Thomas Hirschhorn, Gramsci Monument

Can art create new possibilities for the disenfranchised? Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument in South Bronx questions the altruism of the art elite

In what many people described as 2013’s most energetic public artwork in New York City, Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument marks its one-year anniversary. For two and a half months last summer, art lovers flocked to Forest Houses, a housing project home to 3400 people in the South Bronx to see what the Swiss artist had produced in collaboration with locals. After earning the support of Forest Houses Tenants Association President, Erik Farmer, he hired dozens of residents to help construct a scruffy, ramshackle complex out of plywood, blue tarp, packing tape, plexiglass, and spray-painted banners to honor Italian philosopher Antonia Gramsci (1891-1937).

Dia Art Foundation sponsored the project, which included series of amenities and programs for the local community and pilgrimaging art lovers – including an art studio where classes were taught, a radio station, a daily newspaper produced by volunteers, a community-run food stand, and a regular program of open mics and lectures by thinkers from Stanley Aronowitz to Gayatri Spivak. There was also a bustling computer lab where kids played games and shared YouTube videos. Hirschhorn himself was on site everyday, mixing with the locals and staffing booths alongside residents.

Gramsci, who whose “Prison Notebooks” are classics of political thought, described class conflict in terms of culture. “All men are intellectuals,” he wrote. Gramsci thought that the overthrow of capitalist hegemony should come through the rise of “counter-hegemonies” instead of violent revolution. Through self-education, self-organization and the creation of its own institutions, he posited alternative cultures developed by disenfranchised groups might someday become powerful enough to displace the dominant bourgeois culture of modern, industrial society.  

The art bourgeoisie apparently doesn’t agree. Time Out’s Howard Halle said it exemplified wealthy art patrons “tossing a little pocket change at the ‘community’ to make themselves feel good.” Peter Buffett’s op-ed on top-tier philanthropy, called it “‘conscience laundering’ — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.”  The lingering question amongst such art critics is whether the long-term impact of projects like these justify themselves.

Ironically, this question itself reeks of self-aggrandizement while entirely missing the point of Gramsci’s own writings. The project’s success has nothing to do with what art world thinks, but rather how the residents of Forest felt about it. In a great piece by ArtfCity, here are a few things locals had to say:

“I think this is a great thing that he did. He opened up a lot of doors, he gave a lot of jobs and opportunities. And I think this is one of the best things that has ever happened within Forest and for Forest.”

“He came with opportunity, he didn’t come asking for anything. He came giving. He gave back to the South Bronx, and thank God for him … It’s just so overwhelming—each part just says ‘love’ to the neighborhood.”

“It should be something that’s kept all year long. It keeps the kids busy. There’s a cycle that keeps going on in here, in this area, in South Bronx. Violence, violence … if you teach kids other things besides violence, they’ll get into other things, their mind will open up. As long as you keep them inside the box, it will never change. This would be a good distraction.”

“It focused on something positive instead of negative. You could tell there was a change.”

For the people who built and lived with the monument, Gramsci Monument provided a creative outlet and education resources that are currently not offered by New York City Housing Association. One year later, residents seem more consciously aware of how unfulfilling their housing amenities are now that the monument is gone. In a recently interview with ArtFCity, Erik Farmer stated, “Everyone keeps asking me ‘Is it going to come back this year, is it going to come back’… there’s nothing for the kids to do now, they’re really bored. You can see how nobody’s out here…”

Unfortunately, Hirschhorn’s legacy has turned into a monument commemorating an absence instead of a triumph - to institutions, organizations, and movements that need to be built. The Dia Foundation, whose mission focuses on long-term visionary projects, has done nothing to find government institutions, education partners or additional philanthropy to help build on the project’s successes. It has opted to move on, to continue stroking the egos of art aficionados and the moneyed elite - rather than rethinking the role of art as an active tool for long term collective impact and public good.  Gramsci, I’m sure, is turning in his grave.

A Gramsci Monument book and documentary are planned for release this fall.