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Intellectual Prowess in Everyday Practice

Posted by: Erin Bernard

Are there parallels between current community/public art experiences and historical ones?  

Absolutely! There are so many examples of this overlap happening in Philadelphia and beyond.  Two projects which I find especially rich for discussion and evaluation in a history course are Kara Walker’s Subtlety and Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument.  In my Interpreting History course, we learn about the industrial revolution and how Romanticism and Marxism were both reactions to this rise in capitalism and industry.  We also learn about Locke’s property theory as a precursor to discussing the American Dream in terms of Jefferson, King, and Baldwin.  Walker’s piece is great, partly because she is a female voice interjecting into this conversation, but more importantly because she created a sugar sculpture of a giant “sphinx mami” in a former industrial site in Brooklyn in 2014.  What does her work have to do with the many themes we explore over the semester, but also how is she using history to do her work?  We consider the ethics of her decision making, how the project manifested in real time, how some people used social media to exploit the sculpture and perhaps reveal under-discussed truths about current society.  One key piece to this conversation is always about: How could Kara Walker have better connected to the people of Williamsburg?  What would a project look like if she had based all her work in building with others?  Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument is the direct response to Walker in this way, though his project took place earlier in time because he worked with community members to create a sprawling space for “art and study” out of wood and tape in a public park near Forest Houses projects in the Bronx.  The issue here, though, for my students is also about the politics of production.  Who made the choices of how to make what, and who had power? We can talk about it in terms of John Locke’s property theory, Marxist ideals, and also primary sources.  When we consider public history and social practice projects as primary source in a classroom, we can be immediate with out students and challenge the way they use their intellectual prowess in everyday practice.

Image: Erin Bernard, courtesy of Little Berlin

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