I’m excited about this conversation because I have so much more to say about this project than has been said by others, things that need to be said. I was the art teacher of the children’s workshops, the “Lexie” that Mrs. Farmer is referring to in Whitney’s interview. Throughout the 77 consecutive days working on the Gramsci Monument, and in the year and a half after, this project has entirely changed me as a person. If you would be so generous, I ask that you read my responses as the words of someone who received an education from this project, whose understanding of it has shifted dramatically throughout the course of a sustained experience. I’ve written about my observations for the catalogue, and in doing so, one aspect that I could not resolve is the vast difference in the power of the Art between working on the project, living beside the project, and visiting the project.
Part of me believes the only transformative political power art has is in the making of it, in the act of becoming an artist – that is, one who willingly submits to the possibility to create something beyond the self. In working with who I would say was the primary receptive audience of the monument, the kids, I have a great belief in this experience affecting their lives well beyond last summer. And on that note, I think it’s very important to remember that in writing we create phantoms of reality, theories and ideas that hang above real life. As we write about the Gramsci Monument, let’s not forget that these ideas cannot compare to either experience, or the impression of experience that an individual has when compounded with the infinite other experiences of a lifetime. It’s easy to conjecture about what the Monument did or didn’t do, but it’s impossible for us to know what role it will play in any individual’s life – whether that be a person who visited from Australia, or Calvin, a 6-year-old boy from Forest Houses with whom I made art all summer.
Most critics of the project take issue with two things, which is 1. this jargony notion of colonialism, and 2. the brevity of the Monument, and questions about responsibility and philanthropy. In this response, I’ll talk about “colonialism.”
Yasmil [Raymond, Dia Art Foundation curator,] aptly addressed the issues of colonialism when she said, “I refuse to believe that art can only exist in the private sphere of museums, galleries, or homes. Gramsci Monument posed a serious challenge to the neoliberal politics of exclusion and segregation, opening up the possibility of a work of art in a public space…[with] free access to poets, philosophers and scholars.” I did find, through talking to hundreds of people at the Monument, that there was a dangerous attitude that many self-describing liberal people had in which they were concerned. They were concerned that the people at Forest Houses couldn’t understand. They were concerned as if they had been hanging out at Forest Houses for their entire lives, and not just because this project gave them a reason to visit. It’s great that the Monument gave many people a reason to visit a place they’ve never been before, but this concern comes from a position of an incredible amount of entitlement. First, the belief that it is possible to understand an entirely new situation, happening for the first time in a specific place with specific individuals, without experiencing it for more than five minutes. Second, that what was happening every day was somehow above comprehension, above a presumed feeble intelligence of the people who live there.
What could be more comprehensible than the human interactions engendered by the project? What could be a more effective confrontation with philosophy than actually living with it? And why look at the Gramsci Monument and Forest Houses with an assumption that those ideas don’t belong there? It’s Antonio Gramsci! The Gramsci Monument wasn’t conceptual art and it wasn’t a charter school. It was a real work of Art and a real thing that people lived and lived with for 17 weeks. That may sound short on paper, but do something out of the course of your ordinary life for 17 weeks and you will see, it is not insignificant. It is much longer than the 30 minutes it takes to ride the 2 train up to the Bronx from Manhattan. That time is insignificant. And for anyone to couch their own discomfort in taking that subway ride in a criticism of the project as “colonial” is to sorely mistake where the concern should lie.
Before the project, I didn’t understand how the space could possibly be described as Universal. But in that space, everyone had the exact same options and access to what was being offered. This is precisely why it was not defined by the mechanics of colonialism. In the end, nothing was taken from Forest Houses, and nothing was given freely either; it wasn’t philanthropy, so I don’t talk about it in those terms. Instead there were many, many exchanges. It was an honest-to-God unique experience, facilitated by existing institutions, but happening, briefly, beyond their capacity. I began to understand that what was universal was the space for possibility.
Why isn’t it there still? Because in this economy, possibility costs over $500,000. In our reality, we have four dimensions, the last of which is time…and money. The Monument was an amazing thing to live within because it bent a certain continuum between time, space, money, and energy. Time became very strange in a Space that was defined only by its own Time and by the occupants within it. Money that could have been put toward collecting one piece of art was fairly spent, and still less than the cumulative value of the work. What it also cost was an enormous amount of dedication. To 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. If any visitor came to the project with actual dedication, I think he or she would have found their perspectives changed, or at least greatly shifted. Some people did come with dedication!
I think if you look a little deeper beyond the standard talking points, this is the biggest lesson that lasts from the Monument. It is hard, it is difficult, it will cost you somewhere, but it is possible to do something new and incredible and meaningful in this real world that we live in. It was a remarkable idea that came to successful fruition, through real love and real work, and beyond all the restrictions of society, identity, and politics. That reality of love and work needs to be celebrated and elevated.
All images are courtesy of the author.
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Read more from Growing Dialogue: Gramsci Monument
“Real Love, Real Work” by Lex Brown – January 9, 2015
Growing Dialogue is a series of moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice.