Artwork, installations and design facets considered both iconic and controversial surround The New School community. José Clemente Orozco’s murals and Kara Walker’s sprawling “Event Horizon” are just two of the many works that contribute to campus aesthetics while also reflecting The New School’s history of civic engagement. In a groundbreaking exhibition titled “Offense and Dissent: Image, Conflict and Belonging”—currently on view at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center—students, faculty, and staff were invited to respond to work from The New School Art Collection and reflect upon how these and other design aspects of the university affect their world.
The New School’s social and political history, which frames these responses, is at the forefront of the illuminating exhibition, on display until September 3. It examines “the ways in which offense has been given (and taken) and dissent expressed (and managed)” through three historical episodes at The New School: the curtaining of Orozco’s murals during the Red Scare years of the 1950s; the 1970 anti-war exhibition by Parsons students emerging from the National Student Strike in response to the Kent State shootings and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia; and the 1989 Matsunaga Affair where professor and poet Sekou Sundiata drew an “X” over Japanese designer Shin Matsunaga’s image of a blackface figure on display in the Parsons Galleries.
The fifty responses from members of The New School are in dialogue with each other and with the historical material in the gallery. “What made me want to participate in the exhibition is the same critical engagement with my environment, history, and culture that has inspired me throughout my life, and subsequently, inspired me to come to The New School in the first place,” says Nicholas Allanach, Director of Academic Operations at The New School For Public Engagement.
For some, “Offense and Dissent” provides a unique opportunity for community building. “I loved the idea of being able to ‘talk back’ to my daily environment—one that I had no input in creating or curating, and have very little chance of changing,” says Undergraduate Services Librarian, Brita Servaes. Student Chris Crews described his participation in the exhibition as the perfect jumping off point to continue his “interest in the social and political history of the university, while also extending those issues into the present.”
In a large-scale collaboration with The New School Archives and Special Collections, “Offense and Dissent” uses memoranda, letters, press coverage, illustrations and other archival troves, along with two original editorial illustrations commissioned for the exhibition to trace the interactions and reactions in each historical episode. Many of these works have been digitized and are now available to view by the public. The genesis of the multi-faceted and hugely collaborative exhibition began with the coming together of Julia Foulkes and Mark Larrimore’s research and teaching, and Radhika Subramaniam’s curatorial practice.
“We think episodes like those explored in O&D offer a particularly engaging picture of our university on the make, balancing high (and conflicting) ideals with political challenges on global as well as local scales,” say Professors Foulkes and Larrimore, co-curators of the exhibition. “Provocation, discussion, and protest regarding what we’re doing here form the lifeblood of our school.”
The tradition of offense and dissent at The New School is alive and well today. “Drawing on the robust but often conflicted and contradictory histories of engagement and activism at The New School, this exhibition is equally an interrogation of the present and a way for us to see our work as an active conversation with the past and with the world, not just on display” says Professor Subramaniam, Director/Chief Curator of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, and co-curator of the exhibition.
The exhibit presented 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 runs until Wednesday, September 3, 2014.