Monday, May 30, 2011
“When I walk down the street, all I can think of is how angry I am, how I can't stand anything,“ said the photographer Brian Weil, “but when I look through a camera it all becomes extremely interesting.”
Commencement exercises at Cornell, or as the numerous placards clarified, the 143rd Commencement (Cornell was founded in 1865, classes beginning slightly afterwards), embodied both the immediacy of the graduating classes of 2011 and what historian Morris Bishop class of 1913 termed “the Cornell Tradition,” the Tradition seemingly solid & eternal, & monotonously repetitive.
Without going near the main commencement at Schoelkopf Stadium, the normally quiet Arts Quad transformed into a marching ground for the various colleges, the graduates in cap & gown, with school banners held at front. The procession to the stadium is actually rather far: No one commented on the distance to me, which indicates its fixed invisibility, its classical repetition, its inevitability. Circling around the perimeters of the Arts Quad, with the East-West axis of the bronze statues of founders Ezra Cornell & Andrew Dickson White to pass, seemed the most overtly symbolic aspect of the gesture, along with the constant melodies from the McGraw Chimes, in their faux Venetian tower at Uris Library – among the ditties I can recall now, off-hand, were the Ode to Joy and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
(although no Beatles tunes, which are a common request, or Happy Birthday or O Tannenbaum – evidently good for all seasons here. During Study Week I heard both Danse Macabre & Bali’Hai, which I thought were particularly outstanding).
The secular religiosity of the procession brought to mind that Victorian entrepreneurs and businessmen founded Cornell as a nondenominational school, emphasizing the sciences. Ezra Cornell had made his money with the telegraph, and with what later became Western Union. The waning of the church & the rise of the state and the corporation as ruling bodies, the adoption of ritual forms as a way of (again back to Morris Bishop) transforming the “Cornell Experiment” to the “Cornell Tradition” have a curious charge to them.
At the later, smaller AAP Commencement I described the procession to C, who characterized it as Leni Riefenstahl. I thought of the Ensor painting Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889, at the Getty.
Some of the early films of Robert Altman come to mind too: MASH, Nashville, & Brewster McCloud. The McGraw Chimes resemble the intrusion of pop songs as a kind of pervasive cosmology in MASH. Once last Fall our class had a meeting outside on the lawn of the Arts Quad before Seminar, which we had to take inside, when we were “drowned out” by a particularly impassioned carillon transcription of the Habanera from Carmen. Almost everyone seems to dislike the bells – it almost goes without saying that most find them an irritant. C. told me that when he first came to Cornell, whenever he walked past McGraw Tower, the bells would start to play at that moment – adding an uncanny element to its aural reordering of space.
How the graduates adapt themselves to cap & gown brings up all sorts of differences that simmer in a more unnoticed manner otherwise. There are the students who dress up scrupulously, in Sunday best, with parents and general respectability as an audience. There are those who dress up in a more flamboyant way. & there are those who structure their comfort in the most expedient manner. At the AAP Commencement I saw a boy walk barefoot to the podium to get his diploma. I would like to think there was someone nude underneath one of the gowns (& Ithaca, normally cold & damp, was hot & humid for the afternoon), but there has been no corroboration of this.
I think there is a Reunion Weekend coming up. The Commencement festivities reminded me of the Elliot Erwitt photograph, “Yale’s Oldest Living Graduate.” The Erwitt photo has a resonance of media as a kind of distancing mechanism, which may be more stylistic than theoretical in the image’s particularities, in the clash between intention & effect: the sense of the photographic as a kind of skewed theater that can reflect back on itself somehow, but also in its opacity it can be read as a wholehearted family-of-man sort of social embrace. Erwitt's image, along with its potential satire, can also be looked at without any irony just as easily.
Initially thinking I would stay in my studio, I instead went out looking for the Ithaca equivalent of Yale’s Oldest Living Graduate. There have been glimpses of this kitsch previously: the acapella groups singing outside Willard Straight Hall. The fraternities & sororities out & about en masse, dressed identically. The institutionalized binge-drinking of Slope Day which deserves a proper anthropological treatment (J told me she saw 3 guys walking – one bent over, puked, & then the guys high-fived one another & they continued on their way).
But without a camera, it all seems kind of dreadful. With a camera I think: When am I going to be around this strangeness again? Overall I enjoyed the sass of some of my younger friends. & camera in hand, how often will I have such easy access?
thanks to: Tyler Dennis, Maggie Prendergast, Lauren Valchius, & Jackie Zdrojewski - all class of 2011