Firstly, I’d like to address Lex and Rocio‘s points about the basic function of art– both of you seem to agree that coming to a project like this with a cynical eye defeats your ability to engage with it. This is a project that was meant to be lived, pundits be damned.
I agree; I wasn’t personally arguing that this was a colonialist project, just reporting that various other commenters and writers responded this way to the Monument. Ken Johnson called it “another monument to [Hirschhorn’s] monumental ego”. Chris Arnade, who’s been photographing drug and sex work problems in the Bronx for years, took away the impression of preachy out-of-touch carpetbagging. In the comments section of my first piece, Village Voice critic Howard Halle saw this as another case of feel-good art philanthropy and wondered why the rich don’t put their money to some long-term good “instead of continuously skimming the fat off of global markets and then tossing a little pocket change at the ‘community’ to make themselves feel good.”
I think those accusations dogged the piece because of a trend in social practice-type initiatives where the artist takes a couple photos of a good deed, and ultimately benefits from money or cachet. But in this case, the level of devotion and reciprocation described to me by residents, staff, and Hirschhorn’s friends and acquaintances, seemed to prove those criticisms wrong. And as Lex points out, the lived experience far overpowers the sideline commentary, anyway.
Lex, you write that the project asks visitors “[t]o stretch the limitations of society, of self, of energy, is what made it more than a community center. Most of us are not willing to go beyond those limits in everyday life: to believe in and work for possibilities outside of our current realities.” That’s exactly what struck me in the follow-up interviews, that the Monument offered a glimpse of a more equitable system, and more fulfilling activities than are currently offered at Forest Houses. Few voiced regrets about the project, but a year after the Monument came down, the loss was felt. That’s the big conflict in this project; experiences were positive and lasting; at the same time, everybody knows it took a lot of money to do that, and that money isn’t coming back from the city or the art world.
So I don’t think that the conversation about wealth disparity and funding issues can be wholly set aside. The results were as good as they could be within the confines of the current system, which leads us to imagine broader possibilities. Imagine if billionaires stopped flipping art; imagine if housing projects were replaced by community land trusts; imagine if the “art world” disappeared in favor of all-publicly-funded arts organizations; etc, etc. But as Thomas said, he could only do so much; art and philanthropy aren’t replacements for solutions.
With all that in mind, I drew similar conclusions laid out by Lucy Lippard in her essay “A Different One Percent” in the Brooklyn Rail:
“I hate to think that the art world is doomed to remain a playground where anything goes until we exit into the ‘real’ world and have to pay our bills. But I suspect that real revolution (hardly in the forecast), not just ‘paradigm shift,’ is the only thing that would shake everything up enough to create true alternatives. In the meantime, Occupy Everything and see what happens.”
I don’t have any answers to the problems posed by the Gramsci Monument. They’re just capitalist problems, and they’re bluntly critiqued in Gramsci’s own writings. It’s hard to walk away from the project and not wonder where people will be, what will happen, or if anything will change. For me, that sense of optimism tempered by a deeply unfair and punishing system is what made the Monument so powerful.
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Read more from Growing Dialogue: Gramsci Monument
“Marxist spirit, capitalist reality” by Whitney Kimball – January 23, 2015
Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.