Art and Poverty

From Gregory Wolfe:

When the privileged think about art we tend to either forget the poor altogether or, if they come to mind, to fall into moralism. We fret that art may be a distraction from justice. But as Elaine Scarry has argued in her book On Beauty and Being Just, the truth is the other way around. Beauty, whether manmade or natural, evokes in us the desire to protect what is both precious and vulnerable.

The problem for religious believers is that we confuse the virtues of piety and asceticism with mere pragmatism. We wring our hands in high-minded angst, focusing guiltily on the dollar value of the art in the Vatican. The faithful poor don’t ask how much art costs but what we have given back to God.

When I attended a Methodist seminary for my M.A. I first encountered people willing to place justice for the marginalized and impoverished at the forefront of religious thought and action. I was drawn immediately to liberation, feminist, and black theologies, though I felt that like a white, male outsider there wasn’t much I could say. But then, I wasn’t required to say anything. Saying would have been something of a violation.

The Anxiety of the Privileged always haunted those discussions, and continues to haunt any with the vocabulary and media outlet to say something about the world. No matter one’s ethnicity or gender, the fact was we were all sitting within the comfortable walls of the Academy, thinking academic thoughts, saying academic things, even those things accompanied with sincere emotion.

We knew we would never escape that kind of privilege, and none of us wanted to. At best, some of us would take their scholarship into activism, sometimes finding a balance with scholarship and sometimes not, abandoning the Academy all together in the name of making a “real” difference.

The world needs those “real” difference makers. But as Wolfe points out here–correctly, I think–the work of creating various kinds of art is a way both of alleviating suffering in the world and revealing to ourselves and others a certain kind of universal poverty that exists in all people. Philip Booth wrote:

I strongly feel that every poem, every work of art, everything that is well done, well said, generously given, adds to our chances of survival by making the world and our lives more habitable.

Which of course is not to say that this serves as some kind of substitute for literally feeding the poor and housing the homeless and educating the illiterate. But neither are those things sufficient unto themselves for responding to poverty; the physical bodies of the poor–like our own (impoverished in more subtle ways) physical bodies are more than limbs and organs. Our bodies are include our environments, our contexts, our dwellings. Where we feed the poor, how we house the homeless, the depth and breadth in which we educate the ignorant, and the physical dwellings in which we do these things are all intimate components of the acts of alleviating suffering and providing hope; these all directly impact bodies and help to form the body’s response to the relief of it’s impoverishment. Like Roberta Ahmanson says regarding her creation of the Village of Hope, “When you…put them in a box like a prison cell, you have just said, “We think you are a prisoner.” ” One can be fed and clothed and housed and even educated, yet remain deeply impoverished, one’s humanity not honored or made any more visible.

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