenic poets and their significance in history. Arnold theorized that the most important and enduring literature is that which is created in and equal to an age of spectacular events. He said, “What will most enlighten us, most contribute to our intellectual deliverance, is the union of two things — it is the coexistence, the simultaneous appearance, of a great epoch and a great literature.”
Thus everything must come together at once. The ability of the artist to interpret, illuminate and reveal must be equal to the spectacle on which he throws his light. Certainly this was the case during the age of Pericles, when the great Greek poets Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes contemplated the cultural and political spectacle taking place around them.
Today, in the latter part of the 20th century, we may be witnessing this special convergence again. Our world certainly presents an immense spectacle to contemplate. There is a remarkable fullness to our times; we live in a veritable explosion of new knowledge and new social structures. We also have our poets — individuals who desire to find the true point of view from which to contemplate, comprehend and interpret this new spectacle. Matthew Arnold would call these men and women the ‘intellectual deliverers’ of our age. We know them as the artists, musicians and writers who are helping us define and understand our tumultuous times.
We are indeed fortunate to have spread before us a wonderful feast of art, music and literature in the latter part of the 20th century. But I want to talk for a few minutes about an under–celebrated art form — one which we tend to underrate, but which I believe will speak most clearly to future generations.
My guess is that the art form of the 20th century that will endure the longest is film. Hundreds of years from now, when people look back at the major artistic contributions of the 20th century, I suspect they will not focus so much on our music, literature, paintings or sculpture as they will on our movies. That’s because our directors, producers, screenwriters, actors and cinematographers are in some ways like the ancient Greek poets. They are interpreting the spectacle of their time in the art form of their time.
The art form that truly moves the people of the world today, that gets into the fiber of their being, is film. Certainly much of what we see at the movies is irrelevant, silly, exploitive or degrading, but there are a special few truly important films that may well dominate our cultural contributions to the future.
Filmmakers touch the masses. The very best among them are visionaries who create, communicate and reflect what it means to be human in our age. Yet like so many of the artistic geniuses who came before them, filmmakers are often not recognized as artists. They are more often seen as entrepreneurs and as simple purveyors of popular culture.
During the Italian Renaissance, men such as Leonardo da Vinci were considered craftsmen and decorators as much as artists. Leonardo himself was an architect, engineer and inventor. His works were commissioned for dining room walls and public squares. He masterminded festivals and made household utensils for the wealthy. And along the way, he painted several masterpieces which touched his fellow Italians in the 15th century and have endured to touch people today.
William Shakespeare was a businessman whose company made a tidy profit mounting theatrical productions. Shakespeare, of course, also wrote sonnets that helped establish his reputation as a poet in the Renaissance manner. By contrast, the plays which won him popular acclaim were dismissed by many as simply “vulgar entertainment.” But it was his commercial ventures — his plays — that got in touch with the people, shaped our language, and helped define the very essence of theater for centuries to follow.
Today’s movies may be, in some respects, like the works of Leonardo and Shakespeare. They are entrepreneurial, they are commercial, they are of the people, and the best of them will endure as the great art of our time.
For centuries, universities have tried to take what is best of a culture at a particular point and preserved it for future generations. But only very recently has film been considered a subject worthy of academic attention. Indeed, most universities today still devote little attention to the study of film.
However, at USC we have helped shape this new medium. By virtue of our location in Southern California — the world capital of entertainment communication — our university and our alumni have had a profound impact on the development of film. We at USC appreciate this peculiar art form, this medium which has become the most ubiquitous and powerful form of communication in the history of mankind. We take seriously our responsibility to preserve, study, advance and herald it. We are proud to have on our campus the best school of cinema–television in the world. We not only teach the creative, aesthetic and technical aspects of film, we educate our students about its impact upon our culture and the responsibilities which they as filmmakers will bear to society.
USC’s influence upon the evolution of filmmaking will continue well into the next century. Today, our film students and faculty are working with computer engineers and professionals in the entertainment industry to develop the next generation of entertainment technology and to pioneer its creative application. And thanks to a $120 million cash gift from Ambassador Walter Annenberg, we are creating the Annenberg Center for Communication, which will undoubtedly become the world’s foremost center for the development, study and teaching of communication. This new center will be a place where movie makers will work alongside scientists, linguists, artists, engineers, sociologists and journalists to train the ‘intellectual deliverers’ of tomorrow.
Artistic creation is one of the principal means by which this university accomplishes its noble mission of “cultivating and enriching the human mind and spirit.” Today we celebrate the wonderful creative work of USC’s filmmakers, artists, thespians, writers and musicians. And we are proud to recognize with our highest academic honor three whose contributions to our art and culture are without peer.