Offense & Dissent
Image, Conflict, Belonging

Twenty-five years ago, a furor erupted at The New School when Sekou Sundiata, poet, performer, and professor, at Eugene Lang College, stung by an image exhibited in the Parsons Galleries, scrawled his dissent across it. His “X” inspired others and soon there were over 40 signatures covering the image. Part of an exhibition of the work of Japanese designer Shin Matsunaga, the offending image was a minstrel show blackface figure, the long-time logo of a Japanese soft-drink company. It was 1989 amid the “culture wars” when representations of race, religion, and homosexuality were under attack by the religious right in an aggressive campaign against the National Endowment for the Arts.

The responses at the university were complex: They ranged from celebrations of 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.

This wasn’t the first time art and politics had met in a volatile conjuncture at The New School. Each time, controversy torqued the relationship between the identity born of the school’s founding ideals – “freedom of opinion, of teaching, of research, of publication,” as its first director, Alvin Johnson put it – and the experiences of its constitutively diverse community.

This exhibition 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 University’s signature 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 the aftermath of the Kent State shootings and the U.S. bombing of Cambodia; and the 1989 Matsunaga affair. Memoranda, letters, posters, press coverage, catalogues, illustrations, and interviews, largely drawn from The New School Archives and Special Collections, trace the rapid-fire interchange of perspectives and reactions in each instance. They demonstrate the ongoing power of images to inspire and to wound.

We found both a challenge and a guide in the words of Milano Associate Dean John Jeffries, who wrote in an inter-office memo to the University president regarding the Matsunaga exhibition image, “perhaps… a clearly articulated context would justify the display of such offensive items,” but “[h]aving viewed exhibitions that have been organized around such themes, I can tell you that the rationale although ‘legitimate’ in some cerebral sense, does little to ease the pain associated with the viewing.” This led us, in turn, to ask what sorts of contexts could house such an image. How do the claims an institution makes about itself actually manifest in practice? What are the overt and subtle inclusions and exclusions perpetrated within and on its walls? Who bears the responsibility for these actions and claims? And when, how, and by whom are situations repudiated through disclaimers and disavowals and dissent? Into these historical debates, we invited current New School faculty, staff and students to respond to the provocations and pleasures of their present university environment—looking either at works from The New School Art Collection that hang across the campus or the design of university spaces that govern the rhythms of everyday life in this institution. Their spirited observations and questions about what they see and experience unsettle the ways in which rights, place, and belonging are understood in an educational context.

At the SJDC, this is the second exhibition to explore the diversity of the University community, asking who we mean when we say “we”.



“Lenin and Stalin on a New School wall: what could that mean except that the New School was in league with the Communists?,” President Alvin Johnson asked in the midst of a rising tide of anti-communism after World War II. The Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco finished the murals in the new home of The New School at 66 West 12th Street in mid-January 1931. In them, he visualized the contemporary moment as one of revolutionary change, in the marching armies of Russia, the nonviolent protestors of India, and, in a hoped-for vision of the future, around a table of universal brotherhood. Orozco and Johnson knew these scenes might be offensive to some; Orozco even offered to take out the one depicting the Russian Revolution. Johnson refused. “I had been given absolute freedom in my work,” Orozco testified later. “It was a school for investigation, not for submission.”

Despite this exhortation, twenty years later the school covered the portion of the mural depicting Lenin and Stalin. Many thought the murals were a form of propaganda for a dictatorial regime. Others worried that the portrayal tied the school to Communist activities just as Senator Joseph McCarthy denounced “Communist infiltration” in the U.S. government, in the arts and entertainment industry, and, perhaps most troubling, in education. Still others thought it was not just the content of the murals that created unease but their placement in a busy cafeteria where people were subjected to them on a regular basis. The Board of Trustees advised the President to find a new home for the murals, saving them from destruction but removing the provocation. Students elevated the controversy into a debate about freedom and democracy, arguing that guaranteeing “the rights of minorities” – those who believed the murals should remain uncovered and, perhaps, American Communists themselves – ensured a truer form of democracy. After the glare of 1953, the murals moved increasingly out of view as the room transferred from a widely used cafeteria to a faculty lounge.

Irving Howe, writing in the first issue of Dissent in 1954, used the curtaining of the Orozco murals as an example of “the confusion of modern politics.” This was not a matter of the school, he argued, but of a society in which civil liberties were in danger – especially because The New School began as a “refuge for liberalism and freedom.” A school for investigation had become one for submission, Howe implied.

Should an artwork be taken down when historical circumstances make it charged with offense? Can a conflicted history bring new life to an old image? And what is the role of a school in reacting to these changes? To which moment -- and to whom -- is an institution most responsible?

Chronology

In May 1970, students at Parsons School of Design sent an invitation to President Nixon to attend the opening of their exhibition, My God! We’re Losing a Great Country. An expression of their distress and loss of faith in the administration, the exhibition was a direct response to the May 4 shootings at Kent State University, and in solidarity with the National Student Strike. The White House sent a telegram of regret.

The year had not been without event at the university—only in February, a merger had been effected joining Parsons with The New School. Three months later, graduating students were hard at work getting ready for their end of year showcase at Parsons’ uptown building. For the nation, these had been years of tumultuous protest—against the war in Vietnam, and for civil rights and women’s rights—but by the end of 1969, even a disillusioned and shocked population had hopes that the troops would be withdrawn. Nixon’s announcement, on April 30th, 1970, of the expansion of the war into Cambodia was perceived as a reversal. Four days later, the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio shot, killed and wounded unarmed students. Campuses across the country exploded, calling for a nation-wide strike.

On May 7, at Parsons, 650 students voted not only to suspend classes but also to cancel the end of year show that they felt would be a ‘travesty’ at this time; instead, the students mounted a radically different exhibition, demonstrating how “an academic institution can function in dissent at the height of its productive powers,” as the Parsons dean phrased it. Created over four feverish days by students, faculty and administrators working together, and led by the student council, it included posters, graphics, photographs, drawings, sculpture and installations. Fierce, direct and anguished, the swift-grown exhibition packed a “crude socko,” as one critic put it.

During the same period downtown, student-organizing committees, with the initial support of the faculty and the administration, had turned The New School Graduate Faculty’s new home, 65 5th Avenue, into a center for rallying protest. Over the course of the next twenty days, however, the university’s perception of student ferment went from legitimate action to disruptive occupation. It ended in the removal of students from the building by the police at the request of the administration.

The 5th Avenue building was also home to The New School Art Center whose director, Paul Mocsanyi, had a progressive bent, organizing exhibitions on provocative social and political themes. He invited the Parsons students to re-mount their exhibition downtown.

Critics writing about the My God! lamented its limited impact outside the university as they recognized the political potential of techniques of persuasion. Within the school itself, the powerful possibilities of this moment of merger—of art, design and politics—would be unclear for a long while. The strategies of the two student bodies, uptown and downtown, were distinct—one deploying its arsenal of art, design and visual methods to serve a political rather than a corporate end, and the other, enlisting its training in politics and theory toward political organizing and demonstration. This historical episode prefigures The New School’s current commitment to the intersections of design and social research.

This pivotal junction raises several questions. Can multi-disciplinary training encourage more effective social and political intervention? Is the university, as an institution, able to handle the far-reaching effects of its own education on the students? What are the limits of productive and effective forms of student dissent?

See exhibition catalog HERE.

Chronology

海へ行ったら
くろくなった.
目ばかり光って、
カルピスみたいな
顔だったと言われた.
Umi he ittara
Kuroku natta.
Me bakari hikatte
Calpis mitai na
Kao datta to iwareta.
Went to the seaside
And was tanned black.
My eyes alone sparkling,
Someone said my face
Looked like Calpis.

This poem was the caption for a 1987 ad for Calpis, a milk-based softdrink beloved of Japanese children since 1924. Kuroku natta, the standard way to describe one’s skin darkening with the sun, literally means “turned black.” The accompanying logo didn’t depict a Japanese person, however, but a caricature of an African American man from the age of minstrelsy and blackface, eyes rolled back in delight. Only in 1989 was the logo retired, under international pressure over racist imagery in Japanese popular and commercial culture.

In 1989, too, three months before the last bottles with the logo were produced, the Calpis logo appeared on the wall of an exhibition at the Parsons School of Design. Part of a show of the work of Japanese graphic designer Shin Matsunaga, it triggered a series of protests which ultimately forced a reckoning with The New School’s weak record on issues of race. The turmoil eventually led to revisions in exhibition policies as well as the presentation of a pioneering exhibition of work of African American designers taking on racist stereotypes at Parsons, a comprehensive student- and faculty-driven curricular reform at Eugene Lang College, and a university-wide effort to diversify the school community.

Galvanizing these reactions was an intervention in the work itself by spoken-word poet and Eugene Lang College faculty member Sekou Sundiata. A week before the exhibition was to come down, Sundiata drew an X in blue pen through the image and added his own caption:

This is racist bullshit

Then he signed his name: Sundiata. Other names soon appeared—and more intense controversy. Was Sundiata’s act vandalism, even censorship? Civil disobedience or, as he described it, “resistance”? Demands that the university take the offending image down or add a disclaimer to it were joined by calls of both condemnation and support of Sundiata’s action. The New School community found itself in a painful bind. Only weeks before the exhibition opened, the Trustees had approved a strong Statement on Freedom of Artistic Expression (it was the time of the Religious Right’s attacks on artistic freedom) and University President Jonathan Fanton had endorsed a “right to be free from intolerance.”

Perhaps The New School’s most widely reported episode of the “culture wars,” the “Matsunaga Affair” raises questions about the responsibilities of universities and their constituents to each other. How can spaces and communities of learning, creativity and engagement be structured and supported? How should issues of intolerance and difference beyond the university be engaged within it?

Chronology

O+D 2014

What evokes strong responses at The New School in 2014? In a present-day investigation, we invited faculty, staff and students to initiate a dialogue with an image, installation, or an element of design that they regularly encounter at the university.

Their brief was as follows:

1. Select a work of art or an aspect of design that you regularly encounter at the university to which you have a strong reaction, positive or negative, that you may not necessarily share with others.  The work should be either an image or installation from The New School Art Collection that is in the hallways, offices, courtyards and classrooms of the university or an element of design—graphic, interior or architectural—on campus. 

2. Describe briefly why you are provoked or disturbed by the image or design. How do you encounter this work?  Why does it disturb or delight you? How do others feel? Does it exclude some people in its address?  Are you left out, drawn in, disgusted, bored, taken aback?  If you could effect a change with regard to the display, design, or reception of this piece of work, how might you begin? 

3. Suggest three questions that you could use to initiate a conversation with your university colleagues to make such a change possible.

This installation of texts, questions, and images extends the historical discussions of image, conflict, and belonging into the present. The divergences and alignments among the responses manifest again and again the unstable unity bound up in the pronoun “we” in our—or in fact, in any—institution.



Commissions

Orozco, George Bates. Open image in new tab to see full size.

Timeline, Dimitry Tetin. Open image in new tab to see full size.

Reflections

Credits

Curators: Julia Foulkes, Mark Larrimore, and Radhika Subramaniam / Research Assistant: Laura Wing / Exhibition Design: Manuel Miranda Practice (MMP) / SJDC Exhibition team:  Ryan Caruthers, Nelson Choi, Allison Franks-Schlegel, Will Fu, Kristina Kaufman, Max C. Resetar, Tasheena Sackes-Bramble, and Daisy Wong / The New School Archives and Special Collections: Liza Harrell-Edge, Jeesu Kim, Wendy Scheir, and Jeanne Swadosh / Red Scare, Yellow Curtain (editorial comic strip): George Bates / The Matsunaga Affair (editorial design): Dimitry Tetin / Photography: Lior Tamim Japanese Translation: Kazue Kurahara / Original material by Sekou Sundiata included with the kind permission of Maurine Knighton / The curators wish to thank the following for their insights, support, and contributions: Paula Austin, Kathleen Bailey, Gayle Binney, Nadine Bourgeois, Curatorial Design Research Lab, Tomoyo Kamimura Fontein, Maurine Knighton, Kazue Kurahara, Howard Leung, Tim Marshall, Paula Maas, Lydia Matthews, Michele Washington, Roy Moskowitz, Kazuhide Okunami, Silvia Rocciolo, Ann Rosenthal, Susan Sawyer, Ann Snitow, Ari Spool, David van Zandt/ Website design: Katerina Vaseva