Provost’s 2017 Welcome Back Letter

What is Art For?

William Burroughs wrote that “the aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values”. As we start to develop the detail of our Academic Plan, which will inform the next Institutional Strategic Plan, it is essential that we reflect on our mission, vision and values and reaffirm some of our fundamental reasons for doing what we do. Modern academic institutions support a range of purposes. They have been seen as finishing schools for the elite, refuges for the poor and devout, engine rooms for modern industry, producers of change agents as well as informed citizens of the world. These are complex, and at times competing agendas, requiring constant dialogue and attention to ensure that we stay true to our mission: education of the artist and the public in the production and appreciation of the arts.


Academic institutions have always tried to be, and arguably need to be, somewhat apart from the worlds of social, economic and technical life, to maintain both independence and a critical standpoint, while remaining relevant to modern society and the way we make our living on this planet. In many ways we have a wonderful opportunity, with such an intense gathering of creative minds and practitioners, to really experiment with how the arts (fine, industrial, liberal, performing, etc.) can play a role in the world: how groups can learn to collaborate, to live together, to think about economic, social and cultural inclusion that might lead to higher ideals, to reflect back on ourselves and make us look at what we are doing and what we are becoming. What a wonderful opportunity for rich discourse.


This requires us to consider the conditions in which ideas are formed, funded and expressed. It requires us to make some sense of the public sphere and the language that dominates. It requires us to think about the current context in which public trust in institutions is evaporating; in which there is a growing polarization of society worldwide; and where there is rapidly increasing economic inequality.


Alain de Botton and John Armstrong ask the question “What is Art For?”. We all think art is important, certainly here in an art school, but also publicly: countries develop art agendas and policies, there are new museums and galleries opening around the world and we are consuming more art than ever before. But do we really know why? I do believe that art has the power to change the world. It can provide us with a way of seeing the world afresh, of making us pay attention, of simplifying the complicated, of complicating the simple, of making us feel better, of making us feel so bad we do something. It has the ability to help us be better readers of other people’s lives and to have more empathy. De Botton and Armstrong present seven key functions of art: Remembering; Hope; Sorrow; Rebalancing; Self-understanding; Growth; and Appreciation. I want to bring attention to a couple of these: In terms of remembering, de Botton and Armstrong argue that we forget what matters and that art can help us bring in not just factual things, but issues of the senses – perhaps helping us to focus on what was important at the time, to offer a glimpse into the psychology or philosophy of what was going on. They argue that we have a proclivity towards feelings of isolation and despair and are oversensitive to the bad sides of existence, that we reject too many experiences, peoples, places and eras that have something important to say and contribute, but are presented in the wrong way, in the wrong package, leaving us unable to connect. We are prey to superficial and prejudicial judgements. They argue that at its best, art can find its purpose in helping us work through these issues, that art “peels away our shells and saves us from our spoilt, habitual disregard for what is all around us” and to recover our sensitivity.


This recent work by French artist JR, erected on the US-Mexico border, shows how art can make us look and perhaps feel again:

We are welcoming the largest class in RISD’s history: 459 first year students, 60 transfer students and 249 graduate students. Together, we have a great opportunity to explore what and how we do what we do. In the face of supercomplexity, how do we ensure that we are making sense of the world around us, not providing oversimplistic solutions or explanations of the world. We strive to develop richer pictures and thicker descriptions that hold on to the complexity and criticism of everyday life. We have to hold on to the value systems that helped create this rich and dynamic world: openness, diversity, courage, tolerance, experimentation and so on – even as supercomplexity puts these values under scrutiny. The need is not merely to say that terrible things have happened, to lay the blame at previous structures and understandings, but to deal with the legacy of the guilt in the name of improvement. I feel that now it is more urgent for us to harness the power of art, the power of the narrative imagination, to acknowledge the terrible evils around us, but I would also argue that this in itself is not enough. This on its own does not create a better society. We have a responsibility to hold up for question the world we see around us and challenge ourselves to make it better.


“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle



Comings and Goings

Change is one of those constants in life. Traditional approaches to organizational change have been dominated by assumptions of heading towards stability, with the underlying ideology that we move from one static situation to another, or as Kurt Lewins put it “unfreezing-moving-freezing”. This does not capture the richness and constancy of change at a micro-interaction level. At this level things are constantly changing and constantly renegotiating. There is constant life happening.


Over the summer we have seen some people go and some arrive; some people change roles; some people carry on. I am delighted to introduce twelve new faculty and a new librarian to RISD.


Amy Kulper                             Associate Professor Architecture

Anna Gitelson-Kahn               Assistant Professor Textiles

Ayako Takase                         Assistant Professor Industrial Design

Emily Vogler                           Assistant Professor Landscape Architecture

Eric Telfort                              Assistant Professor Illustration

Foad Torshizi                          Assistant Professor History of Art & Visual Culture

Jackie Gendell                        Assistant Professor Painting

Jennifer Packer                      Assistant Professor Painting

Marc Calhoun                        Catalog and Reference Librarian

Sean Nesselrode-Mocado     Assistant Professor History of Art & Visual Culture

Tom Weis                               Assistant Professor Industrial Design

Ursula Wagner                       Assistant Professor Textiles

Wolfgang Rudorf                    Assistant Professor Interior Architecture



Community Dialogues

To all of you, a happy new year. I look forward to seeing you around campus, seeing the work that you do, and engaging in exciting new conversations. Over the summer we have been establishing more informal spaces for engagement, to allow for different, impromptu and coordinated conversations; please look out for them. We are also setting up a series of Community Dialogue presentations that will aim to present topics for dialogue, not necessarily answers, but places for us to try to make some sense of the wonderful world we live in. The first is Jeff Chang and “Are we gon’ be alright?” on Monday 18th September at 7pm in the RISD Auditorium. See you there.



Pradeep Sharma, Provost's 2017 Welcome Back Letter

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