Twenty-five years ago, a furor erupted at The New School when Sekou Sundiata, poet, performer and professor, stung by an image exhibited in the Parsons Galleries, scrawled his dissent across it in the form of an “X”. His mark inspired others, and soon there were over 40 signatures covering the image. The offending image, part of an exhibition of the Japanese designer Shin Matsunaga’s work, was a minstrel show blackface figure, the long-time logo of a soft-drink company.
The responses at the university were complex. They ranged from celebrations of academic freedom and freedom of expression to questions of artistic censorship and defacement, from expressions of extreme distress and anger, to reviews of procedures for exhibitions, contextual signage and disclaimers. But this wasn’t the first time art and politics had met in a volatile conjuncture at The New School.
This exhibition “Offense and Dissent: An exhibition about Image, Conflict, and Belonging,” will be on view at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 66 Fifth Avenue from June 26–September 3, 2014. It explores the ways in which offense has been given (and taken) and dissent expressed (and managed) through three incidents in the history of The New School: the 1951 and ’53 curtaining of the Orozco murals during the red scare years; the 1970 anti-war exhibition put up by Parsons students, in lieu of a senior show, in solidarity with the National Student Strike in response to the Kent State shootings and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia; and the 1989 Matsunaga affair.
“The New School has always been an experiment in education and community building,” said co-curators and New School professors Julia Foulkes and Mark Larrimore, “This history offers inspirational episodes as well as cautionary ones—it’s a more useful past than the myths we often perpetuate.”
Through memoranda, letters, posters, press coverage, catalogues, illustrations, graphics and interviews, largely drawn from The New School Archives and Special Collections, as well as two original editorial illustrations produced for the exhibition, the exhibition traces the rapid-fire interchange of various perspectives and reactions in each instance. They demonstrate in real time the power of images both to inspire and to wound.
A participatory component draws this historical conversation into the present, through responses of The New School faculty, staff and students to art work from The New School Art Collection that hangs on its walls or the design of a space at the university that govern the rhythms of everyday life in the institution. Their observations unsettle the ways in which rights, place and belonging are understood in an educational context.
“Given the current debates on trigger warnings in classrooms and campuses, the questions of rights, exclusion, claims and disavowals illuminated in this exhibition have renewed relevance,” said professor Radhika Subramaniam, director/chief curator of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, and co-curator of this exhibition.
The exhibitpresented by the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design in collaboration with The New School Archives and Special Collections and The New School Art Collection will have an opening reception on Thursday, June 26 from 6:00-8:00 p.m.