The Thing Itself: Art and Poverty, Part 2

The Thing Itself: Art and Poverty, Part 2 June 9, 2015

Continued from yesterday.


picasso1How should we treat the poor?

Among those who work on behalf of them, it has become a truism that our first obligation toward our less fortunate brothers and sisters is to first recognize and celebrate their humanity. What is less often recognized is the vital role that art can play in such a process. Roberta Ahmanson in the interview she gave recently for Image spoke about how she, as a patron of the arts, has worked to serve homeless families through a nonprofit called Village of Hope:

I think people might say that the Village of Hope doesn’t need stained-glass windows; they need food, job training, tutoring, beds for the babies. But Jim [the founder] intuitively understood that the places you bring people to speak to them about their own value. When you…put them in a box like a prison cell, you have just said, “We think you are a prisoner.”

[So, Jim] built the House of Hope for abused women and their children…in the arts and crafts style, with nineteen bedroom suites, and as he was developing the idea of the Village of Hope, he was already thinking about how to make something more beautiful. Then I came alongside him, and we went for it. It is probably the only homeless shelter in the world that has stained-glass windows and an eighteen-foot vase and Albert Paley gates, and they are all very proud of it.

One reason that the art at Village of Hope is so powerful is that its beauty speaks equally to the humanity of the helpers and of those being helped. It isn’t “socially conscious” art—another example of moral high-mindedness gone awry. The problem with socially conscious art is that, by attempting to address social ills directly, it begins with the notion that it already has the answers and merely needs to dramatize them. The results are predictably didactic and inert.

It seems to me that the artists who are best equipped to speak to the problem of poverty start from their own poverty—an acute awareness of their limits as well as their deepest needs, questions, and anxieties. This awareness entails a recognition that the artist does not stand apart or above but is implicated like everyone else. As Albert Camus wrote in his notebooks: “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession, and I must bear witness.”

While a work of art is, in essence, a fiction or construct—a “nothing” that does nothing—it has an obligation to bear the imprint of reality (like those water tanks deep underground that scientists use to capture the passing of rare subatomic particles). Needless to say, art does not in itself alleviate the suffering that poverty entails, but it remains one of the most compelling means by which we can be turned from distraction and denial and enabled to dwell for a time among those we would pass by.

One of my favorite quotations is from Fr. Luigi Giussani, who once made the disconcerting statement that “the beggar is the protagonist of history.” There’s something crazily hyperbolic in that idea—particularly for someone raised in a culture that is addicted to the success story of the self-made person—but it has grown on me. So many of the protagonists of the most enduring stories are pilgrims in search of something they need, some meaning they need to discover. In the end, the beggar, like Saint Francis, knows that everything is a gift and therefore must be shared.

The artist is a beggar because she is empty, waiting to be filled. But the artist is also, to take up that central preoccupation of Pope Francis, someone who is driven to go out to the margins of society in order to learn what the margin can teach those at the center. That is certainly the biblical narrative from Abraham onward. King Lear learns it on the blasted heath—a margin if there ever was one—in the company of Poor Tom the beggar.

Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou

owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on ’s are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself: unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare, forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!

come unbutton here.

Confronted by a picture of human nakedness, the ultimate image of poverty, Lear recognizes his own sophistication—a pun that not only glances at his dependence on the trappings of civilization but also at the sophistry that such power tempts us to practice. Sensing at last his own dependence on the clothes that are in the end only lendings, accommodations, he seeks to identify himself completely with his poor brother.

No doubt art itself can become a form of sophistication and sophistry, detached from the ache of real human neediness, but the enduring masterpieces, I would argue, recognize their own ultimate poverty, leaving room for the possibility of grace. Shakespeare’s language ultimately points beyond itself, toward “the thing itself.” The richness and complexity of artistic forms reproduce the maze of circumstance through which we live and move, but in the end art’s goal is simplicity—Lear embracing Poor Tom, Dante the pilgrim gazing up at the stars.

Art helps us imagine the lives of others, including the lives of the poor, but it also helps us confess our personal forms of poverty. It may even make us receptive to the idea that our very neediness points toward the existence of that which can fill the heart—which after all is the hungriest part of us.


Gregory Wolfe is the founder of Image and serves as Writer in Residence and Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Seattle Pacific University. His books include Beauty Will Save the World and Intruding Upon the Timeless. Follow him on Twitter: @Gregory_Wolfe.

Painting above: Le pauvreté, (Poverty), Pablo Picasso, 1903.

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