“Dude, we’ve been planning this for a while, haven’t we?” I asked a friend of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous. We’ll call him Keenan.
“Yeah, but we’re actually fucking doing it. We’re actually fucking going to the other side of the Hill,” he mused, lacing up his new Nikes like they were armor. Our pulses thumped in our throats and were drunk with the exotic lure of the place.
There’s a Hall & Oates song called “So Close” which contains these lyrics: So close, yet so far away. We believe in tomorrow, maybe more than today. Daryl Hall and John Oates often strike my steely heart, their words like a flint. But this time, the resulting spark lit a strong urge. RISD, our redheaded, sulky stepsister, had lurked in my skull for too long as just a murky ghost.
Who were these too-hip brooders? I had heard whispers, seen glimpses, but I wanted to crawl right down into the belly of the beast and understand our cigarette-wolfing, wanton pseudo-siblings that were so close, yet so far away.
“Do you think I should change clothes?” I asked Keenan while he tried to light a cigarette for proper atmosphere. It was early night and there was a cold wind.
“If you’re asking if your pants are tight enough, then yeah, man, I think you’re fine.”
We walked into the large apartment at the top of a small stairway just off North Main Street. A strobe flickered in a cloud of smoke and the throbbing whine of some Scandinavian electronic band rattled my eardrums. Against the wall farthest from the door stood a kitchen table equipped with speakers and a laptop beside a large plastic alligator, apropos of nothing. A couple skinny kids sucked on Colt 45s, while another fiddled with the end of his preposterous mustache.
I heard someone ask, with no sense of irony, “Is this a party?”
There was nearly a dance floor. The most obvious dancers were those who wanted it made obvious that their dancing wasn’t serious. There wasn’t a single sincere gesture in the crowd of twenty or so.
There’s an Italian word, sprezzatura, which Baldassare Castiglione defines in The Book of the Courtier, as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” The RISD crowd might be aiming for sprezzatura, but their pursed lips and indifferent shuffling convey nothing but effort. Effort towards restraint. The whole room contained a choked energy like a gun with the safety on.
“So, Mark, what do you study?” I asked a new acquaintance with long bangs but cropped hair everywhere else.
“It’s Marks,” he said.
“Sorry, right, Marks,” I replied, apologetically. “So, what do you—”
“I’m a photographer.”
“Oh, so, um, what do you take pictures of?”
He paused. “I can tell you in one word or I can tell you in ten pages,” said Marks.
“I’ll go with just the word, I think.”
Another pause. “Listen man, I gotta be going,” and he was gone.
At Brown, our heads are constantly patted — we’re reassured that we’ve already arrived, that this is the place. If Brown’s culture has a single unifying thread, it’s the collective sense that we’re not only the best and brightest but also the happiest, which really means the coziest. Our hubris isn’t like Harvard’s — ours is in the assumption that we’re not like them, that we’re somehow a more modest, gentle Ivy League school because we’ve got a more granola brand name. Brown may be a cuddlier alma mater, but it’s just as elitist and self-congratulatory. At least Harvard knows it.
But at RISD the students work for nine hours in a studio and then someone (presumably wearing a beret) tells them it’s no good. Since art is such a subjective pursuit, any respectable art school needs to combine that loose evaluation with stifling rigor — especially when the goal is to create a sense of prestige, as RISD does.
Everyone at the party seemed exhausted and in need of some cathartic cavorting — but that can’t happen here, where everyone carefully manicures their individual aesthetic. In each pair of tired eyes, there was a muted phrase: image is important here. These students dedicate their years of study to the mantle of self-expression, and so their thoughts become art and then their lives become art and soon their faces are slack with studied indifference to mask the taut pressure of trying to live as art.
“If you were a food, you’d be an avocado,” a doll-faced girl told Keenan.
There’s a saying that irony is the song of the prisoner who has come to love his cage. RISD students, peeking out between these bars, are too self-conscious to express honest feeling at a party — and it’s pretty hard to blame them. It’s a harsh place. RISD teaches, through tough love, that to be a successful artist, you need discipline and, even then, you still might starve.
I walked over to the keg in the kitchen. There was some bearded mock aesthete wearing a knit orange hat, his hands planted firmly on the tap. He refused to let me pour my own beer and wouldn’t even let me tilt the solo cup — he was really fucking adamant. And I couldn’t even get mad when he handed me a cup of foam; I just wanted to hug the guy.
RISD students guard themselves with tacky scarves and sneers, but if they didn’t protect their egos, then their professors and peers would rub them raw. It might be a judgmental place, but it’s not really their fault. They’re fledgling artists, beating their wings at the edge of the nest — and their nest isn’t even comfortable.*
*So close and so far away.