A commencement speech for the School of Visual Arts 2022
Congratulations, graduates, to you, and your families and friends who have supported you in getting to this moment. You have attended college under truly challenging and ever-changing circumstances. I hope you are proud of yourselves and everything it took to get to this moment.
At the 2022 Frieze New York art show, there is a large installation created by the art collective “How to Perform an Abortion,” called Trigger Planting. It features a large map of the United States over which a living herb garden of the plants that can induce an abortion, is planted. The plants are strategically placed across twenty-six states and when you look at it, you realize just how many people in this country are on the verge of losing one of their most essential human rights.
Adjacent to the map is a list of those twenty-six states with trigger bans, near-total bans on abortion, fetal heartbeat or six-week laws and constitutional amendments that would prevent any protections for a person’s right to get an abortion.
These artists see, clearly, what’s coming and they have responded, powerfully.
I posted some images of this powerful installation on Instagram and a woman responded, “Places where I would never live! Yay!”
I thought about that comment for hours. I am still thinking about it. She was being pithy, and perhaps honest. I’m sure she thought her comment was harmless. Many of us who live in states that value women’s lives and bodily autonomy are relieved to know that no matter what the Supreme Court ultimately decides, we will probably have the inalienable rights we deserve.
But at what cost? And with Republican politicians threatening a federal ban on abortion, banning birth control, banning IVF, and more, for how long do we have those rights? And what other rights are they coming for? Marriage equality? Gender affirming healthcare? All of the social progress we have made over the past several decades?
Pundits like to call debates about these issues, the issues that shape the course our lives, culture wars, as if who we are, who we love, how we hope to live, are merely matters of, well, choice. In a sense, I suppose we are at war, because those of us who are marginalized are constantly fighting for our lives.
So. Despite all this, a woman said, “Yay!” Because she feels free. Which is what we all want for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities. What stunned me about that woman’s comment was how she was only concerned with herself. She was safe, so, “Yay.” There was no care for or consideration of the millions upon millions of people living in the twenty-six trigger states who are not safe. Who are being told their only option, if they are dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, or medical complications, or a pregnancy as the product of rape or incest, is forced birth.
Lives are at stake. Futures are at stake. And it is crystal clear that some lives are seen as disposable or irrelevant.
Today, we are holding a commencement. A celebration. Both an ending and a beginning. And you may wonder what the politics of abortion has to do with this significant moment in your lives.
What I’m trying to talk about is the importance of seeing.