On a Saturday afternoon in mid-September, we took the #5 subway to Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx and proceeded to walk North on Prospect Avenue to 163rd Street. After crossing Union Avenue, we turned right on Tinton Avenue and gained access to Forest Houses, a Post World War II public housing project. My friend, who encouraged me to go, had read a laudatory review in the New Yorker which described the Gramsci Monument as a must see art event. Sponsored by the Dia Foundation, it was billed as a significant work of art by a heralded Swiss artist.
So, what did we find? I would describe the ramshackle wooden structures that appeared
to be the core of the project as an insensitive intrusion into the courtyard of a low-income
public housing project. There was a library, radio station and a bank of computers
linked to the internet. Where and how did Gramsci fit into this mess? Searching for some documentation, I found a faded typed biography on an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper tacked to
a wall. There was one in English and another in Italian.
Was this a bad joke? No, this was supposed to be a serious work of art. As I wandered from one tacky space to the next, I tried to image who was the so-called artist who had conceived of this entity and why it was sponsored by the Dia Foundation. Beyond that, I was compelled to ask what it had to do with Antonio Gramsci. Although I had not read him widely, I knew that he was the patron saint of left-wing Italian politicians. I kept asking myself what Gramsci had to do with this public housing project in the South Bronx. Simple: Thomas Hirshhorn, the Swiss artist who had conceived this project, was enamored of Gramsci. Concurrently, I wondered if Gramsci had any relevancy for the residents of Forest Houses. My assumption is none.
I had an opportunity to talk to one of the residents who had established a table along the main pedestrian pathway where she was selling objects that she assumed might appeal to
tourists visiting her neighborhood. She appeared to have little interest in the content of
this so-called work of art finding it to be a positive element in her community because
residents were compensated for working on the construction of its various elements.
As we wandered around this desultory organized phenomenon, we came upon an open-air
theater with about two hundred mostly middle-aged Caucasians seated in a semi-circle
listening to an African-American man promote his book describing his experiences
with the ANC (African National Congress) in South Africa. It did not appear that many,
if any, project residents were in the audience.
We began to talk to three people, two women and a man, in their late twenties or
early thirties, obviously not from the neighborhood. I asked what they made of this
so-called work of art. They, too, were motivated by the "must see" New Yorker
article saying that they believed that the artist was trying to regenerate the participatory
art spirit of 1960's as seen in Happenings where members of the audience were participants
in an art event. Being familiar with Happenings, I could not make the connection.
Although this personal event occurred in 1967, it bears some relevance to the Gramsci
Monument. I had just published a book on the history of New York's Lower East
Side. At that time, it was customary for publisher's to have a book publication party
in a restaurant and invite critics. I requested that my publisher give me the money
that they would have spent on a lunch allowing me to create an event related to the
book's publication in Seward Park on The Lower East Side. They agreed and I
created a mini-festival on a Sunday afternoon in the park.
It was an honest interpretation of community heritage in which the history of its residents
was celebrated. Since The Lower East Side was then becoming a hip neighborhood, we
had a "slum goddess" parade. (See photo on left immediately above.) Now, there are
hundreds of neighborhood block parties throughout all of the boroughs in which residents
celebrate their origins, history, heritage, religion and food. They are authentic community
Thomas Hirshhorn could benefit greatly by visiting some of these neighborhood block
parties. He might learn how (if he were so inclined) to contribute to a community rather
than exploit it for ego gratification and personal gain.
By now, the Gramsci Monument is a memory. On reflection, I would describe it as a
gigantic hype involving a colossal waste of time, energy and money. Hopefully, Thomas
Hirshhorn will restrain his cultural imperialistic ventures and avoid invading innocent communities.