Adam Lerner: The Art of Risk at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

I’ve spent most of my life striving for recognition, for stature. My father, who was a Holocaust refugee, was focused on other things, and he was focused more on the necessities of life.

You see, you could tell that actually by looking at me as a kid. In wintertime, while other kids were wearing mittens, he gave me to wear these brown gardening gloves that he bought three to a pack. “What? You need such nice gloves?”, he would say.

In summertime, while other kids were wearing tube socks, I was wearing these black nylon socks with my sneakers and my shorts, which is why the kids across the street used to call me Jew Socks. So I spent a lot of time trying to elevate myself beyond the Queens immigrant Jewish family that I grew up in.

I had this image of myself wearing tweed jackets, carrying fountain pens, and discussing great leather-bound books of philosophy and poetry written by old British people. I spent 16 years in higher education at places like Cambridge University and Johns Hopkins University. At Johns Hopkins I studied with the renowned French art historian, Eric Michaud, who spoke as if each word had some some deep philosophical weight to it. I still remember my first seminar with him back in 1991. His first line he said, “Art is our last myth, so that we will not perish of truth.”

I had no idea what it meant. But I had the feeling like it was some invitation to some greater intellectual life. It turns out it was a reference to Nietzsche, and I went to the library, and I read every single book I could from Nietzsche. From morning till night, I would read philosophy, literature, art history. I pursued my graduate studies like I was a medieval monk seeking spiritual enlightenment.

All my graduate school friends were the same way. We all were striving for this kind of intellectual rigor. I remember once I was at the home of my dear friend, Juliet Glass, along with her boyfriend, Jeff, and my wife, then girlfriend, Elisa. We were all graduate school friends, and we were about to go out to dinner, when Juliet’s father, the famous composer Philip Glass, came running excitedly down the stairs, and wanted to know if he could join us, and we said, “Sure.” At dinner, Phil ordered a beer, which I thought was strange, because he never drank, or rarely drank.

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He was so happy because he just finished composing this major symphony, which as he explained it to us, incorporated one piece of text from every one of the world’s major religions. As he was telling it to us, I thought, well isn’t that just “We are the world.” Jeff and I laughed, and we said, “That seems pretty ridiculous Phil.” So he looked at us, and he just said, “Maybe, but you know, anything I’ve ever done that’s been worthwhile, I’ve had to risk looking ridiculous.” Now, here’s a guy who’s arguably changed the history of music in the twentieth century, and me, I had done nothing.

Well, in 1998, I was the Curator at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and I was spending a lot of time proving just how much I knew. I wrote essays that few people understood on things like the construction of meaning which seemed so important to me at the time. So despite my dedication to art, I was perishing of truth. That is until I moved to Denver in 2001 to work at the Denver Art Museum, and I began to relax, because I think here intellectual pedigree doesn’t matter so much. That wasn’t a laugh line; I think it’s true.

You know, I was actually open to the idea when I was working at the Denver Art Museum and a real estate developer approached the Denver Art Museum about creating a new art space in Lakewood, Colorado, in a shopping district called Belmar. That was actually intriguing to me to go outside the usual realm of the prestigious world of museums. Even before starting this new art space, the marketing director at the real estate developer’s office asked me if I wanted to give a lecture at this new lecture program she was having in the shopping district. She thought I could give a talk on Andy Warhol or Picasso, or something like that. I thought a talk on Andy Warhol, that could be interesting, but how about Andy Warhol, and say, another talk on artificial lighting? So I had this idea for a completely alternative series of lectures.

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What if we have a program where we have two lectures on unrelated topics on the same night, with questions and answers of both (Audience) at the same time. At the same time! Thank you. Well, somehow they bought it. And so, I scribbled out the first season.

The first season included video art and migratory birds. Emily Dickinson and Bananas Foster Flower arranging and the Grateful Dead. It was a ridiculous idea, but every time I thought of it, it made me laugh. It seemed smart and fresh. I felt proud of it, and when I gave these ideas to the graphic designer, Ellen Bruss Design, what I got back from her was a postcard design that amplified all of my ideas. It had their whimsey, and it made it look like nothing that any contemporary art space had ever done before. So I got really scared.

You see, in my life up until that point, intellectual stature was the one thing I thought distinguished me. My whole identity was caught up in the idea being a scholar. It was the only thing that prevented me from being Jew Socks, so I felt a certain fear that churns in my stomach and my mind started to race, “What would Eric Michaud think?” What would my graduate school friends think? I ended up sending out the postcard, but I took all of my graduate school friends off the mailing list, all my colleagues. I was afraid that they would think I was ridiculous, and I wasn’t quite yet used to that fear.

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