On Poverty


On Poverty


[The text of a talk I gave at the Next Wave festival in Melbourne on the subject of art and poverty]

I walked here this morning
And as I walked
I wondered what I might say
I was trying to think about art
and poverty
and I wasn’t getting very far
I was trying to consider what we do to poverty
when we make art about it
But the only thing I could think of
was a picture that a friend of mine posted
on Facebook
from backstage at Les Miserables
at the Palace Theatre in Manchester
In the picture
a piece of dirty looking hessian cloth
Hangs on a black hook
And next to it is a carefully laminated sign
that simply reads

I walked
and I wondered
and I thought about the rag
and the sign that said rag
And I was so lost in this thought
that I almost didn’t notice
the man asking me if I had any change

The man was about my age
he had matted hair
and a straggly apologetic beard
and the lines around his eyes were filled with the dust of cars and pavements
He asked me again if I had any change
and I found a dollar
and I gave it to him
and then I said
Sorry if this is a strange question
but I’m just about to go and do a talk
for the Next Wave Festival
about how art might
represent poverty
And I was just wondering if you had any thoughts

He looked at me for a moment
and he blinked slowly
and then he said

Fuck you.

He said
I’ve seen you a thousand times
you and people like you
People who want to tell my story
He said
I’m tired of being talked about
He said
I’m tired of being consumed
He said
You’re destroying me
You’re suffocating me with my own borrowed words

I told him I was sorry and that
I think we just want to help
We want to make things better

Fuck help
he said
How is this helping?

I said that thought perhaps it was about raising awareness
About telling stories people haven’t heard

People are already aware.
he said
Look at the sleeping bags in doorways and on benches
Look at the man asking you for change
Open the newspaper
Switch on the television
every second programme is a celebrity chef or a football star visiting Africa and asking for money
every time Bono clicks his fingers a child dies
We are surrounded by poverty
We are choking on it
Like smoke from a fire in the next room
that we are all pretending isn’t there
we can feel the heat
and we can hear the crackling
And we can see the glow from under the door
awareness has never been the problem
he said
I don’t need anyone to tell me what’s burning
I need someone to find a way to put the fire out

That’s great I said.
That’s what I’ll tell them.

And he said
No you won’t.
You don’t have permission.
I don’t give you the permission.
You don’t have the right to take my words.

I said.

he replied
Don’t talk about me.
I don’t want you to talk about me.
To use me as a cheap rhetorical device
A way of making your own thoughts somehow more authentic
To wrap them in hard-won, worldly wisdom
to conceal the fact that you who has never been poor and desperate
will be sat in a room full of people
who have never been poor and desperate
talking about poverty and desperation
And eating pastries
Don’t be ashamed of who you are
He said
And don’t use me to make yourself look better
That’s cheap
It’s beneath you

I said
then you go

He said

You go
Go instead of me and you talk to them

So he did
Cleaned up and without the beard he looked remarkably like me
And he managed an almost passable English accent
He stood at this table
Holding this microphone
And he talked about his poverty
And he used the analogy about the fire
And he finished by saying

That the value of art
Is not in the stories we tell
Or things we choose to talk about
It’s in how we choose to talk about them
And with whom

Is just the name we give
To a certain way of trying to change the world

And when he was done
He put the microphone down
He finished his glass of water
And then he opened the door
And stepped out into the
cold morning air.


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