|Tyree Guyton, Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, 1986. (Photo credit: Hanneorla, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license: CC by-SA-3.0)|
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 www.heidelberg.org)
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.