Monday, October 05, 2015

Café Revolución

The Orozco Room was locked when "Seminar in the City" got there today, but that turned out to be for the best. For the best, also, that the A/V request got lost in the ether. It led to more quality time with the murals, and took us helpfully beyond the aura of the work of art.

Waiting for someone to come let us in made the famed Orozco Room seem that much more special, but also forbidding and even forbidden. In its current get-up, in dark earth tones and blacks, it's like entering a cave or a tomb. What fun then to get students, in the space, to imagine it not as a dark and silent holy of holies but as a cafeteria fill of people chatting and the clink of coffee cups and cutlery, the murals set off against white backgrounds and the whole space awash in light from the big windows and the bright open area outside its open doorways to the north! Still, as one perceptive student asked, who thought this was an appropriate topic for a mural in a cafeteria?

She asked this standing underneath the shackled laborers in the middle of the east wall - I'd asked students to move around and then stand in front of a section they wanted to talk about - and I confirmed, from Faculty Senate experience, that it might interfere with one's appetite, if one were paying attention. What were they thinking?

Since the display of audiovisual materials I had planned wasn't going to happen there, we had time to make ourselves at home in the room, spending a good amount of time trying to understand the mural wall by wall. We started with revolution in the East (in 1931, Indian independence was miles off and nonviolence not a proved strategy - Orozco was prophetic, or idealistic) and continued with the storied west wall with the Lenin portrait and Stalin marching in lock step with comrades of all races, all holding hammers (tittering over the curtaining - yellow!). Then to the scene facing the window, workers returning home to a family and a table full of food and books (though nobody read the affect as joyful), and finally across to the focal point of the series, another table, the Table of Universal Brotherhood (where I
noted that visionary Orozco had painted Barack Obama when a black president wasn't even a pipe dream).

I've not had occasion to spend so much time with the murals, and with curious interested people. Hadn't thought of the cafeteria tables between those two tables of the north and south walls, or of what it will have been like to sit between those utopian scenes of a suffering world struggling for redemption. Coffee with the forces of history will have been kinda exciting (or alarming) - if anyone was paying attention.

Approaching them now, though, they're ancient history, dated like the draughting instruments in the image which originally welcomed people into the light-filled cafeteria of the future. We know that Gandhi won and that Stalin lost. There's nothing visionary about it, and the British gas masks and Soviet bayonets are just quaint, as is the all-male Table of Universal Brotherhood. The muffled mural room, open only for meetings and special occasions, is appropriate just for smug resting on one's laurels. Its danger is gone. Its hope, too.

So it was probably a good thing that my sequence of responses and engagements to the murals had to take place in another room - I raced around and found that one of the classrooms on the fifth floor was free, which turned out to be providential, too. In this other room, an unremarkable everyday classroom, I showed the students the electrifying animation updating and exploding the Table of Universal
Brotherhood from the Re-Imagining Orozco exhibition of 2010, the queer response from the Art History MA students of 2012, the "feminist long table" laid out between the mural's two tables in 2014 - and some scenes (including George Bates' brilliant commissioned cartoon) from the "Red Scare, Yellow Curtain" section of Offense & Dissent, last year. I defy anyone not to be axcited by the variety and creativity here displayed!
Seeing these in an everyday room, not in the now exclusive Orozco Room itself as I had planned, made these responses seem more productive, less inward-looking and reactive. People were making new meaning, not just critiquing the old. (And then I showed them some images from the Benton Room, which was on, yes, that very fifth floor, and we briefly discussed the one-sided views of The New School you'd get from having only one of these sets of murals to refer to.) A lot for one class, but, hopefully, exciting - a living legacy!

(Find these and other Orozco images here)

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