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Speech at the 2023 Graduation Ceremony: The Freedom to Critique and the Drive to Create
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Edited BY:Fang Shuaiyin

Dear teachers, graduating students and parents, good evening!

This year, we have no parallel venues. Almost five thousand of us gather here. This is a long-awaited moment. This is a lovely moment.

The Class of 2023 is the "generation of the pandemic". Compared to your predecessors, your campus life has not been easy. But compared to your peers in the rest of the world, you have had it easy. In the last three years, CAA only conducted online classes for two and a half months. Everything else was carried out offline. This is rare when you look at the rest of the world.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we tried our best to ensure all educational activities went on as usual. We forged ahead relentlessly, making progress on all fronts and achieving remarkable results. Our achievements would not have been possible without the concerted efforts and hard work of our faculty and students. On behalf of CAA, I would like to thank everyone, especially the Class of 2023. Thank you for working hand in hand with us for the past few years.

We have lived in isolation on the campus for a long time. When recalling those days of "closed-loop management", we felt almost like a dream. Fortunately, we have a big, beautiful campus. It was a period of unprecedented co-living. While there were some complaints and grumbling amongst us, we also witnessed a great deal of mutual understanding and accommodation. It will remain an unforgettable period of our lives. I believe that in time, we will look back at those memories with fondness. But now, let us give a warm round of applause to our teachers and advisors who went above and beyond carrying out their duties without complaints and to the security and administrative staff who never took a day off from the frontlines. Let us thank our students' parents, those present and those who are not with us right now, for their support and dedication to their children. Let us thank them for all the sacrifices they have made for them. Thank you!

After three years of the pandemic, we have brought our graduation season out of our campus and into the city. The city is filled with art and the vibrancy of youth. Why did we decide to hold the graduation exhibition outside the campus? The main reason is that we wanted our students' works to be able to stand up to the public's scrutiny, to society's scrutiny in the formal setting of an exhibition and to engineer a professional space for discourse with members of the arts profession. The graduation exhibition is the final step in a school's mission to nurture talents as well as the first step that graduating students take to enter society and start their professional careers. Your graduation work is important because it elevates you to another level. You are no longer students. You are promising young artists, young designers, academics, and film directors.

On June 1, we launched an exhibition themed "Brain Garden", where we brought 2,710 graduation works to the city, injecting them with vibrancy and creativity.

The theme of the exhibition is a call. It is a call for the freedom to critique and the drive to create. Art's mission lies in creation − in creating new physical and psychological experiences in mundane everyday life and in creating rich possibilities for the future in the history of humankind. That means that as artists, we have to decipher the code behind creation and the logic behind emotion, unlock the Brain Garden in everyone, and explore the infinite aspects of human creativity.

Our graduation exhibition is still ongoing. Over 300,000 visitors have attended our on-site graduation season. Related reports have been published by over 100 media outlets and garnered over 600 million views, of which 4.5 million are from overseas viewers. Notably, there is media coverage of the CAA Graduation Season across nearly 100 countries. Your graduation has stolen the limelight. Your artworks have been seen and admired by hundreds of millions of people. I am proud of what you have achieved! Congratulations!

I have visited the major venues for this year's graduation season a few times and have spoken to some students. Personally, I find that the graduation works of the Class of 2023 share a distinctive feature. They are dialogues with the classics, with everyday life, with the creators themselves, and with the future. Through these dialogues, our students showcased the full extent of art's potential.

Our students had a dialogue with the classics. Chinese art is a product that develops and evolves from history and tradition. It is a meditation and response to historical classics. In Chinese artistic tradition, we place an emphasis on retracing our roots, preserving what is good, and constantly innovating. Our contemporary art speaks to and resonates with their classical predecessors and is an extension of the great Chinese tradition. The works from the School of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy reveal the continuation of our traditional academic legacy, a living fount that runs endlessly. The theses and exhibits from the School of Arts and Humanities unveil a common thread that runs through both Eastern and Western classics. The installations created by the Department of Media Scenography place us in the vast moving stage of contemporary world history. The exhibition hall is filled with works that echo and resonate with contemporary classics.

Our students had a dialogue with everyday life. Our students' keen observation of everyday life and passion for contemporary social issues are on clear display in the works from the School of Painting, the School of Design, the Department of Experimental Art, the Department of Writing and Directing for Film and Television at the School of Film Art, the School of Art Administration and Education, and so forth. This year, several graduation works turned out to be groundbreaking, with some trending online and garnering over five to six million views. The video for the work Parents, which was awarded gold in the Oil Painting category, had 8.26 million views as of yesterday. This is proof that our students' art is an authentic reflection of our collective social consciousness and that the public resonates with their art. To learners of art and design, everyday life is where the battles are waged. At this point, I would like to ask our students something − what is the difference between everyday life and reality? How can we progress from our understanding of everyday life to a deep exploration of reality?

Our students had a dialogue with themselves. This is the most pertinent, prevalent challenge that they face at this stage in their lives. "Know thyself" is not only the ultimate question in philosophy but the core concern in art. Several graduation works in the respective exhibitions of the School of Painting, the School of Sculpture and Public Art, the Department of Experimental Art, the School of Animation and Games, and others, revolve around self-expression. Through the use of diverse mediums, our students have put together an exciting book that documents youth.

Our students had a dialogue with the future. This aspect has been very prominent in the graduation works showcased in recent years. The School of Design and Innovation and the Department of Open Media employed cutting-edge digital technologies and multiple AI tools to conduct a pioneering series of AIGC experiments. Similarly, students from the School of Film Art, the School of Animation and Games, and the Department of Printmaking presented their informed reflections on the age of artificial intelligence in their own, personal ways. Most importantly, they leveraged their expertise in their respective domains and harnessed new technologies, new media, and new tools to depict a radical reimagining of life in the future. Amidst the prevalence of AI art, the results of their experimentation are informed, profound, and groundbreaking.

Due to constraints regarding the venue, the exhibition period for  the discipline of design is the shortest. Yet our students' works received much public attention and great reviews within the short span of a week. Five years ago, I set the mission for CAA's the discipline of design − to reinvent everyday life. We see the results of their hard work in this graduation exhibition. Reinventing everyday life not only requires the courage and drive to act but also a thriving imagination and creativity. It demands that we invent new techniques, new methods, and new paths forward in this age of Internet Plus, big data, and artificial intelligence, where everyday life has been reshaped by augmented reality. It requires us to use these new tools to create an experiment on life aesthetics for the future. It demands of us the ability to create and the innate ability to reshape cultural values and cultivate artistic sensitivity. It is an ability that can transform the intrinsic elements of everyday life from the ground up. As long as we persevere, we will transform CAA into a lab for life aesthetics for the future.

In this graduation exhibition, we were also confronted with certain profound questions. On the day before the exhibition commenced, Prof. Xu Jiang led the Academic Board around the exhibition to conduct a systematic round of inspections. He called for a discussion after that. After considering the matter for a long time, I have decided to share two findings here.

Firstly, our students have an expansive creative vision and a rich imagination that presents itself in diverse forms. However, they still need to further hone their visual language. The silkworm eats mulberry leaves, then spins silk to form a cocoon. Humans extract the silk while the silkworm eventually breaks out of its cocoon and becomes a butterfly. That is how art is made. That is also how an artist is made. The weaving of silk and the silkworm's metamorphosis into a butterfly are key stages in which there is a transformative change. However, in some works, we saw only the silkworm and the mulberry leaves or the spinning of the silk and the formation of the cocoon. We did not see silk being woven or a silkworm's metamorphosis into a butterfly. Contemporary social and real-life issues as well as metaphors and symbolism are the product of emotion. They have to be translated into the language of art to be transformed into a new aesthetic experience. The evolution of a professional language, the shaping of a physical and psychological experience, and the creation of a sensory experience − these are essential to artistic creation. They are our strong defenses against the mediocre, crude aesthetic sensibilities in this age of automated generation. Naturally, we have set a high bar here. Such art requires patience and diligence as we continue to enhance our craft in the future.

Secondly, the collaborative approach that many teams undertake in group projects or "holistic installations", especially in design, architecture, film and intermedia art, is very commonly used. This is an issue that requires serious reflection and investigation. Since the introduction of Western modernism, the value of art has been grounded in the assumption of "autonomy". If we adopt that perspective, we will inevitably start to question − will such creative group work lead to the loss of autonomy, personality, and the self?

Truth be told, it doesn't matter whether the creator of an artwork is a group or an individual. It all boils down to this key question − how do we define freedom, the individual, and the self?

Art is an expression made freely by an autonomous individual − this belief is not an old, established one. It originated in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. It is a belief that reveals an interpretation of individualism that is atomized and freedom that is centered on the individual. With the rise of aestheticism and ideologies that espoused the creation of art for art's sake in the late 19th century, the concept of artistic autonomy became mainstream in Europe. The objective of these movements is to separate art from real life and the production of art from social production. Divorced from reality and society, stripped of its everyday functions, art has become an object for appreciation and consumption. The relationship between art and society and life transformed fundamentally. The general populace in our modern society automatically becomes an audience or potential audience to art. They become a unique breed of cultural consumers. They have lost the right to live a life of art and the means to create art.

In recent centuries, we witnessed how an autonomous individual's freedom to artistically express themselves gradually became an independent artist's practice in self-indulgence and how the myth of the independent artist became a form of spiritual reparation to a consumer society of mass-produced, mediocre art. Artistic autonomy has resulted in aesthetics being relegated to the domain of experts and a resultant disparity in aesthetic sensibilities. This has in turn led to social stratification, the commercialization of art, and the fetishism of art. This is the price of modernization.

Yet, the individual is not an isolated entity detached from their historical landscape. Similarly, freedom does not mean we can do whatever we want. Freedom is not a prerequisite. It is the objective. It is not the starting point but the end goal. It is to be earned through self-liberation and struggles in real life. The freedom of artistic expression is not a self-indulgent form of expression made without considering the consequences. It is the product of a mind that transcends everything and a creative act rooted in real life. We become free through art. We are free because of art. In art, we are free.

Freedom is not a prerequisite or a hypothetical. It is the ability to put something into practice. It is the ability to empathize with the rest of society and engage in societal progress, to identify one's place in time and transcend contemporary times, and to grow amidst self-liberation.

To the young artists out there, do not fixate on your present self and strive to create a better, future you. Art education begins with the creation of the creator. By embarking on this journey of art, we have commenced a journey of self-creation. In the process of creating art, we make ourselves who we are. In a vocation that transcends ourselves, we grow. In aspiring toward goals that transcend ourselves, we, too, surpass ourselves.

A century ago, CAA's founding president Cai Yuanpei said that the value of art is in its universality and its ability to transcend all − "Through art, we transcend differences in opinion. We transcend self-interest." The mastery, inclusivity and foresight that Mr. Cai Yuanpei possessed was rooted in his conviction of art's universality and transcendence. The artists of his generation shared his openness. In his poems, the distinguished Chinese scholar Liang Qichao wrote, "The world is endless, the seas and the skies immemorial," revealing a self that transcends time and space. Liang Shuming, a famed Chinese philosopher, conveyed a similar message in one of his poems, "May I live forever. Let my dreams fill the oceans. Let me move mountains." In those lines, we can sense his grand ambitions of changing and reshaping the world. Tao Xingzhi, a renowned Chinese educator, wrote something equally ambitious − "Let the universe be my classroom, nature my teacher, and all living things my classmates..." When we study their lives, we will know that what they have said are not the empty words of a braggart. When we compare our modest aspirations to their grand ambitions, we will realize how myopic and self-centered we are when it comes to our understanding of ourselves. In recent years, I have done repeated reflections on the visions and aspirations of our predecessors a century ago. How can we transform art education into a study of compassion and value? How do we cultivate autonomy, inclusivity, and wisdom in our youths?

Dear teachers and students, this year marks CAA's 95th anniversary, the theme of which is "Get Firsthand Knowledge from the Masters and Follow in the Footsteps of the Great." Every artist must seek firsthand knowledge from the masters. We must retrace our steps to the very beginning of a civilization so that we may relive the earliest moments of creation and nourish our art with primordial creative energies. As members of CAA, we must follow the footsteps of the great. The CAA's history is filled with great mentors and art masters who brought pride and glory to this place. However, to have our mentors as our perpetual role models and constantly walk in their wake is to be cast in their eternal shadows. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with them if we wish to behold the views they once saw and walk alongside them.

We're running overtime, so I can only briefly share my thoughts with everyone. I hope they will be helpful in your artistic career in the future.

I have always emphasized that "we must not be artists of the art circle, but artists of the world." No matter which city you choose to live in, which career you choose, and where you end up in life, I hope you will practice what you've learned at CAA. This academy has not simply taught you techniques and methods, including professional skills and aesthetic sensibilities, but also nurtured inside you the creator's soul and spirit. As long as you keep that creative soul and spirit alive, you will never lose hope. You will always find the way.

A few years ago, you came from all corners of the world to CAA. Today, you shall leave CAA for the world. You are the bridge that connects the rest of the world to CAA. No matter how far you go, always remember − CAA will always be your home. You are the proud members of CAA, and CAA is proud of you all!

We have come to this long-awaited moment. Now, I invite the Director of the Academic Board and our former President, Prof. Xu Jiang onstage to host the grand ceremony with me.

Please rise, cross your right arm over your chest, and lift the embroidered tassels on your chest. When we shout "CAA", you shout "Fight for art!" and toss the tassels over your shoulder. You were cared for and allowed to grow freely while you were in school. Now that you've graduated, you must take up the plow as your duty. You will take up your duty to act, create, and change the world!