Public Art and the Homeless: A Reprise

December 23, 2013

On Facebook recently, I saw that a friend had linked to an article on homelessness with an image of a destitute person wrapped in an American flag. Inspired by that, and by the latest figures on poverty, I’m reposting a little essay that appeared in the online magazine Satire (now apparently defunct) in 1999. Today the piece strikes me as snarky rather than funny, and yet, in the current political climate, I doubt that I could write even this politely—I’m much more angry and depressed now. That in itself says something, I guess.

Public Art and the Homeless: A Civic Improvement Project

My city, Philadelphia, is blessed with a multitude of public art. Our downtown alone boasts dozens of outdoor sculptures, many by internationally famous artists. We have 1,800 community murals—more than any other American city by last count. We possess fountains with water-spouting turtles; a bridge in the shape of a human finger; a public toilet with aluminum acrobats on the roof; a 45-foot steel clothespin opposite City Hall. And each time a new work is unveiled, my wife grumbles.

“Why couldn’t they spend that million dollars on something useful?” she mutters. “What about the homeless people wandering the streets, for instance? What good is another stupid sculpture?”

Now, my wife is not a Philistine, or even a Phyllis. She appreciates art as much as the next harried middle-middle-classer. At every major museum show she wedges dutifully into the crowds, straining for a glimpse of the framed objects on the wall. She believes, nevertheless, that items like food, clothing and shelter are somewhat more important, and that they should be distributed with a greater measure of equity.

I can’t argue with her priorities, but I have tried to dispute her connection between art and social causes. The donors, I say, the ones who contributed for the latest sculpture—they weren’t offering the same funds to the poor. If they hadn’t ponied up for public art, they might have put their spare cash into the latest coquillage bracelet or Galápagos expedition featured in the margins of the New Yorker. Besides, think of it from a philanthropist’s point of view: Donate money to a social program and it basically disappears, right? No matter how much you give, the poor people are still around, as Jesus himself observed. But if you contribute to a sculpture, at least you can go see what your money bought.

My wife merely sneers, classing me with the affluent and ignorant, which is manifestly unjust, at least on the first count.

Our arguments will get more pointed, I’m sure, as homelessness rises again. Already three casualties of welfare reform are bedding down on benches in the little park across from our house. Neighborhood dogs sometimes pee on them, and they in turn occasionally pee on the park’s dignified bronze sculpture of a fawn, wreaking havoc with the patina. A block away, at the corner of an apartment building inhabited by tiny white-haired ladies with tinier white-haired poodles, another fellow sleeps on a sidewalk steam vent. Though he has become a regular there, the poodles and their owners tend to suffer cardiac difficulties whenever they encounter him.

It’s a problem that calls for creative thinking. And creativity, I believe, often involves the joining of familiar elements in unfamiliar ways. Hence I’m going to take the unfamiliar position of admitting that my wife may be right—there can be a direct connection between the homeless and public art. The homeless, in fact, can become public art.

It’s a simple but grand idea. At the basic level, and for little expense, we could supply the citizens who live on our sidewalks with artistic clothing rather than their traditional scummy rags. As an example, for the Republican National Convention to be held in Philadelphia in the summer of 2000, I’m proposing that the city outfit the mobile homeless with shirts bearing the American flag on the front and a large, smiling elephant’s face on the back. (No, not an elephant’s posterior, as some wags may suggest.) As they shuffle around Center City on their usual rounds, our Homeless Folk will automatically proclaim our municipal patriotism as well as our appreciation for the lavish outlays of GOP conventioneers.

As for the immobile poor, who already tend to resemble outdoor sculptures, we could decorate them with small flags or pennants, red-white-and-blue booties, streamers, etc. Installation artists could construct multiperson arrangements at strategic sites near the convention center.

In the long run, as this idea takes hold, seasonal ornamentation would be appropriate. The Homeless Folk could wear Pilgrim hats for Thanksgiving, red bows for Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for St. Patrick’s. Or they could be adapted to each city’s unique history and character. Our city has approximately 287 statues of Ben Franklin, so why not 287 walking, talking replicas in period costume? And these people are far more trainable than the cynics believe. Surely many of them could be taught to ask for change in an eighteenth-century accent.

The aesthetic potential is enormous. As for the Homeless Folk themselves, the benefits are equally obvious. Nicer clothes, for one thing. Public respect instead of denigration. A chance to feel they have a true role in civic culture.

The best part of the plan is the ease of its funding. Not a coin need come from public coffers. The same philanthropists and institutions that donate to a city’s conventional artistic endeavors—the ones whose names appear on bronze plaques in museums and theaters—can be engaged as sponsors. They will flock to the program because of its immediate, visible results—they’ll be able to see with their own eyes the benefits of their contributions on street corners and grates throughout their city.

I invite all Americans to begin such a program in their own communities. In this proudly diversified nation there is no reason for Homeless Folk to remain a despised minority when they could offer so much to our civic ambience.

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