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The following is adapted from a presentation given at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley in January 2015 during a convocation on the topic “Blessed Are You Poor: What Does It Mean to Be a Poor Church for the Poor?”

I SHOULD HAVE TOLD Father Michael Sweeney that if he really wanted a heartfelt talk on art and poverty, he should have asked my wife. But I am profoundly grateful that the witness of Pope Francis has spurred so many of us to rethink our relationship to the poor and marginalized. There are a dozen directions to take this topic, depending on how we define poverty. We have spoken of it as an evil—a condition to be ameliorated whenever possible—and we have spoken of it as a virtue—a habit that embraces simplicity, freedom, and sacrifice. It is, of course, both.

Poverty is the kind of topic that makes someone like me uncomfortable. After all, my bailiwick is the world of high art—literature, painting, sculpture, classical music, and so on. I inhabit a world where the production and certainly the consumption of art largely exist in a culture of privilege.

Some might say that I am entirely cut off from the poor—that their natural habitat is in an altogether different neighborhood, that of popular culture. But here we immediately bump into other complications and ambiguities. What we call popular culture today bears little relationship to its past incarnations. If you want to describe art that arises from the life of real communities bound together by history and shared experience, the better term would be folk culture.

By way of contrast, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that much of what we call pop culture today has its origins in conference rooms at Sony Corporation. Contemporary pop culture is a commodified substance, generic and syncretistic—so much “product” to be moved. And much of it is devoted to celebrating what the poor lack: money, power, and fame. The ironies here would be delicious if they were not so tragic.

This is the sort of thought that makes me occasionally wonder if I need to get in touch with my inner Marxist. The real difference between folk culture and pop culture is that one is made in the plaza or town square from a rich matrix of religious, ethnic, and historical experience, and the other is downloaded. I’m reminded of a line of Andrew Lytle’s written nearly one hundred years ago in an essay protesting the effects of modern industrialism on culture: “Throw out the radio,” Lytle wrote, “and take down the fiddle from the wall.”

Call that a utopian sentiment if you will, but if we are not haunted by that summons to making—rather than merely consuming—culture, we’re going to suffer from one of the bleaker forms of human poverty.

The tension between art and poverty is an old one. Today another speaker alluded to the famous words of Christ: “For ye have the poor with you always.” It’s worth recalling the context of that phrase: the moment when the woman anoints Christ’s feet with expensive oil. The disciples, do-gooders that they are, immediately object that the money spent on the oil would be better spent on the poor.

But Christ blesses the act. The oil not only cleanses but has a rich fragrance, honoring the humanity of Christ with beauty beyond utility. The anointing is wholly gratuitous, which also happens to be one of the fundamental characteristics of art. If art is a free act, not done for utility or gain—if it is truly useless—then its relationship to the world of valuation and the market will always be troubled and unclear. (The classic text on this is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.)

Our cultural programming, at least in North America, leads us to think of art either as useless or—what amounts to the same thing—as a luxury. But if we really want to care for the poor, the question we should ask ourselves is: what have the poor done with regard to art? Pope Francis speaks constantly about the “santo pueblo fiel de Dios,” God’s faithful holy people. How have they voted with their feet?

The historical record is clear. We would not have the great cathedrals if not for the countless, nameless poor who contributed widow’s mites to their construction. And where there are no cathedrals there are household shrines, murals, depictions of Our Lady of Guadalupe spray-painted on lowriders and tattooed on forearms. And let’s not have any condescending nonsense about the groundlings at the Rose Theatre coming only for Shakespeare’s bawdy jokes. The climactic scene of Shakespeare in Love had it just right when it depicted the entire audience, from pauper to Queen Elizabeth, as equally riveted by the drama of Romeo and Juliet.

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.

As David Griffith has written, “when we encounter the poor and indigent we project onto them our own deficiencies,” including our obsessions with money, utility, and success—things that have little purchase on the poor. When school budgets have to be cut, the first programs to go are arts-related. Words like global, competition, markets, and technology are given ritual obeisance while words like wonder, attention, and imagination are rarely heard.

Throw out the iPad and grab the fiddle.

Among those who work on behalf of the poor, 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.” He 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 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 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.

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  1. Nancie Chmielewski on July 1, 2015 at 6:54 am

    stunning–thank you.

  2. […] From Gregory Wolfe: […]

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