Gramsci Takes the Bronx

Wailing away like a 21st century version of the Fugs, the contemporary alterna-pop consortium known as Urayoán Noel/Edwin Torres with Los Guapos Planetas performs its counter-hegemonic re-working of the Talking Heads’ song “And She Was” at an open mike in my hometown of Morrisania. The lyrics re-imagine 20th century philosopher, organic intellectual, and Maxist journalist Antonio Gramsci as a thinker indigenous to NYCHA’s Forest Houses. Neighborhood folks in plastic chairs, the high art world artist/creator of the whole scene, and the friends of UN/ET & LGP looked on, accepting the vacilón praxis of the moment as a kind of inescapable truth.

After a summer of not being much of anywhere at all, I finally made the pilgrimage up to Thomas Hirschhorn’s art installation Gramsci Monument, a temporary structure in the middle of Morrisania’s Forest Houses. The installation has come under something of an attack from art critics like The New York Times’s Ken Johnson, who found it uninspiring, “dismally decrepit,” and in the end, “another monument to [Hirschhorn’s] monumental ego.”

A more positive spin was provided by Whitney Kimball and Will Brand in artfcity, whose reporting focused more on the appreciative reaction from the local residents. Finding it a welcome change of pace, they embraced the public performance space, library, and radio station as most of all “fun for the kids.” Hirschhorn was not seen to be “condescending” by promoting Gramscian ideas like “Every Human Being is an Intellectual,” and “Destruction is Difficult; It is as Difficult as Creation.”

Gramsci monument 2

Here’s my take: This was a scene that reminded me very much of various iterations of artist-neighborhood interaction that happened in places like ABC No Rio, Charas, and the Gas Station on the Lower East Side, and Fashion Moda in the Bronx. Those scenes, as well as this one, were imperfect yet potentially empowering space-sharing where the absence of what Gramsci called hegemony, all by itself, constituted an almost revolutionary situation.

These days it’s actually easier to have such a moment, since the hegemonic force of whatever–the state apparatus, the heavy overhang of dominant narratives, the transformation of everyday human dialog into continually reified forms of advertising–makes any attempt to escape it an authentic act of human liberation. While Hirschhorn has been criticized for attempting to impose European intellectual snobbery on the hood, the two sides in this dialog are actually speaking the same language, whether or not the Gladstone Gallery or the DIA Art Foundation is paying the bill. (Actually, check out the image of Antonio below–this European intellectual may be kind of a cat of color himself.)

As a critical mass, we were in need of a break from the madness that continues to dominate the damned discourse. It’s like, Syria, WTF?

During the performance, you can see Hirschhorn sitting in one of the “ugly plastic chairs” reading along with the lyrics to “Gramsci Was.” He smiles, laughs, murmurs like everyone else. The monumental ego seems to have taken the day off. Sure, this isn’t quite Afrika Bambaata or DJ Kool Herc happening here, and there are a lot of questions about whether books and computers and radio equipment will be available after the structure is torn down in a couple of weeks. The problem of continual gun violence–last night there was a shooting just a few blocks away–flourishes despite whatever Bloomberg thinks of stop and frisk. (Forest Houses was actually the site of an “Operation Gun Stop” event that Boro President Rubén Díaz Jr held last year.)

Remember Darius James before he moved to Berlin?
Remember Darius James before he moved to Berlin?

But I can’t tell you there’s a big problem with the Gramsci Monument. However you may interpret Hirschhorn’s “out-of-placeness” he seems to have just wanted to create the space and allow people to talk whatever shit they want to. Heck, in addition to Edwin, a Nuyorican head I hadn’t seen for years, there was Miguel (without piragua truck), the usual Santurce/Rio Piedras suspects (Monch, Lib, Tito, Mar), and I even ran into Greg Tate (He’s reading from a play he wrote on Tuesday). All this just a couple of blocks from 163rd Street, where I once rode a beat-up tricycle before there was even hip-hop.

The problem is not the imperfect/potentially productive interaction between “artists” and the organic intellectual everyone in Forest Houses is. The problem is how it gets interrupted, again and again, by the anti-dialog, anti-language environment we’re continually forced to live in. Of course in the Bronx, people being people is nothing out of the ordinary. But for this summer, it was about the people–navigating the idea of this people and that people, laughing, reading, talking, and filling up the space in between. Kind of like Gramsci does.



2 thoughts on “Gramsci Takes the Bronx

  1. This is a wonderful and moving assessment of the Gramsci Monument and of Mr. Hirschhorn’s artistic temperament. I believe that, at least here in NYC, critics and connoisseurs have somehow lost the capacity to truly appreciate and ENJOY these types of intervention, much less of appreciating other people enjoy themselves within an aesthetically curated environment. Hirschhorn is inviting us all to a different kind of revolt: one that allows people to dance, participate, sing, and have fun. And that is all deadly serious stuff. This reading of the Gramsci Monument feels intimate, knowledgeable and in-the-know. You obviously get it because you grew up around those blocks and can really appreciate the subtleties of the interactions.

    Tellingly, this effort towards publicly-owned -but ephemeral- monumentalism comes from abroad (Hirschhorn is Swiss but lives in France). Against the incapability of NYC to create anything truly monumental and public nowadays, Hirschhorn’s work is a slap in the face. The Gramsci Monument is also a nasty an very specific blow to the market-driven fallacy that only Brooklyn or Manhattan can produce, be entrusted or house world-class art.

    Yet, beyond all of that, there is still all that Gramsci political philosophy that is not a by-product of the monument, but at its very core. Gramsci’s idea of civil society ruling itself, his understanding that economics did not take primacy over culture as agent of political change (contra some strands of orthodox Marxism), but mostly and more importantly, Gramsci’s belief that things could change for the working class and the poor. I think Hirschhorn’s take on Gramsci’s political thought is mostly a sunny reading, and in that sense it is perfectly attuned to our beloved ghetto-spirituality and optimism. Gramsci would have understood and identified with the folks in the South Bronx and the projects. He knew jail, he understood the repressive forces operating everywhere against freedom and societal and individual growth, yet he never despaired. As they say in the Bronx, Gramsci kept on keeping on. A true ghetto cat!

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