Art versus RISD

I have argued that the common good, and in particular social justice, is something beautiful,” wrote Henk E.S. Wording in his essay, Social Justice as a Work of Art in Action. “I characterized social justice as both a work of fine art that produces delight and as a work of useful art that serves human needs. I would also say that it is a work of useful art which produces love.

Rhode Island News: Art versus RISD

April 19, 2023, 1:08 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

In Rhode Island, the Rhode Island School of Design [RISD] is seen as virtually synonymous with Art itself. The school being located in Providence is one of the major reasons the City calls itself the “Creative Capitol.” RISD holds a place of pride with Rhode Islanders who never attended the school and even among those with little appreciation of art. A school dedicated to art and design speaks to our aesthetic and metaphorical inclinations and evokes emotions of intangible, even religious ideals.

RISD, in its promotional materials, tells prospective students, and the world, that through the skills they will perfect at the school, they will be able to change society for the better.

“By cultivating expansive and elastic thinking, RISD equips artists, designers and scholars to generate and challenge the ideas that shape our world,” says the art school on its website. “Our strategic plan outlines the ways our current creative practices respond to the most critical social, political and environmental challenges we face today.”

But the behavior of RISD’s administration during the recently settled Teamsters’ strike where custodians, groundskeepers and movers – mostly people of color – battled for desperately needed living wages, scraped away the school’s gilding and revealed the cheaper metal beneath – a rather grubby business, more interested in profit, than art or social justice.

In a statement announcing the end of the strike, RISD announced that they are “committed to taking immediate and long-term action to better embody our values and priorities concerning base wages for our lowest paid employees.” It was a small admission that the school’s recently developed commitment to SEI [Social Equity and Inclusion] had fallen short when it came to supporting exploited, essential workers.

RISD’s attitude towards its lowest paid workers was expressed early on when the administration presented the union with “a best and final offer” back in February, essentially seeking to end negotiations between workers who have served the school’s mission for a decade or more with a “take it or leave it” strategy. At that point in time for RISD, there was little room for respect and negotiation. Low wage workers had no value other than what RISD deigned to grant them.

More puzzling was RISD’s equally blunt attitude toward the very skills they were teaching their students. During the negotiations, it was reported that Michael Fitzpatrick, Jr., Director of Labor Relations at RISD, told the Teamster negotiation team that, “Students are only good for painting signs” after union officials noted the support they were receiving from students. In other words, the “expansive and elastic thinking” skills students were paying over $80k to learn were valueless and early dismissed..

Students responded to the school’s disdain with a wave of art and activism that buried the campus.

Uprise RI found out that the school was interviewing for the position of an SEI Director during the strike, which was ironic, considering that any SEI Director worth hiring would certainly, and immediately, advise the school that they should be paying a living wage to all their employees. But the school staggered forward with these ironic SEI interviews with a business-as-usual attitude because business, as usual, is encoded into the mutated DNA of the institution.

The School’s interest in Social Equity and Inclusion came in response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. RISD made some strides in the immediate aftermath of the protests, hiring new instructors to specialize in “race and ethnicity in arts and design,” returning looted museum art to their country of origin, and “committing” to “reform.” But that commitment to SEI was never extended to RISD’s lowest wage workers.

Now, three years after the summer of protest, RISD is learning the hard way that a true commitment to social justice is more than words on a website, more than restitutions for past wrongs, and more than diversity hiring goals. A true commitment to social justice means valuing the lives of all workers, including the lowest wage workers of color.

In the short term the goal of social equity and inclusion is too often antithetical to the goals of business and profit. But in the long term, a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion achieves something infinitely more profitable than black ink in a ledger. In the long term, a true commitment helps facilitate the creation of what is perhaps the greatest piece of art we can conceive of: A world of life, love, beauty and fulfillment.

RISD Protest
Two weeks on endless protest outside the RISD Administration during business hours