With his trademark pencil mustache, Pink Flamingoes and Hairspray director John Waters took the podium at the Rhode Island School of Design earlier this month to deliver the commencement address. After complimenting the school (“I wanted to be the filthiest person alive, but no school would let me. I bet RISD would have.”), Waters delivered a 12-minute commencement speech that had plenty of tips on how to live a creative, disruptive life. Watch it here or read on for the highlights.
Waters dismissed the idea that, for a creative person, work and play are separate entities. “In the fine arts, play is work,” he says. “What other field allows you to deduct gangster rap, Gaspar Noé movies, and even vintage porn as business expenses?”
“Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience,” Waters says. But how do you get influential enough to be disruptive? Become an insider. “It’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider, like I am,” he says. “Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”
“You need to prepare sneak attacks on society,” Waters says. “Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made.” He then points out that although the musical based on the film is now regularly performed in every high school in America, “it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. …Hairspray is a Trojan horse—it snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing.”
Remaining relevant means knowing what’s happening around you in your field. “Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field,” he says. “If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in. Watch every movie that gets a negative review in the New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong. Read, read, read. Watch people on the street, spy, be nosy, eavesdrop.” And, especially as you get older, become obsessed with youth culture, and employ “youth spies that will keep you abreast of new music that nobody your age has heard of yet, or body-piercing mutilations that are becoming all the rage, even budding sexually transmitted disease you should go to any length to avoid.”
“Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before,” Waters says. “Is there a better job description than that to aspire to? Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully. Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living. It’s your turn to cause trouble—but this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.”