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#Hashtags: On the Political in Art

#race #class #access #commerce #representation #empowerment #codeswitching

As the values of the contemporary art elite veer ever farther toward commerce, art with a social justice conscience is rallying in New York—arguably the center of the global art market. This summer, three prominent artists known for their political consciences have been drawing attention for thoughtful, research-heavy projects. In Chelsea, Hank Willis Thomas and the team of William Powhida and Jade Townsend have brought discussions of race and class to a gallery scene where such concerns are often absent. Farther afield, Thomas Hirshhorn entices art audiences to venture to the South Bronx with his Gramsci Monument (2013), sponsored by Dia Art Foundation, at the Forest Houses public housing complex.

Hank Willis Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross-Smith, and Kamal Sinclair. Question Bridge: Black Males, 2012. Interactive video installation. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hank Willis Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross-Smith, and Kamal Sinclair. Question Bridge: Black Males, 2012. Interactive video installation. Photo courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Thomas continues to mine the history of photography’s depictions of black men in America with his current show at Jack Shainman. His solo photographic and assemblage works, on view in the front gallery, appropriate nineteenth-century photographs and African American quilt patterns as frameworks for commentary on the performance of race and the necessity of code-switching as a strategy of resistance to assimilation. The work is political in content but not in its execution, existing as fairly traditional objects for collection and consumption. More radical is the back gallery’s installation, Question Bridge: Black Males (2012), a collaborative work by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross-Smith, and Kamal Sinclair. Building on the idea that implicit bias is fed by lack of familiarityQuestion Bridge is formulated as a testimonial document. Over 150 black men were interviewed for the project, asked to respond to questions posed by one another addressing masculinity, discrimination, opportunity, love, ego, family, and other loaded topics. The men range in age from late teens to octogenarians and in occupation from professors to performers to gang members. Some testify from the classroom or pulpit, others from behind bars. Some are self-aware, while others adopt a defensive posture. Their dialogue, framed as internal to a community too often viewed externally, is made transparent to us but does not include us. As a viewer, I was engrossed in the individual expressions of these men. I felt a responsibility to see and recognize each one, though that proved difficult to accomplish as the work’s duration exceeds three hours.

William Powhida and Jade Townsend. Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes, 2012. Digital print. 44 x 86 inches. Photo courtesy Freight + Volume, New York.

William Powhida and Jade Townsend. Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes, 2012. Digital print. 44 x 86 in. Photo courtesy Freight + Volume, New York

Nearby at Freight + Volume, the group show The Decline and Fall of the Art World Part I: The One Percenters tackles the unholy union of money and art. Most compelling among the works are digital prints based on collaborative drawings by Powhida and Townsend. In these works, contemporary debates and schisms within the fine art disciplines are given a satirical, historical cast. Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes (A War of All Against All, 2012) is the largest and depicts fifty-two distinct art world factions engaged in Hobbesian total war stoked by the agents of the “ruling asset class” such that they are unable to unite and revolt against the powerful elites who determine their fates. These camps include abstract painters, social practice artists, conservative and theologically minded artists, various critics and their acolytes, digital media artists, and my personal favorite, the Art School Pedagogists, who “seek to arm their followers with free knowledge to counter and subvert academia’s authority.” Related works articulate these divisions in the form of charts that merge influences from engravings by Northern Renaissance artists such as Frans Hogenberg with astute observations on the structures of art’s radical visionary>luxury commodity continuum.

Though irreverent, the artists are meticulous at research and in their drawing technique. As historical prints assumed a viewer’s intimate knowledge of regional politics and Christian doctrine, these works similarly assume fluency with contemporary art theories, players, and institutions. It is rare to see a clear-eyed indictment of the same systemic excesses that ostensibly support the privileged commercial space of the gallery. This leads me to wonder if the work is palatable largely because artists and dealers are more likely to be aware of its real-world relevance than the average art viewer or collector.

Thomas Hirshhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Construction: Day 37: team photo with Antonio Gramsci mural. Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation. Photo by Romain Lopez.

Thomas Hirshhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Construction: Day 37: team photo with Antonio Gramsci mural. Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Courtesy of Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Romain Lopez

Hirshhorn’s Gramsci Monument at the Forest Houses takes an approach that is as far from the style and the setting of Powhida and Townsend’s work as one could imagine within the limits of contemporary art and New York City. Working abstractly within a socially activated installation, Hirshhorn makes the research the substance of his intervention into the architectural and interpersonal structures of this South Bronx public housing complex. Writing in the New York Times, Ken Johnson described leaving the Gramsci Monument “feeling irritable and depressed.” I could not have had a more different response.

My initial skepticism at the effectiveness of this project had two main aspects. First, I wondered what a community that has seen more than its share of deprivation would make of an artwork that employed an “anti-aesthetic.” After all, bell hooks has written of the experiences of poor people of color growing up “in an ugly house. No one there considered the function of beauty or pondered the use of space. Surrounded by dead things, whose spirits had long ago vanished since they were no longer needed, that house contained a great engulfing emptiness.” [1] Second, I questioned the value created by an elite contemporary art institution (Dia Art Foundation) sponsoring a famous European artist to “intervene” in the lives of a poor community of color in the United States. Would the academic philosophy of early twentieth-century Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci be accessible to the Forest Houses’s residents? Would Gramsci’s mission of empowering the working class be realized or parodied by this highly conceptual effort? Would the community that labored to build the monument feel connected to its work or simply be exploited in a gentler fashion than usual? In short, would this be a monument to or against Gramscian hegemony? Both the effectiveness of Question Bridge’s black-male-driven exchanges and the recent furor over South Bronx poverty tourism by Europeans played heavily on my mind.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Gramsci Bar.  Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation. Photo by Romain Lopez.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Gramsci Bar.
Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Romain Lopez

I arrived at the Forest Houses in the midst of a deluge of rain. Though the skies were gloomy, I was soon glad to have come at such an unfavorable time because aside from myself there were no art tourists present. I was able to see the Gramsci Monument as it exists for the residents of Forest Houses (of which Hirshhorn is one, for the duration of the installation’s run). Even in the rain, a small group of residents gathered around the monument’s “Gramsci Bar” were beaming with joy, cracking jokes with one another, and sharing in the warmth of the makeshift kitchen. Children worked intently on art projects in the adjacent workshop space. The Internet corner was similarly buzzing with teens and adults, while the library and exhibition space that houses Gramsci artifacts and related texts on Marxist politics was empty save for Hirshhorn’s own lean figure.

Though assembled of scrap materials including wooden pallets, irregular two-by-fours, blue plastic tarps, and packing tape, the structures did not let a drop of the heavy rain through (which is more than I can say for the New Park Mall, where I made a brief pit stop later in the day). The attitude of the Gramsci Bar’s cook, Stanley “White Cloud” Scott (a.k.a. Stan the Man) was no less indomitable. Scott was effusive in his praise for the project, which he described as generating positivity to counteract negative self-image and low expectations within his community. He indicated that some of the monument’s resources, such as the Internet corner and art workshops, had already been available at a nearby community center but that the monument had prompted people to make better use of them. I asked about the monument’s aesthetics, which he said had opened his eyes to the appearance of art in everyday things. He spoke of the adjacent garden, which had existed in a state of neglect prior to Hirshhorn’s arrival. He hoped it would be maintained after the artist had led its renovation and revival. It’s tempting to read said garden as an allegory for the experiences of Forest Houses residents, particularly the children whom Scott suggested had received the monument’s greatest benefit.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Children's Class. Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation. Photo by Romain Lopez.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Gramsci Monument, 2013. Children’s Class. Forest Houses, Bronx, New York. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation. Photo: Romain Lopez

Hirshhorn, speaking from the office of the “Gramsci Monument Newspaper” as a young woman worked on layouts for the day’s issue, described how the absence of a classical aesthetic encouraged residents to make full use of the artwork rather than view it as something precious or outside their scope. He similarly indicated that the work’s temporary duration encouraged skeptics to overcome their misgivings about its purpose. He spoke of “porosity,” of allowing for multiple uses and interpretations that expand beyond the artist’s initial vision. He also described the monument as a literal platform for action, be it lectures by philosophers and artists programmed throughout each day, children’s play, or adults’ friendly ribbing. Indeed, the community’s friendliness and openness to a work that they freely admitted they did not initially understand was repeatedly emphasized by both artist and residents.

Are there downsides to this intervention? Certainly—the academic content of the work does not seem to have found a consistent audience, demonstrating that such messages are more effectively expressed to the uninitiated through the monument’s form and function. Does underwriting this work provide political cover to an economic and social elite responsible for widespread exploitation? Possibly, but this is the definition of our current model of philanthropy, and it seems unfair to charge an artist with changing that single-handedly. If Dia’s investment in the project suggests that the voices of the marginalized are being co-opted into the grand scheme of Bloomberg’s new New York, the Gramsci Monument differs from other “aesthetic politics” interventions in that its structure actually elevates participants’ perspectives above those of the artist or the underwriting institution.

The cost of the work’s execution included wages paid for construction and staffing performed by Forest Houses residents. Those jobs will disappear at summer’s end, with no replacement income on the horizon. Scott is hopeful that the monument’s precedent will demonstrate that the Forest Houses are a good investment, inhabited by a community that can make productive use of an additional influx of resources. However, no such investors appear to be lining up. Hard times may be ahead for the Forest Houses, as they have been in the past. However, the self-esteem and capacity for autonomy that the Gramsci Monument has enabled are unlikely to fade away anytime soon. Ultimately, Hirshhorn’s project combines the criticality and specialist knowledge of Powhida and Townsend’s work with the framework for self-expression offered by Question Bridge to create an atmosphere of respect and empowerment in a place where there has often been too little of either.

1. bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional.” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, Vol. 1 (1995).

Hank Willis Thomas and Question Bridge: Black Males were on view at Jack Shainman Gallery, in Manhattan, from July 11 to August 23, 2013. Question Bridge is also on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through September 8, 2013,  and at the Exploratorium, in San Francisco, through April 2014. The Decline and Fall of the Art World Part I: The One Percenters is on view at Freight + Volume, in Manhattan, through September 7, 2013. Gramsci Monument is installed at the Forest Houses, in the South Bronx, through September 15, 2013.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

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