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Bill Berkson History and Truth

          History of Art Department 2002 Commencement Address
          University of California, Berkeley, May 24, 2002

The title of this talk is “History and Truth,” which may sound beyond preposterous for a brief commencement chat, but what I mean to do to is lay out somewhat breezily some of my own diversity of purpose in the face of such enormous abstractions—and hopefully those will seem less daunting, more congenial by the time I’ve finished.           “Diversity”—because it can only be an allowance of diversity that got me here to address you today. I failed to ask Anne Wagner, when she called, if I was being invited to talk as a poet, a critic or an art-historian-withoutportfolio (which is what I am, at best and gladly, in that department). So I don’t know what she or Tim Clark or anyone may have had in mind by asking me. It can’t be that I am standing here as just, so to speak, my bare self, flagrantly denuded of any degree of official representation. In truth, I know myself to be representative of no official order. I also know I agreed to do this because when Anne said the date “May 24th” I immediately thought of the first book of poems by a favorite poet, James Schuyler’s May 24th or So, and a line in that book that goes:

          You can’t get at a sunset naming colors.

          So, a pause here for naming oneself, for convenient identity control— just to get me out of the way: primarily, I am a writer—a poet who, as the art magazines say in their notes on contributors, “also writes about art.” Early in my poet’s life, 1960 or so, I slipped on a banana peel and began writing art criticism. The impetus was roughly that I wanted to avoid the fate then typical for American poets, which was to teach literature and/or creative writing in some small college far from where one wanted to be, which in my case was my hometown of New York. The working model for poets writing about contemporary art was conspicuous among New York poets like John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Barbara Guest and Jimmy Schuyler. (Could you tell that Schuyler was an art critic from his line about a sunset?) There was an honorable local tradition, and it seemed to fit; so, like several of my peer group in the second-generation New York School, I followed suit—until almost ten years later, with big changes in the art world (and particularly in the practice of criticism), the impetus wore thin. Moving to California in 1970, I abruptly left off, an art-world dropout. Then again, another fifteen years down the line, primarily on the strength of my New York background, I found myself hired to teach art history at the San Francisco Art Institute. As bananas go, this was stray peel number two—and as I was in dire need of steady employment at the time, I appreciated the chance to slip on it.
          That takes care of my history to the extent that most of what I just told you is true. Is history an account of verifiable fact? The rest of this talk—in the form of ruminations (literally, grazing the topic)—follows from a set of epigraphs—two from Gertrude Stein, one from Robert Smithson.
          The last line of Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso,” completed in 1923, reads:

           “Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.”

          Joining this in my mind is the last line of Stein’s 1929 opera libretto Four Saints in Three Acts, chanted emphatically by the full chorus in Virgil Thomson’s setting. That line goes:

          “Which is a fact.”

           (Which I’ve always felt to be the great, perfect exit line for just about anything.)           Lastly, Robert Smithson’s admonition, written many years later, in the late 1960s:

          “All clear ideas tend to be wrong.”

BILL BERKSON’s latest publications include an online chapbook, Same Here, from (#11); a collaboration with Bernadette Mayer entitled What’s
Your Idea of a Good Time?: Letter & Interviews 1977-1985
(Tuumba Press, 2006),
and a special issue of Fell Swoop magazine, Parts of the Body: A 1970s/80s Scrapbook. He is the Distinguished Mellon Lecturer at the Skowhegan School of Art for

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