We’ve written (and ghostwritten) our share of speeches, and none is so fraught with peril as the commencement address, a difficult-to-master mix of anecdotes, life lessons, and hope for the bright future that the newly graduated are uniquely equipped to harness and monetize. And so it is with great excitement and some trepidation that we clutched our grubby copy of Easter and awaited the remarks (and post-speech performance) of Patti Smith, who on Monday addressed Pratt Institute’s 121st commencement ceremony and received an honorary degree alongside architect Daniel Libeskind, MoMA director Glenn Lowry, former NYC Landmarks Commissioner Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, novelist Jonathan Lethem, and director Steven Soderbergh. Reader, she did not disappoint.
Smith opened and closed with dentistry. “I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to talk about: Moby Dick, the slaves of Michelangelo, Hans Hoffman, My Bloody Valentine, but now that I’m here, my greatest urge is speak to you of dental care,” she began. “My generation had a rough go, dentally….You have a better chance at dental health, and I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your muse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to make that design, because you want to help your fellow man. You don’t want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal.” The take-home message? “Floss, you know, use salt, baking soda, get them professionally cleaned, you know, for a bit, take care of your damn teeth.”
From there, Smith lauded the graduates for their determination and offered a bit of Pratt-centric personal history (coming to New York, meeting Robert Mapplethorpe, eating and dreaming in the corner diner) before turning to…Pinocchio, that rare combination of mendacity and tenacity. “Pinocchio went out into the world filled with good intentions, with vision, he went ready to do all the things he dreamed, but Pinocchio was pulled this way and that, he was distracted, he faltered, he made mistakes, but he kept on,” she explained. “Pinocchio, in the end, became himself, because the little flame inside him, no matter what crap he went through, would not be extinguished.” Jiminy Cricket went unmentioned, but Smith did conclude with a few pieces of advice, including letting your conscience be your guide. “I’m telling you, these simple things: taking care of your teeth, being happy…they will be your greatest allies. Because when you’re happy, you ignite that little flame that tells you and reminds you who you are, and it will ignite, it will animate your enthusiasm for things. It will enforce your work.”