John Waters: The People’s Pervert

On 30 May, 2015, John Waters delivered a Commencement Address to students at Rhode Island School of Design. I am indebted to a reader of this blog, and friend, Duncan Goldie-Scot for drawing it to my attention.

I discourage speakers from trying to get a laugh out of a hierarchical hello [hh]. This is because, by their very nature, these things nearly always crop up on heavyweight occasions. Here we have a speaker who is of the same mind. He has obviously been brought in to be as subversive as possible, yet he delivers his hh dead straight. He beams at the audience’s applause immediately the hh finishes, but he doesn’t monkey with it during the saying.

Immediately thereafter the subversion begins. He launches into an ethos the equal of which none of us is likely to have heard before or will hear again. Waters is studiously one of a kind and wants us to know it. He quotes an epithet attached to him by the press, “The Prince of Puke”. Also did you think I dreamed up that title above? It is lifted, untampered, from this speech.

There is an interesting detail, though. He concludes the ethos by quoting that People’s Pervert title, and then, “I am honoured to be here today with my people”. This is instantly greeted by whoops and applause from the students. Waters returns another beaming smile; but whereas the beam that concluded the hh was full of triumph and delight, this one is rather shy.

He launches into an account of his extraordinary career, “I wanted to be the filthiest person alive!” That pretty well sums it up. His message to the students is that they should in their work be true to themselves, however mad and artistically disruptive that might appear to the rest of the world.

The students lap it up, and presumably the school staff booked him with their eyes open, but I wonder how the students’ parents are enjoying it. I foresee family arguments wherein a need to support themselves fights against a compulsion to create things for which the world is not ready. Some of these students will earn good and secure money designing for large corporations, others may travel today’s equivalence of painting feverishly in the South of France, fighting against mental illness, cutting off an ear, dying penniless and leaving a legacy of work that will keep auction houses in a manner to which they want to be accustomed. Most will hover somewhere in between, jealous of the ones on the extremes.

That is the nature of art and the tragedy of artists. I’ve known many: even some fairly mad ones. You might expect the most outlandish, the ones that fearlessly produce stuff that seems to make no sense at all or that outrages your sensibilities, to be hard-nosed and thick-skinned. Not so. In my experience, the crazier they are the more insecure. And that takes me straight back to the shy smile that John Waters gave the warmth of the students’ welcome. He’s been hugely successful, but I see vulnerability. Perhaps it is that which helps to make this speech not just funny but so appealing.

I just wish he hadn’t thought he had to read it. Also, if you are going to say “Prince of Puke” and People’s Pervert” you need to learn how not to pop the microphone.

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