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Going Pop: From Hirschhorn's Folly to Macklemore's Heist

By Benj DeMott

The wiz behind the Gramsci Monument erected this summer—and now disassembled—in the center of a South Bronx Housing Project is no Oz. Thomas Hirschhorn is sincere about “doing art in a public space.” He was a presence at his creation, which was open every day this summer. The artist meant to stretch himself before and after his opening, living in the hood, hanging out at his Monument.

Hirschhorn has created other provisional tributes to his favorite European thinkers over the past decade on the Continent. I’m not sure why he chose to bow to martyred Italian Communist Gramsci in America. But it’s undeniable that Marxist humanist’s analysis of class-based cultural hegemony and resistance makes him an apt subject for an artist like Hirshhorn who means to reach (what he terms) “a non-exclusive audience.”

Hirschhorn’s desire to go public with his philosophical faves led him to a “beautiful” encounter back in 2011 with the unofficial mayor of Forest Houses, Erik Farmer. With Farmer on his side, Hirschhorn managed to hire project residents who helped him build a set of clubhouse-like shacks on raised plazas connected by a shaded walkway. The temporary wooden structure incorporated a library, a museum of memorabilia dedicated to Gramsci (including the philosopher’s shoes), a space for daily lectures and performances, an office for a free newspaper, a micro radio station, a room with art materials, an internet center, a food bar and (best of all?) a wading pool…

I don’t want to douse Hirschhorn’s desire to squeeze out sparks in public since I share his faith in non-exclusive approaches to Art/Mind. See the French antimony I cribbed to help tell First’s back story (in the Mission Statement that's still up on this site)—"we meant to reach beyond a humanism of comprehension toward a humanism in extension”—or the pithy praise that’s still First’s tagline: “The only leftist publication [I] could imagine being read at both Columbia University and Rikers.” (Invokable here given Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks?) There's a problem, though, (as critic Scott McLemee once noted) if such formulas imply, not common ground, but: “distance to be spanned—a connection between enclaves to be made. (The ideas are over here, the masses over there.)”

It seems Hirschhorn’s approach to philosophy now was bent by that sort of alienating geography. Only slaves to enclaves could relish the Monument’s summer schedule of weekly seminars led by usual suspects from the professional Left or the deadly daily scholarly address by a Gramsci drudge. Hirshhorn’s own ad for himself in the Monument’s flyer hinted how his project got mired in the Academy’s oppo research. His abstracted “I” and (what he terms) “the Other” weren’t likely to meet (even when walking side by side) since they didn’t speak the same language.

Hirschhorn’s lingo was unique. This Swiss tripped into the Ypremian dimension (cf. Garo: “I keeck a touchdown.”):

Other words for universality are “equality,” the “Non-Exclusive Audience,” “Truth,” “The One World.” Other words for Belief are “Resistance,” “Intensity,” “Movement” or “Creation.”

His chief aesthetic proposition—“form is hardcore”—was pretty opaque (though maybe you'd know it when you see it) and when he quipped: “I like philosophy even when I don’t understand a third of its reflections,” readers who smiled might not have been grinning with him. His take on his own role had a “‘shut up,’ he explained” quality that risked derision too: “I propose a new kind of authorship… Unshared Authorship…allows me to take responsibility for what I’m not responsible for. Furthermore—unshared authorship allows me to be author even when I’m not the author…” For a hot second in the middle of another one of his musings—“I can’t understand the skeptical, the disappointed, the resigned, the cynical, the critical…"—it seemed time for Bobby Bonilla to show the artist the Bronx. But—on the real side—Hirschhorn ended strong: “—nothing can be done without a belief in equality. Belief in equality is a strength…”

Hirschhorn’s will to act on that thick faith was enough to distance his summer of love for Gramsci from projects of rad meritocrats and nego leftist know-it-alls (including those who droned on at Hirschhorn’s lectern). It meant his Monument wasn’t unworthy of the thinker who once claimed: “Every human being is an intellectual.” Or too far gone from homier American truths: “Better than nobody, nobody better.”

The New Yorker’s art critic wasn’t wrong when he raved about “the democracy of the place” and praised how “levelling the artist with the kids splashing in the wading pool brought tones of Walt Whitman to mind…” On my trip to the Monument, I locked on kids at play there too. (Anything to skip those free lectures.) A bunch were making a house out of cardboard with add-ons from materials in the Monument’s art room. As I watched them having a constructive blast on the walk-way and then out on the grass, I noticed a young adult woman who was encouraging them to do their thing(s). It turned out she was an artist named Lex Brown who had a summer gig helping kids create stuff at the Monument.

From the beginning she sensed her Children’s Workshop represented something of a challenge to the “conventionality of the Monument itself.”

Our goal is to sustain a heightened imaginative space—the space that children access regularly and with ease…Our goal is to surprise ourselves.

I overheard her double-down on the idea surprise is the best teacher in a couple quick Q & A's. Ms. Brown talked with a radio interviewer and another interlocutor about the difference between standard Arts & Crafts and the freer, jazzier approach she’d been trying on with regulars in her Workshop. Brown’s wish those kids would agree to “not know what it is and find out” wasn’t realized right away. (She was honest about all that in her Workshop reports archived on the Monument website: “For the last few weeks I have been telling the kids, ‘You know, when you say you don’t know what to do, I also don’t know what you should do!’”) But, as summer progressed, kids learned to overcome their fear of freedom. By the time I peeped in on the happy makers during the Monument’s last weekend, Brown’s Children’s Workshop surely felt like a liberated zone.

The cheery vibe there wasn’t amped up by that day’s seminar which was given by a visiting prof who styled himself an “Afro-pessimist.” (This speaker, Dr. Frank Wilderson, has nurtured a rep as a former ANC partisan and revolutionary Race Man, so I was struck when a Wiki leak led me to his self-satisfied—yet toothless—suck-up to his primary institutional benefactor: “UCI [University of California at Irvine] is probably the best place I could be,” Wilderson says. “I need a place that rewards me for intellectual output. The university is committed to research of the highest register.”)

The gulf between doomy-but-doing-well black academic and glad Sister Brown only got wider when the high pessimist looked down on museum-goers in the course of praising the Monument. Wilderson reduced all art appreciation in more traditional venues to canon formation. The prospect someone might have a felt, personal response to a masterpiece seemed beyond his ken. Hirschhorn, thankfully, wasn’t clueless on that front:

I never use the term participatory art in referring to my work, because someone looking at an Ingres painting, for instance, is participating without anyone noticing.

Right on (and right up Gramsci’s alley by the way: “Art itself is interesting; it is interesting in itself, in that it satisfies one of the necessities of Life…The content of art is art itself.”) But the Afro-pessimist’s counterstatement wasn’t a one-off that day. A DJ who followed him into the performance space touted the Monument for having “brought art to the Bronx.” A shout-out that blanked out an earlier generation of Bronx DJs who helped create the art(s) of hip hop.

I’ll allow, though, you may long for such obliviousness after a glance at Jay-Z’s recent “Picasso Baby” video (pretentiously titled “a performance art film”). This 10 minute prestige production goes in the opposite direction from Hirschhorn’s. It places Jay-Z among culture vultures at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery where he shows off—and faces off (smilingly)—with Hollywood-be-hipsters and arty grandees (Jim Jarmusch, Mariana Abramovich, et al.). “Picasso Baby’s” gallery hip hop is missing any sense of cultural struggle. Jay-Z’s new metro-aesthete persona lacks edge. “Only dreadlocks would make him look safer to such an easily threatened crowd,” as Armond White noted in his penetrating critique of the video.

Jay-Z cites a range of Art World figures (from Picasso to Jeff Koons) before claiming to be “the new Jean-Michel.” Then, in the song’s one artful (and Brotherly) turn, he acts like a proud papa: “Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner/ Go ahead lean on it, Blue/You own it.” His nod to daughter Blue Ivy’s proprietorship calls up the familial structure of feeling the rapper once broke down (with a lot of help from Kanye West) on his deepest CD, The Blueprint.

That brag brings “Piccaso Baby” to life (for a moment) as it maps—what Armond White terms: “today’s short distance from the Marcy Housing Projects [where Jay-Z grew up] to Chelsea galleries.” White’s own shot at measuring that distance includes a jab at Bill DiBlasio’s self-presentation that had a little extra snap after my trip to the Gramsci Monument where I’d seen our next mayor and son making the scene (and giving it a certain soon-to-be-gentrified aspect?).

[Jay-Z’s] hip-hop candor differs from politician Bill DiBlasio shamelessly exploiting his Afro-identified “Black” son; Jay-Z simply bequeaths art world privilege to his progeny. Fact is: Hip-hop never denies acquisitiveness and “Picasso Baby” doesn’t fake it. Jay-Z can’t help enjoying his exclusivity. Through the advantage of celebrity–and making a disingenuous spectacle of “performance art”–Jay-Z brings Basquiat back into the Black fold…

Jay-Z, though, isn’t the only hip hopper with dibs on Basquiat. The massively popular white rapper, Macklemore, cites Basquiat at the top of his CD, The Heist. But Macklemore’s not out to out-swag anyone. Fact is: his hip hop resists acquisitiveness: “If I’d done it for the money, I’d’ve been a fucking lawyer.” Fine art for Macklemore offers equipment for living: “a life lived for art is never wasted.”

I love Basquiat/I watch Keith Haring/You see I studied art/the greats were great but they couldn’t paint from birth/the greats were great because they paint a lot…

Macklemore hypes his own readiness to put “10,000 hours” into his art life. And he repeatedly contrasts its fulfillments with objects of (what he terms on his blog) “retail-fueled desire.” His song “Wing$”, by his own account, “dissects…the pursuit of identity through consumerism…” (There’s a reason he used to call himself Professor Macklemore!) But this track recalling the lift he got from Air Jordans when he was kid is saved from no logo shtick by lineaments of frozen desire: “The air bubble, that mesh/The box, the smell, the stuffing, the tread.” Those details help him earn his P.C. finish: “Will I stand for change/or stay in a box/These Nikes define me/But I’m trying to take em/Off –”

Macklemore gets himself off (along with countless others) in his hit, “Thrift Shop.” Rapping over horny horns, he makes a case for sexy self-invention on the cheap—“one man’s trash is another man’s come-up.” Macklemore contrasts his “fucking awesome” style—“I wear your granddad’s clothes, I look incredible/I’m in this big ass coat from the thrift shop down the road”—with more obvious (and more expensive) fashion statements. “Thrift Shop” peaks when Macklemore stops to think out loud as clubbers (aiming to “get girls from a brand”) party with Gucci. “Yo, that’s 50 dollars[1] for a T-shirt…that’s some ignorant bitch-shit”:

That shirt’s hella dough
And having the same one as six other people in this club is hella don’t

Macklemore is an alt-rapper from Seattle and he’s fully aware a history of white-skin privilege informs his grungy do’s-and-don’ts. But it’s vital to add his bohemian rules—“Make the money/ don’t let the money make you…Change the game/don’t let the game change you”—echo proverbial Old School hip hoppers who didn’t all buy into the Bitch Goddess of Success. Macklemore is careful not to come on from on high, affirming he’s not “more or less conscious” than more ghetto-centric rappers. But he seems to have been born to cultivate teachable moments.

Macklemore, on this score, is Lex Brown’s teacherly peer. (“Thrift Shop” features a little kid’s voice asking to join him as he shops for surprises.) Their personal, generational and political connection came home to me when I read Brown’s recent blog post on her history of hunting for clothes that made her “features pop.” Like Macklemore she knows how to break down a social movement of mind from inside:

People of America: your pattern-smashing clothes are doing TOO MUCH. The florals, the generic tribal prints, the neon, the ombre, the geometric business…the stripes, the crosses, the skulls, the studs, the wtf-are-pearls-and-lace-shorts… all these terrible things! All these terrible things on one person! All these terrible things in one closet: mine!

Macklemore should suss Brown’s angles on a world where (as she puts it) “a towering, multi-million dollar billboard of [Beyonce] in Times Square…advertise[s] an H&M swimsuit that costs $4.98...”

Trends of today are so eye-demanding, and many of them so thoughtlessly designed, that it is impossible to ignore not only the cheapness, but the underlying poverty: poverty in how these clothes are made, who they are made by, the ideas that produce them, and the society that consumes them.

Brown has something to teach her brother shopper Macklemore about his desire for what’s “fucking awesome.”

I feel like it’s both popular, and increasingly the norm for all genders to be really LOUD. Whereas I have previously associated low-priced loudness and flair with people of urban communities (I don’t mean that in a side-steppy way of saying black, I actually mean urban communities) now we’re seeing a kind of loudness that might warrant a repurposing of the phrase ghetto fabulous. And the ghetto is young America.

The fabulousness of ghetto fab trades on boldness of personality as well. And that’s where most of the people wearing these clothes fall short in the comparison. I’m not suggesting that quiet mousy types be stopped from wearing sheer, weed-leaf turtlenecks, I’m just saying that the rampant boldness is dislocated, many times, from any sort of personal identification. And isn’t that what style is about?

Macklemore should hear Ms. Brown’s questions. It would be good for their age cohort if these two “organic intellectuals” (to borrow Gramsci’s term) were in dialogue. Let’s hope an older generation’s high/low biases don’t keep them apart.

That New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl, who was wowed by the Gramsci Monument wasn’t helping when he placed Thomas Hirschhorn as “the most meaningfully independent of modern artists.” Schjeldahl was once a pop critic so I’d bet he’d be open to rethinking that line if he hears Macklemore’s raps about battling exploitative industry moguls (“Jimmy Iovine”): “I’d rather be a starving artist/Then succeed in getting fucked.” Indy Macklemore has other options ever since “Thrift Shop” reached #1 on pop charts without support from any major record label. (The song’s video has over 47,000,000 YouTube views.) You could say he’s become the most “meaningfully independent” modern hip hop performer if you’re stuck on distinctions between fine artists and pop ones. But anyone who believes in “doing art in public space” should be alive to The Heist's graceful attempts to grab attention (like a “thief in the night”) of a non-exclusive audience.


1 Rap Genius points out that Macklemore’s pricing is off. A Gucci tee costs around $300.

2 Hip hop’s not mine, but hearing that wack line at the Monument was still off-putting since it was the subculture that got me to...Gramsci. Back in the 80s, my thinking about hip hop led me to subcultural theorists at U.K.’s Birmingham Center for the Study of Popular Culture. The introduction to their key text, Resistance through Rituals, was informed by Gramsci’s clarity a national culture amounted to a whole way of struggle. I may have missed something, but I didn’t see much evidence players at the Monument were into Gramscian analyses of the Bronx’s heaviest recent contribution to American (and world) culture.

From October, 2013

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