Essay: Poverty and Art

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Global Issues and Art: Art and Poverty

The urban poor have often rendered into art in two equally incomplete ways: either they are rendered silent and ignored as mere background images or they are objectified. The aim of my art project was to let the poor speak on their own terms, using clothespins and traditional, humble artifacts found in urban enclaves of the poor to create beauty. Although so-called slums are often thought of as miserable places lacking in any aesthetic value, to their inhabitants this is not the case. To deny potential beauty is merely to engage in objectification of the poor, rather than to show real respect for those living in poverty who are striving to elevate their circumstances. The bright colors of the clothespins reflect the brightness inhabitants invest into their existence and renders the unseen beauty and joy seen in the context of the artwork.

The theoretical framework of objectification of the poor is similar to those which attempt to critically analyze the objectification of women and other bodies deemed to be 'other' and wrong. All forms of objectification involve the individual being treated as an object rather than a human being with his or her own perspective: "as a body (or a collection of body parts) valued predominantly for its use to (or consumption by) others."[footnoteRef:1] The poor have often literally been reduced to commodities on a physical level, not simply as laborers in the fields or in factories but also in art. They are viewed as 'representing' something (usually something negative, depressing, and bankrupt) rather than simply being themselves. For example, in medieval and Renaissance art in the West, images of the poor (created by the non-poor) depicted beggars either very negatively or as holy images, with little in between. [footnoteRef:2] My work of art is an attempt to counterbalance such notions. [1: Barbara Fredrickson & Tomi-Ann Roberts, "Objectification theory," Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21 (1997): 174. Available: http://www.sanchezlab.com/pdfs/FredricksonRoberts.pdf [4 Nov 2014]] [2: Tom Nichols, The Art of Poverty: Irony and ideal in 16th century beggar imagery (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997).]

The appropriation of poverty, specifically by fashion designers, has become so notable in recent years, it has even spawned its own world, that of 'favelization.' Regarding the appropriation of Brazilian slums, in her book Favelization, Adriana Kertzer writes: "Today, both Brazilian and foreign designers, marketing professionals, and filmmakers interpret and appropriate favelas, often producing something hybrid, something that merely touches on reality but does not reproduce it." [footnoteRef:3] Regarding her work on the favelas, Kertzer wrote: "The trend of favelization leads to a consideration on the ethics of design. Being often -- maybe even always -- political, design not only reflects but also affects power relations and human relationships. Design projects that employ favelization reflect and affect existing hierarchies of power as well as interactions between individuals of different social status."[footnoteRef:4] In other words, the phenomenon reflects the fact that art is often what is done 'to' the poor, rather than by the poor. In using the objects that are actually part of the reality of impoverished persons' existence in a positive fashion rather than objectifying the bodies of the poor as artifacts, I hope my work is a response to Kertzer's criticisms. [3: Adriana Kertzer, Favelization, (DesignFile, 2014)] [4: Adriana Kertzer, "Favelization," BRASA, Available: http://www.brasa.org/Documents/BRASA_XII/Proceedings/Adriana%20Kertzer%20-%20Favelization.pdf [4 Nov 2014] ]

In Kertzer's view, all art is essentially political, even if it is not the designer's intention to be so. Class relations have been so polluted while simultaneously the images of poverty are used as symbols to articulate particular political positions as well as design statements, thus it is difficult to separate artistic construction from real life. "Regardless of the designer's original intention, what they produce becomes political. While some design objects are political by nature, others become political because of how they are used, presented, marketed, and branded."[footnoteRef:5] While this has always been the case to some degree, in the modern ideological landscape where branding… [END OF PREVIEW]

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