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Graduation Speaker: Alexander Betz, Art History

Submitted on June 25, 2022 - 4:06pm
Alexander Betz
Alexander Betz

Alexander Betz received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History with departmental honors in June 2022. He had a minor in Classical Studies and a second degree in Biochemistry. He was the Division of Art History’s undergraduate speaker for the School’s 2022 Graduation Celebration. Below is the text of his speech.


Hello. I want to begin by thanking all of you, each and every one of you here in attendance with us today, whether that is in person or in spirit. It is humbling to stand here and look out, to see a hall packed with people supporting and celebrating the amazing, amazing accomplishments and perseverance of this graduating class. I know that we don’t achieve things alone. To all the loved ones in our audience, please know that your support has meant the world to these graduates and always will.

I am here to share three things that I have learned as a student of art history. Three ideas, which when taken together, may begin to capture the beauty I see in this field. We’ll talk through each of them together, and I invite you to reflect upon each as we do so. Three ideas: Appreciation, Struggle, and Empathy.

What does it mean to appreciate a moment? Perhaps we can answer this question by working through another: what does it mean to appreciate a work of art? Do me a favor and hold in your mind an artwork whose impression upon you has, since coming into your life, never left you. Please, I invite you; it could be anything. Perhaps you are thinking about a painting, seeing the brilliance of its colors and the way the artist captured light and shadow upon its canvas in a way so exacting that you felt as though you could, just for a moment, step into the frame yourself. Or maybe you love that painting because of who you first saw it with, and to return to that canvas it to return to some beautiful memory of time well spent in the company of someone dear to you. Maybe you didn’t think about a painting at all. Perhaps it was your favorite song that first came to mind. Some piece of music that reminds you of being a kid while you shared headphones with your sister in the back of a car during a long road trip. Maybe it’s your favorite song because you always listen to it before you do something you have to be brave for, or for some reason, you can’t help but dance whenever it comes on. I could go on and on — the point is: there are so many reasons to love something, to appreciate something. Let me take us back to the opening question: what does it mean to appreciate a work of art, and, by extension, appreciate any part of life? I propose that it means to care about the details, the tiny little stories in every bit of our lives which, once put together in chorus, sing of something made full. Something which changes our heart. So, lesson one from art history: there are an endless number of reasons to appreciate something, and half the fun is just going looking for them.

But life is harder than that. It wouldn’t be right for me to come up here and act like these last few years haven’t been some of the most challenging we’ve ever known. I mean, look around. This is the first in-person graduation for this school in three years. Covid came and swept through our lives like wildfire, and made us realize that, whether we wanted to or not, there are a lot of things which are just outside of our control. We have lost people; we have lost time; we have lost experiences. It’s not like anyone sat us down and said “Hey, in a year, when an unprecedented global pandemic rips your life apart, what classes are you gonna sign up for? How are you going to find meaning in your college experience through a webcam and a screen?” No one could have known. And Covid hasn’t even been close to being the only thing. But please, let me tell you, in the darkest part of the quarantine, when I was crushingly alone, what a gift, what a ray of light in my life it was, to, for a few precious hours every week, turn on my computer and in an instant join a class where I could be with others, with my friends, and talk about something as beautiful and touching to the soul as art. To be in one another’s company and share in the delight of something that transcends our times. It was in one of these Art History classes that I took last spring with Professor Juliet Sperling where I read the quote that would come to put my mind at peace not just with Covid, or quarantine, but on struggle as a concept itself. This was a class on Jacob Lawrence, one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century, and esteemed faculty member for thirty years at this very school, where I read the following on his work. Quote:

“We have an under-standing of struggle that implies that there is going to be a winner and a loser — someone’s gotta come out on top and someone’s gotta be on the bottom. We think of life-and-death struggles. Struggle is something to endure, survive, live through. It has an end and maybe we will be better because of it. [But] Lawrence posits a different understanding of struggle, one that is more productive. What if struggle is not something to overcome or something to survive? What if the state of things is struggle? What if struggle is how we are to be in the world? Struggle as a place, a location, a setting. Struggle as a happening, a condition. Struggle as a state of being. Unending. Unresolvable. Continuing. Constant.”(1)

We, together, have found that through our struggle we are able to find solace even in the middle of darkness; that through constantly struggling, and enduring even the most difficult of challenges life will throw at us, we can find a light to a brighter future. We have all worked so hard to come to this moment. It’s not that we’ve just overcome or survived these past few years. It’s that we have brought this hardship into our lives and accepted it. Learned to love how it is the pursuit of and coexistence with this hardship itself that makes our lives meaningful.

At this point, we’ve talked through how to find beauty, and we’ve talked through how to frame struggle. Now, if there is anything left for us to do, it is to consider what brings us all together: empathy. And what could be more empathetic than embracing a work of art? A work of art is the embodiment of someone else’s expression, their life, and their perspectives. What could be more empathetic than wanting to connect this expression of another’s deepest truths to our own lives, and bring them into our own story? Art History has taught me to keep my heart open. We never know when something will come into our lives and change it forever. The more we share our ideas and discuss what it is that makes us love the things around us, the more we can connect and deepen the pallet with which we all color our own lives. Keep your mind open and be confident to share your little stories and learn from one another. Who knows when someone else will point out a little detail that you’ve been missing this whole time, and who knows when you could do the same for another? Art History tells us that it is okay to struggle; that it is worth taking the time to try and communicate something about the world that has struck you. And then showing that same kindness and understanding to others.

Three lessons — Art History matters.

I want to leave you all with a quote that has been on my mind as I’ve tried to work through what graduation means to me. What this point in time means that stands between, on one side, years of effort and excitement and growth, and on the other the great beyond. This moment right now is the closest all of us will ever be again to this part of our lives. But I think that is okay; in fact, I think that is the whole point. Here’s the quote: “Life is like a coin. One side is having, holding, tightening, keeping, and remembering. The other side is losing, releasing, loosening, giving, and forgetting. Living is watching the coin sparkle as it spins through the air.”

Thank you all so much for your time. This degree has changed my life; it’s one of the most valuable things that I have ever known. My deepest congratulations and gratitude to my fellow graduates, everyone who is here to support this class, and the faculty of this school who have given us all so, so much.

Thank you.


(1) Lawrence, Jacob, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Austen Barron Bailly, and Steve Locke. “‘I, Too, Sing America.’” Essay. In Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, edited by Austen Barron Bailly and Elizabeth Hutton Turner, 16–21. Salem, MA, MA: Peabody Essex Museum, 2019.

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