By KURT MCVEY, JUNE 2016
“The cupcake guy, right?”
“Yes, I’m the cupcake guy,” I confirm somewhat bashfully for the 17th president of Rhode Island School of Design, the brilliant and breezy Rosanne Somerson, as she ushers our four-person party of press people past the sun-drenched foyer of her stately and yet perfectly quaint presidential abode on the historic suburban threshold of Providence’s East Side on the last Friday morning in May.
I am the “cupcake guy,” because I happened to befriend Salvatore LoBuglio, the excessively sweet and generously Italian owner of the Little Cupcake Bakeshop on Prince Street in SoHo. I’m not entirely sure why, but I was interviewing a young Queens-based rapper in his bakery last Fall and LoBuglio happened to be a fan. He politely expressed as much and after a few photos with the rapper, I was anointed VIP for life.
Just weeks after garnering this prestigious distinction, roughly halfway through November of 2015, I was invited to have lunch with the recently inaugurated President Somerson, a RISD alum ('76, Industrial Design), an engaging professor and successful furniture designer in her own right. On my way to our first meeting at the NoMo SoHo Hotel, while pounding the pavement as a good freelancer does, a familiar voice stopped me in the street. It was Salvatore, and he was already pulling me inside. I explained where I was headed and that I was in a bit of a rush. He acquiesced, but refused to let me go empty-handed. Meeting a relatively young, oft charming, fast-talking but somewhat haggard, art-writer has the potential to be memorable, but if you spontaneously arrive bearing a dozen beautifully packaged, gourmet cupcakes, well, that’s trickle down VIP economics, folks, and that earns you a seat at the president’s table.
So, there I was, at said table months later; a large wooden artifact situated beneath an extraordinary mixed-media Collage Chandelier installation titled “Force of Nature,” by David Wiseman, himself a 2003 RISD graduate. This work is one of many celebrated RISD related art and design objects gracing the interior of the president’s home. Directly beside me, as was the case for most of the trip (writers have to stick together), sat the stylish, inquisitive, and incredibly patient international art journalist, Caia Hagel, my graceful foil for what in hindsight was a rather enlightening press outing built around RISD’s annual MFA Graduate Thesis Exhibition. Joining us were two external and internal PR people respectively, who, in a certain capacity, acted as moderators for an ongoing discussion about the frequently troublesome relationship between art and design, the increasingly pertinacious role of “political correctness” in art, and the equally problematic nature of art criticism.
The first stop on our crit-tour the previous day, as we explained to President Somerson over a healthy, colorful continental breakfast, was Lothar Windel’s Design + Processes end of year undergrad presentations. The syllabus states that the goal of his class is “…to create exceptional work based on the student’s talent and motivation. This exceptional work will facilitate personal growth.” The first presenter was a young man showcasing molded aluminum components that didn’t fit into anything and therefore didn’t work, but they sure did look beautiful (his words), especially on white box sculpture pedestals, where they sat deified like something you’d bid on at "The Price is Right: Soviet Russia Edition."
The second was a fashionable young bohemian woman with an ambiguously European Catherine Zeta Jones accent and a certain je ne sais qua who made a sleek, sexy little two-piece wooden chair that she proudly declared, rather surprisingly, nobody could sit on. I got up and sat in it anyway, as no one had yet proven, in public at least, that it was incapable of fulfilling its primary purpose as a chair, and also as a bit of defiant performance art. The entire crowd-teachers, administrators, PR, and students alike-gasped audibly as I lowered myself slowly onto the seat and even louder when the fragile backrest creaked the tiniest creak with a bit of harmless trial pressure. Sitting in the chair was the considerably less death defying, but equally entertaining equivalent to sticking your head in an alligator’s mouth; you can do it, but at your own risk and preferably without any sudden movements.
The last presenter was another young woman who had the perplexing idea to marry a bean bag chair with a hard wooden chair frame (sans legs), which had a hole cut out of the seat (bum-area). Imagine the blob (the amorphous alien movie monster) swelling up out of your grandmother’s wooden toilet seat like a perplexing, hemorrhoid-like amoeba muffin top. The student, although clearly ambitious and displaying a knack for craftsmanship in the bean bag’s mostly faultless construction, openly refused to comprehend that merging college hippy stoner lounge comfort with something Ichabod Crane’s most unruly students would be subjected to, was a bit of a conceptual contradiction. When Caia Hagel asked the student who exactly would purchase such a thing, in the most gentle and honest tone mind you, the student froze like a dear in headlights. Though she didn’t use these exact words, the student hinted at the notion that her artistic safe space was being intruded upon and in many ways, the clearly protective Lothar Windel seemed to agree. He explained afterward, with a first-rate brow furrow, that in his class, experimentation was paramount to end-product functionality, especially when approaching design through a non-linear process. He’s totally right; it’s his class.
What was troublesome, to be clear, was that it appeared to be acceptable — during a crit, no less — that if a particular design failed in its intended function, it could slide rather happily into the nebulous conceptual realm of “art” as a sort of consolation and that its creator should still be celebrated, simply for the act of creation or even worse, “trying.” Each student had a somewhat naïve “show and tell” appreciation for their works: objects that succeeded in neither the art world nor the design domain. To be clear, art and design can merge rather beautifully, as displayed in Wiseman’s previously mentioned Collage Chandelier, but aesthetics and function must be in harmony.
Thus begins a two-day argument regarding when “the real world” as it was once called, should intrude upon what Hagel argued is very much a safe space, especially for experimenting undergrads. One can agree that they are young and still in an incubation stage: a roughly $50,000 a year art-school incubator, which invites a certain amount of coddling. But time and resources aside, should students not be made privy (accountable), by their junior year no less, to the harsh, established marketplace distinction between what constitutes “design” and what constitutes “art?”
We decided it would be best that I momentarily agree to a mutually imposed silence before dropping into an undergrad interior architecture crit. The students, mostly young, international Asian women, had a firm command of intention, as put forth by their professor, who asked that they develop blueprints for a medical building that would cater specifically to patients suffering from PTSD. I was impressed, not only with the designs, but the students’ ability to articulate and assume authority over their vision despite English being a secondary or tertiary language. There was a surreal moment, however, when a student played a video clip from a Chinese soap opera that featured an extended nervous breakdown from an actor turned emergency medical aid worker post the disastrous 2014 Earthquake that claimed many lives and destroyed many derelict structures. The performance reached Austin Powers levels of drawn out, hyperbolic emotional absurdity that seemed strangely out of place, but it was memorable regardless. Hagel was visibly moved.
Awkwardness had set in a bit at this point. What the hell was I doing there? I wasn’t entirely sure. Could I survive the next two days resting on my cupcakes, I mean, my laurels? Also this press trip was right on the heels of my Howard Hodgkin piece. During that interview, the 83 year-old painter expressed his inability to discuss art the way an art student would, which for him meant talking, or not talking rather, about his work at all. Now I was directly engaging with art students, many of them already drowning in their own misappropriated, malformed, sound bitten art-speak while I fumbled all over myself. Thankfully, the work of Todd Oldham, a self-professed “un-hirable” (my favorite kind of artist, the only kind of “artist”), rescued me.
All of Everything: Todd Oldham Fashion is a stellar retrospective of the designer’s eclectic work through his impressive career, which flourished throughout much of the 1990s. The show features over 65 full ensembles, which playfully and yet confidently straddle the line between high-concept and ready to wear. Video footage of his super-model infused runway shows, featured on three massive projector screens in an adjacent RISD Museum gallery, display an organic penchant for diversity in casting before it became a reflexive response to PC culture mandates. Oldham was afforded an honorary doctorate degree from RISD in 2014. Anecdotes about his hands-on interaction with students and the prominently exhibited visual fruit of this collaboration were nothing short of inspiring.
After receiving cute little custom Todd Oldham buttons from his factory in Dallas, we took a much needed break and checked into The Dean Hotel, a tiny, artsy, hipster lodging in an old building that was previously and rather famously a brothel. All ghosts aside, there’s something strange about being alone and professionally idle in an out of state hotel room-stay there long enough and you run the risk of immerging several steps back on the evolutionary ladder.
Onward to the trip’s main event, the 2016 RISD MFA Thesis Show, located in the amusingly named Dunkin Donuts Convention Center. Structured much like a contemporary art fair, over 200 graduating artists and their work inhabited different booths, which were organized by department, including Architecture (Landscape, Interior), Ceramics, Digital + Media, Furniture, Glass, Graphic Design, Industrial Design, Jewelry + Metalsmithing, Painting, Photography, Printmaking, Sculpture, Teaching + Learning, and Textiles.
What stayed with me more than the work, even the relatively good stuff, which I don’t feel I can responsibly single out, was how painfully serious many art-students can be. The cliché endures that the more you scowl and brood, the more seriously professors and people such as myself will take you. This is especially true with students who incorporated elements of performance into their work. They looked like sleeping extras on the set of The Walking Dead. Maybe they were just tired, or nervous — more likely their work is an extension of a certain social, economic, or political disenfranchisement. But if your frowning face, and not your work, is your primary tool to convey your message, acting might be a better career path.
I found many of the students — redundantly so, as if a great percentage were fitted with those pull strings found on the back of talking dolls from the 80's — to be adamantly vocal, however limited, about their work standing as a direct retaliation to the “white male hetero patriarchy.” This, though clearly more than just a trending talking point (see the Brock Turner Stanford Rape case), and not only among 20-somethings and liberal college kids, can be an all-too-obvious and immediate dialogue castrator — especially if the work doesn’t support the tagline. Currently, and not just in art schools but in the professionalized New York arena as well, a metastasizing mass of dreadful art, along with the social justice warriors who make it, are hiding behind the seemingly critic proof phalanx of the issue itself; their work, ultimately, as useful as a chair you can’t sit in.
Students must be told: “Great Cause” does not inherently equal “Great Art.”
It’s funny how this seemed to be a relative non-issue for most of the international students (31.3% of the student body, from 57 countries). The international students appeared to be more attuned to the concept of being global citizens and pushing humans as a collective species into the future; because of this, they radiate a universal confidence (which is more exciting), despite their own inherent and obvious obstacles, and thrive in stark contrast to a sort of lazy American tribalism, which sadly, both the American media and apparently even major institutions enflame.
Are all of these kids not immensely privileged to be at this school?
Though white male privilege is most assuredly a real and ongoing problem in America — not least of all the patriarchal, glass ceiling nature of editorial criticism — I found the frequent, Kafka-esque positioning of “straight white males” as an abstract and adversarial body of boogeyman antagonists to be not just tired or disconcerting, but truly distressing and ultimately (though this is just constructivist speculation) counter-productive on the longer cultural and human timeline.
If my brother’s legs are bound before a race, out of fairness and equality, is it not better that I fight to untie his binds, than permit him to bind my legs out of anger and frustration?
Over dinner, Hagel argued that this is a healthy and necessary cultural symptom, one that straight white-men must bare, at least for a time, however indefinite, but what troubles me is the prevailing idea that intelligent adult men of this generation, millennials even, who happen to be born white and prefer the opposite sex, have to be told, instructed, or pressured into being good “allies.” I am told this often. “Be a good ally.” Yes, allies, as if being gracious to your fellow man, woman, or whatever pronoun is specified at the bottom of your email signature (helpful and transparent), regardless of race or gender, was a previously unfathomable concept.
Truth is, this presumed ignorance is insulting to anyone who subscribes to the Golden Rule, especially if deduced from sentience, a rule which admittedly may no longer be sufficient as America just might be that fucked up and terminally so. More telling is the instinctual gravitation art students have towards making work that subscribes to this increasingly fascist ethos, when truthfully, and somewhat ironically, and probably subconsciously at least half the time, it is a Darwinian response to trending market forces, as students are astutely recognizing and simultaneously anticipating the future contextual trajectory of “art” in the larger American marketplace, one where Us vs. Them sells and where exclusion comfortably masquerades as inclusion. This in turn makes “design” so refreshing in comparison; a chair is just a chair, fit for anyone, unless it doesn’t work.
As I finished breakfast with these four remarkable, successful women, one a president of a major advanced learning institution, we settled comfortably into the consensus that real artistic discovery beckons roughly one year outside of a university’s safe confines. In that buffer year, as President Somerson noted, students often come to terms with the harsh realities of life and the marketplace, and perhaps only then are they truly able to re-contextualize the skills and lessons they learned in their otherwise safe but pricey ecosystem before stepping into their true artistic skin and finding their creative niche, if they do at all.
It was noted that most RISD graduates are happy to find a gig at a design, marketing or architectural firm, or a corporate think tank and climb their way up, if they’re not launching their own startup or inventing technology in entirely new arenas, which is still far from the norm. What should be drilled home more aggressively, is how real leaders, the inevitable life-long employees and even the “unemployable” creators, work well with others, and provide their fellow humans with a clean slate — even if you yourself identify as “other,” and especially so if you’re just another boring, burdensome white guy who happens to find women sexually attractive.
The last stop before getting back on a train to the apparently ruthless Thunderdome that is NYC was the grant-procured studio of BFA junior in Textiles, lets call her “Z,” whose workspace was recently fitted with a new 3D printer and all sorts off cool textile and printmaking toys. Though still an undergrad, Z has already worked in the professional realm with some interesting people, has a growing social media following, and is clearly a shining light on campus. Outside of the robotic, now officially cliché notion in the most transparent Malcolm Gladwell sense, that her work is a retort to the white male patriarchy — which even my female peers found to be a superfluous talking point at this late hour — Z had a firm command of her medium. And though I had no desire or will left to push her into articulating exactly how her quirky fashion designs dismantle the white male paradigm, she was ready and highly capable of explaining her process, while providing clear allusions to her influences (Barbarella and other sci-fi films) and what she hopes to achieve post-graduation.
In conclusion, art students, BFA or MFA, shouldn’t have their work critiqued, they should have their work massaged, until they explode forth as fully formed butterflies with a shit ton of debt. Art writers and critics should continually analyze the interesting evolution of criticism in general, and the curious notion that eventually, in the professional editorial world, we drop the “constructive” all together and get downright nasty with our criticism. But I ask, seriously, as someone who for the last few years prided himself on not being a critic but an enthusiast, a celebrator, a fan: in 2016, what incentive do I have to continue to play nice? What is it exactly that turns a constructivist optimist, an ally, a "cupcake guy" (for lack of a better term) into a critical curmudgeon? WM