Thursday, September 2, 2010

Decoding Detroit

Tyree Guyton, Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, 1986. (Photo credit: Hanneorla, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license:  CC by-SA-3.0)
A sociological journal I subscribe to, Contexts, ran a brief article on Rosa Parks in its Winter 2010 issue. The story was illustrated by a photo downloaded from Flickr that identified Tyree Guyton's Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, (1986, image above) simply as a piece of "found art." I sent a letter to the editor correcting the identification and offering a bit of explication on the work and its significance. The journal published my letter in the Summer 2010 issue. As it is only available to subscribers, I'm reproducing the letter below. This is the text is the original letter, which the journal edited slightly for length.
On p. 10 of the Winter 2010 issue of Contexts, a photo credit is given to "j/k_lolz" for the image of a street sign bearing the name of Rosa Parks. That photographer may have indeed captured the image reproduced, but the object depicted is actually a work of art in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The piece in question is Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment by Tyree Guyton (1986).
It isn't simply "found art" as the Flickr photographer noted but an object manipulated by the artist to make a point. The central artifact, a street sign, has been painted with an additional image, a bus that refers, of course, to Parks's role in the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott. But it has another layer of meaning for anyone familiar with Guyton's work and with Detroit history. "Rosa Parks Boulevard" (the sign's original site) is the name currently given to the former 12th Street, where the infamous July 1967 Detroit civil disturbances began. It was an attempt by municipal officials to make amends by rebranding the neighborhood, as if a simple name change could correct the years of police abuse and other deprivations that led to the conflagration. The city of Detroit is even more devastated now than it was then, so the battered sign serves as a grim reminder of promises unfulfilled. Indeed, Guyton's larger enterprise, the Heidelberg Project, an urban street installation of abandoned houses painted with bright colors and festooned with a panoply of castoffs, continues to draw attention to the virtual annihilation of the once vibrant Motor City brought on by disinvestment, racism, and other social calamities. (Go to
I'm reminded of Walter Benjamin's observation at the end of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In reference to Fascism he writes: "Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." The social effects of that destruction and its implications for the rest of America with the decline of the working class--epitomized above all by the unionized auto workers who gave Detroit one of the highest standards of living in the nation for blue-collar families--serve as the backdrop for the film Gran Torino, also featured in the same issue of Contexts and erroneously reported as being set in a Detroit suburb when it takes place primarily in the city itself.


  1. Vince,
    Kudos for setting the record straight so thoroughly.

  2. I am the flickr photographer that took the pic that originally appeared on this blog. It ticks me off that I am being accused of taking credit for a piece of "found art" that I didn't create.

    The photo as it appears in my flickr account is (and was) captioned and described: "Rosa Parks * Found art of Tyree Guyton" / "On display @ DIA Detroit Institute of Arts" and is part of the DIA Group Pool. Hardly the stuff of subterfuge.

    Whoever posted the photo on this blog included a hyperlink Click Here that should have ended any confusion if a concerned party had taken the time to check it out.

  3. Actually, there are two photos of the same subject, captioned differently. The one reproduced in the blog is different from the one that appeared in Contexts, published by the American Sociological Association. The Contexts one was from the stream "j/k_lolz". Contexts magazine didn't provide proper identifying information in the printed version, other than credit to the photographer and the notation of it being "found art", and that was what I was responding to. I was giving the work the context that Contexts magazine didn't. If you click through the image on the Contexts website, you do get the page captioned as Anonymous notes but you can't do that in a printed piece. Click here and you'll see the above is a different image, properly captioned. That said, my point about the work not being "found art," which would imply that it was a readymade, is still accurate. Guyton modified the found object with a specific purpose in mind and that important distinction was part of what I was talking about. The distinction of intention opens the door to discuss the work in a deeper way, which the Contexts article neglected to do. (And that's OK, they were talking about Rosa Parks not Guyton.) I'm not claiming "subterfuge". Rather just fleshing out a detail to give a depth of meaning to the work, which simply viewing it out of context, as it were, does not.