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. 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 soft-drink company. It was 1989 amid the “culture wars” when representations of race, religion and homosexuality in artistic imagery 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 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.
This wasn’t the first time art and politics had met in a volatile conjuncture at The New School. Each time, the controversy torqued the relationship between the identity born of the school’s founding ideals – “freedom of opinion, of teaching, of research, of publication,” as the 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 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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Following last year’s exhibition at the SJDC, Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story, this is the second to explore the diversity of the university community, asking who we mean when we say “we.”
Curators: Julia Foulkes, Mark Larrimore and Radhika Subramaniam.
Research assistant: Laura Wing
In collaboration with the New School Archives and Special Collections and the New School Art Collection.