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Van Gogh - "The Potato Eaters"

Van Gogh – “The Potato Eaters”

Yesterday, I spent much of the day reading about extreme poverty. By evening, I had to ask myself, “Where is there an art that can speak to this? Where is the hammer to pound this nail?”

Throughout history, artists have depicted the poor, in paintings, drawings, and prints. But most often they have depicted the relatively poor, not the absolutely impoverished. I think of van Gogh’s Potato Eaters. Yes, these are poor people, but they have housing, clothing, food, light, a coffee pot and cups, etc.  At this moment, I cannot think of any artist who has depicted extreme poverty, absolute poverty. Though there may be some, they do not come to mind.

Perhaps there is a concern among artists that such work would be interpreted as overly journalistic, sentimental, or moralizing. Besides, it would not sell. It would turn people away. It is not uplifting. Perhaps it goes against the entire notion of what art is. Perhaps the images are just too difficult.

Extreme poverty is most often depicted in, and limited to, photography – the most journalistic of the arts . . . and cinema, where the image does not linger for very long, the story moves on. Though I think now of the urban jungle scenes in the movie, “City of God,” and Susan Sontag’s book, “Regarding the Pain of Others.”

 Last night, as evening drew to a close, I stepped outside to view the moon floating among the leafless branches of the mountain ash growing along our drive – a half-moon surrounded by stars. And I felt a fresh alignment, a re-acquaintance with the night, a happy return to this aging body.