Poverty. Scarcity. Hunger. Desperation. Just words. Little black letters on a white background.
Pain. Gasoline. Dirt. Infection.
Still just words.
Sweat. Smell. Blister. Ache. Nope. Still words. Can’t get past or around them to the thing behind them.
Despair. Sacrifice. Misery.
Damn. Oh well.
How do we reconcile our largely insulated lives, surrounded by words, words, words, airy plosives and humming vowels, with the world of actual needs that exists out there?
We live, so many of us, in a bubble of privilege, sustained by luck and 20th century technological breakthroughs and the short-term availability of fossil fuels — and, of course, made possible by other people’s labor. Thank you Chinese and Vietnamese and Malaysians and so many others all around the world, working 16 hour days or longer for nearly nothing!
Of course you want to object… The economy here is struggling! Unemployment remains stubbornly high! People worry about paying bills! Keeping their health insurance! This doesn’t feel like a bubble of privilege! Poverty and pain and misery are present here as well.
But I would bet that most of the people you know, if you have the time to read this, are doing unimaginably well, from the perspective of most of the other people in the world. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about the superrich. I’m just pointing out that most of the people we encounter during the day, with few exceptions, take hot showers in the morning. They dab perfumed shampoo on their hair. They rinse, repeat. They treat themselves to foods they like, calorie-rich drinks, a biscotti just for a treat. They might even regularly pay more for organic, grass-fed beef, antibiotic-free eggs, a really not bad bottle of wine. They almost always wear freshly-laundered clothes. Last year, perhaps, someone you know bought a new car — such a thrill to drive it off the lot!
And most of the world knows… scarcity. Sacrifice. Mud and hunger all day long. Puss coming from that wound. Itching for months.
Still just words. We cannot enter it.
Can we do better if we try without words? Visual artists try to trigger mirror neurons. Photo-journalists take portraits of children in wartime. A filmmaker explores the desperation of a father searching for his stolen bicycle, needed to feed his family. Painters paint prostitutes and drug addicts. But does it work? We may gasp, even hold our heart, feel a rush of… our common humanity. But then we take a well-deserved break at the museum café — aren’t your feet tired? Make sure to order the sweet potato fries! They look way too tasty.
The rich are too often oblivious to the suffering of the poor because the poor are oblivious to the lives of the rich because the rich are oblivious to the suffering of the poor because the poor are… We are simply unable to experience cold on a hot day, and vice versa. We are insulated from one another by the limits of our experience.
The above image depicts a junkyard. A boy carries a mattress that he is presumably salvaging. A yellow truck, turned on its side, glows in the sun and leaks coolant or gasoline. The sky is blue, but the scene is one of decay and desperation. Who would want to carry a filthy mattress away from such a place? What conditions would drive a person to do this? We see another figure in the background — an even younger boy? He is standing on the front grill of a car, perhaps hoping to collect some scrap metal, or a pair of old windshield wipers.
Do we care about the figures in this painting? We feel that we do. We have… a feeling.
But do we really care as we gaze at them? I would suggest that we don’t, not really. (Though, importantly, I am certain that we would care if we stood there in real life.)
Does the artist care about these figures? Barely. (Though, importantly, I am certain that he would care if he stood there in real life… and perhaps did care when he was there once?)
He definitely shows a feel for color. He has balanced the yellows and reds and earth-tones and blues beautifully. There is a great deal of technique on display here. Also a religious imagery hovers over the painting (grrr…): the telephone pole at the center forms a cross, and the boy carrying the mattress is in a Christ-like pose, with his arms extended, his feet coming together, and his head slumped down. We are, I suspect, intended to sense that he is sacrificial in some way — for society, for the Western industrialized world, for the oppressors, for the victims like him, for his family, for his mother and father, something.
But really when we feel that warm, righteous, restless breeze, the feeling that stirs us as we gaze at this picture, we should remember that it is an aesthetic condition. It is not sympathy. If anything, it is self-love. This painting does not provoke us to act. It provokes us to admire, or at the very most, to regret. It is a passive condition that it depicts, and it is a passive condition that it inspires.
Should it do more? This is where it gets tricky. Art can do more: if it is employed as a means of propaganda. Or it can do more by expanding our imagination. These are the two options for changing the world with art. This painting fits squarely in the middle, and I would suggest that it does neither. It is weak propaganda — there is no villain, no sense of outrage, no course of action offered. But it also fails to expand our imagination. We already knew that some poor people search junkyards for salvageable goods. We already knew that they are weighted down by their limited access to resources and opportunities.
So what we have going here is one thing: it is pretty to look at.
This is not meant as a judgment. Seriously. Pretty to look at it is a lot! But we should be clear what this painting does, and not let our vague, nascent sense of self-love confuse us into thinking that our response to this painting proves our concern for our fellow human beings. We feel we care, we want to care… and sometimes we do care! But it is useful to remember that the ways in which we do care are demonstrated in how we act, not in what we find it pleasurable and stirring to see.