Teaching with Contemporary Art

Teaching About Poverty and Homelessness

Anthony Hernandez, from "Landscapes for the Homeless". Image: cgrimes-news.blogspot.com

This past Saturday, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote an op-ed piece called Them That’s Not Shall Lose which highlighted, as James Baldwin put it, how expensive it is to be poor in this country, not to mention in a country where half our members of congress are actual millionaires. In a series of poll questions included with the article, only 9% of those surveyed making over 75K per year had trouble paying for medical care for themselves or their family. On the other hand, 51% making less than 30K per year had trouble paying medical expenses. Only 11% making over 75K had any problems paying their mortgage or rent while close to 50% making less than 30K had trouble doing so. And this poll only included those who actually have jobs.

As I visited Mass MoCA this past weekend for the second year of Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival I came across three photographs by Anthony Hernandez, part of a wonderful group exhibition called The Workers, which documented the physical traces of homelessness along the freeway between Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Instead of photographing the homeless, Hernandez makes us look closely into an undistorted life, literally on the road. The pants hanging to dry in the tree branches and scavenged materials fashioned into a work space from Landscapes for the Homeless had me thinking about Blow’s op-ed piece and illustrated (in a simultaneously beautiful and alarming way) how grueling homelessness and poverty can be.

Utilizing Mass MoCA texts on the artists featured in The Workers, much like utilizing texts and resources provided by Art21, allowed me to approach the work in a meaningful way that shared its context- immediately offering me an opportunity to compare what I was seeing to what I just read that morning in the newspaper. Pairing up news, commentary and social issues with contemporary art that illustrates it in unique ways is another opportunity for us to share new art and artists that are both exciting AND relevant. Mr. Blow and Mr. Hernandez should talk!

Contributor
Joe Fusaro is the senior education advisor for Art21, and has written Art21’s “Teaching with Contemporary Art” column since 2008. He is an exhibiting artist and visual arts chair for the Nyack Public Schools in New York; and an adjunct instructor for New York University’s Graduate Program in Art and Arts Professions.
  1. Stacey says:

    This is nothing new. What was “art” for in Mesoamerica? The wealthy, the lords, and the rulers. This is an old “battle” – the haves versus the have nots — and even art is not immune

    Tribal Art Hunter

    Reply

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