ART exhibit timid PR for homeless providers and agencies FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 30 Dec 1999 22:04:05 -0800 (PST)

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"Those hard, indifferent faces of America don't appear in THE WAY HOME [art
exhibit]. There isn't a single shot of a homeless man or woman getting
rousted by the cops or being ignored by pedestrians. Nor do any photos
catch the acts of individual kindness that occasionally occur, the $5 bill
that someone presses into an old man's hand on a freezing morning before
disappearing in the crowd." - more below


Oversimplified & Largely Uninvolving, Exhibit Misses a Chance to Explore A
Complex and Troubling Issue

By Ferdinand Protzman

Special to the Washington Post

     Sunday, December  12, 1999; Page G02

Visual art has been toting sociopolitical baggage ever since ancient
religious leaders discovered that pictures were an effective tool for
turning the uneducated masses into true believers. But in the Corcoran
exhibit "The Way Home: Ending Homelessness in America," the images by 13
photographers have been so saddled with polemics and prescriptions that
their power to change hearts and minds has been severely diminished.

This is unfortunate because homelessness is a pressing problem in our
country, as it is in others. The latter point is totally ignored by this
exhibition, which was organized by the Corcoran Gallery and the National
Alliance to End Homelessness and is tucked away in the back rooms on the
museum's first floor. The organizers treat their subject as a relatively
recent, uniquely American phenomenon rooted in the social policies of the
1960s and '70s, exacerbated by Reagan-era budget cuts and sustained by the
willful indifference of a wealth-obsessed nation.

Those are certainly contributing factors. But they are parts of an older,
bigger and more complex view of homelessness, one that sees it as a way and
condition of life created when Adam and Eve were shown the garden door.
That view is conspicuously absent from this tidy, theme-parkish exhibition.
Throughout history, some people have chosen to be homeless by rejecting the
four-walls, three-squares notion. Others end up with no home for an array
of reasons that can be boiled down to bad breaks and bad habits. It's a
tough, often ugly picture rife with scenes of man's inhumanity to man. It
seems destined to last as long as hate, greed, cruelty and indifference

Those factors get short shrift in "The Way Home." The exhibit's premise is
that homelessness can be eliminated by pouring money into social service
agencies that help people find shelter, food, medical treatment, addiction
counseling and vocational training. Never mind that duly elected
representatives of the American people enacted the legislation that allows
police to  evict the homeless from our cities  or that Americans have been
quite willing to trade halfway houses and homeless shelters for tax cuts.
This show isn't looking to indict society or raise complicated
philosophical and moral questions. It's selling a solution.

"What we see in the exhibition is the point of view of people who are
homeless or involved in the process of ending homelessness in America,"
says Philip Brookman, the Corcoran's curator of photography. He curated the
show with Jane Slate Siena, the head of institutional relations at the
Getty Conservation Institute. Tipper Gore, also a driving force behind the
exhibit, is one of the featured photographers.

"We wanted it to be emotionally engaging," Brookman says. "But I didn't
expect the exhibition to make as much sense as it does. That's partly
because social service agencies around the country have made this
concentrated effort to hold out the prospect that we can end homelessness.
It's not an impartial project. It's a concerted effort by a lot of people
to show that we can end homelessness."

The exhibit consists of photographs of homeless people in both urban and
rural settings, some of them participating in local, state and federally
funded assistance programs. The pictures were taken by a fine group of
photographers including Jodi Cobb, Donna Ferrato, Ben Fernandez, Betsy
Frampton, Annie Leibovitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Eli Reed, Joseph Rodriguez,
Stephen Shames, Callie Shell, Diana Walker and Clarence Williams. These
photographers donated their time to the project.

Seen individually, their photographs are often beautiful but only
occasionally engaging emotionally. Only a few of the images are truly tough
or touching. Viewed as a whole, the photos blur together into a kind of
sanitized, upscale infomercial about homelessness.

That's the fault of the curators, not the photographers. They were sent out
under the aegis of various social service agencies, and that limited their
choice of subjects. And even when photographing a junkie mainlining heroin
into her neck, their art-class aesthetics, such as chiaroscuro, depth of
field and symmetry, kicked in. These are people trained to look for
textures, colors and shapes, not visual political statements.

As a result, many of the pictures are just too slick. Interestingly,
Leibovitz, the most recognizable name among the photographers, delivers the
most tepid, stylized shots in the show. Her elderly subjects seem like
caricatures rather than real people living at the margins of an unforgiving

That sense of precarious existence in a society that is at best
indifferent, at worst hostile to the homeless gets obscured by exhibition's
focus on solving the problem with more money. Money for programs, for
staffers, for building low-income housing. The idea extends to the show's
installation. Many of the photographs are shown on walls of raw lumber and
fiberboard within the large rooms. Give us the means, they seem to say, and
we'll build our way out of this housing crunch.

There is indeed a housing crisis facing low-income Americans that is
fueling homelessness. The number of single-room occupancy hotels, known as
flophouses in another era, has dwindled steadily in cities across the
country as developers convert them into apartments or they burn down. But
there are other factors at work.

Foremost among them is the nature of contemporary society. Like it or not,
the emphasis in America today is on personal responsibility, as opposed to
the kind of collective notion of societal responsibility that prevails in
Europe, where homelessness is also a problem. Often as not, personal
responsibility becomes an excuse for societal meanness. Recent studies have
shown that a large segment has no sympathy for the homeless and views them
as merely lazy or addicted.

Those hard, indifferent faces of America don't appear in "The Way Home."
There isn't a single shot of a homeless man or woman getting rousted by the
cops or being ignored by pedestrians. Nor do any photos catch the acts of
individual kindness that occasionally occur, the $5 bill that someone
presses into an old man's hand on a freezing morning before disappearing in
the crowd.

There's nothing ominous--no fear, no violence, no despair and, strangest of
all, no urgency--in this well-meaning but ineffective exhibit. The German
philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche paints a more compelling picture with words
in the last stanza of his poem "Alone," which ends with crows beginning to
caw and fly with whirring wings toward a town, and the words "Soon it will
snow/ Woe to him, who has no home."

1999 The Washington Post Company


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