Robert de Niro to arts graduates: it’s a hard road ahead

Robert de Niro, in his commencement speech to students graduating from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, had some honest words to say about life in the real world. After giving them reason to cheer – “you’ve made it” – he was quick to not sugarcoat the challenges that these particular individuals will face. In short, it’s going to be hard.
His remark was much more succinct and expertly punctuated with a singular, common swear word, which was, no surprise, met with enthusiasm from the crowd (plenty of laughter, clapping and cheering). It was to the point and effective, sprinkling some humour on what is a very serious truth – for art students, success is not so easy. The road ahead for many such graduates will be long and hard.
The graduates from the college of nursing, he continued, they’ve all got jobs, the actor said. The grads from dentistry? “Fully-employed”. Business students? “They’re covered”. Medicine majors? “Each will get a job.” Trainee teachers? Well, they will be teaching for next to nothing and racking up long hours, but still, they’ll be working in their chosen profession. Accountants? They’re sorted too.
Can you get passionate accountants, De Niro asked? It’s highly unlikely. No, that decision is made with “reason, logic and common sense” – they understand that entering such a profession offers them near enough guaranteed success and stability. It’s rational at best and there is no right or wrong to that. It simply “is what it is”.
As for artists, actors, filmmakers and photographers, among many other creatives, well, it’s not so easy. These students discover in themselves a talent, a passion that they can’t ignore. As the Hollywood giant said: “When you feel that, you can’t fight it – you just go with it.”
“When it comes to the arts,” he continued, “passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny … you have to keep working, it’s that simple … a new door is opening to you, a door to a lifetime of rejection. It’s inevitable.”
Rejection though isn’t absolute, nor is it an indictment one’s talents. As if often the case, there’s an element of luck involved, a pinch of bias – sometimes you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes you’re an anachronism and sometimes, the powers that be, simply have a different idea of what it is they are looking for.
As De Niro, it’s okay. Your answer is “next”. Can’t even get a waiter’s job? Next. Miss out on a funding opportunity? Next. Struggling to sell any paintings? Next. Working in a dead end job you hate? Next.
And so on, and so on. Faith and confidence in one’s ability and an understanding of what it is that compelled them to study an arts-based subject and pursue a career is what matters. Comparatively, life in the arts is a lot less lucrative and safer than other sectors, but that’s not enough for some artists. For them it’s about living a life that is true to who they are.
You can only ever compromise for a bit (or not). One day, fingers crossed, you’ll get there, and if not, you’ll have had a very interesting, rollercoaster of a life that no-one can take from you. Meanwhile, everyone else will be sat at their desk, typing away, day in and day out. As de Niro said during his speech: “Now that you’ve made your choice or, rather, succumbed to it, your path is clear. Not easy, but clear.”
Cadogan Tate works with artists, galleries and museums to deliver art storage solutions.