The journal of the Center for Documentary Arts, a nonprofit initiative to bear witness to suffering and promote the common good through the arts. At the crossroads of art, ethics, faith, and social justice, the Center brings together makers and thinkers whose work advances beauty, compassion, collaboration, dignity, and mercy.

14 March 2011


Dorothea Lange, Kern County, California, 1939

I was in Ireland for a couple weeks, which included time participating in N. Michael Murphy's Love, Loss, and Forgiveness workshop, a profound crucible of compassion and healing. Still wholly infused with the lessons of that experience, on the flight home I happened to watch Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's documentary about the 2008 financial crisis. The film won this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary, an honor richly deserved for the clear, courageous way Ferguson navigates us through the how and why of the world banking meltdown that cost millions of people their savings, their homes, their jobs, their security.  How?  Through manipulation of the US political process, eliminating regulations and safeguards that protected our economy and, by enmeshed extension, the rest of the industrialized world. Why? Why else? That particularly malignant greed of wealthy, powerful men for ever more power and wealth.

By the time I got to the film's credits, I was seething and emotionally spent, as anyone must be in the face of such monstrous avarice. The bankers, economists, politicians, and policy-makers indicted in the film, most of whom still have their fortunes and their jobs (including one or two running the US Treasury), devised and promulgated financial schemes designed entirely to enrich themselves and a relatively small number of shareholders, schemes they knew must inevitably implode and impoverish the rest of us.  For a time, it seems, the whole monied world was enchanted by these men, or at least believed that those we wanted to trust had everything under control. You leave Ferguson's film knowing two things beyond a doubt, that the individuals and structures that caused the destruction remain firmly in power, and that nothing meaningful has been done to reform the system. The global banking and finance system is a vast humbug that must eventually fail under the weight of its own corruption.

A few days after I got home, I went to hear Dr. Lisa Dodson speak about her book,  The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert An Unfair Economy. Dodson is a self-described "public sociologist," a kind of academic investigative journalist who spent several years interviewing the so-called working poor, people who often cannot meet their basic living expenses despite having one or more jobs. As an academic, she is in control of a raft of statistics, which together paint a horrifying picture of the American underclass. Here's one such number: In America today, fifty percent of all children will rely on food stamps at some point before they turn eighteen. This is unnerving. In the richest nation in the world, one in two children will require public assistance to keep from going hungry.

A friend of mine who worked in a large public hospital is fond of declaring that the United States is becoming a third-world nation. This was the picture in my head as I listened to Dodson describe the impossible compromises a brutal economy forces on the working poor in healthcare, childcare, housing, and anything resembling a family life. These compromises threaten children's health, their education, their happiness, and impact the social fabric in everything from drop-out rates to crime to psychological well-being and civic bonds. In other words, Dickens' shivering waifs Ignorance and Want are our own.

Dodson's book is not simply about the economic underclass, however, but about the middle-class men and women who work beside them, typically as managers and supervisors. Working-class jobs today are often service jobs, in retail, health care, food service and other areas that pay minimum wage and often provide few or no benefits. Those in mid-management positions know that the people they oversee often cannot support themselves on what they earn; they are all too familiar with the burdens their workers bring with them from home. Dodson's book is about those supervisors who go against company policy to help these workers, by allowing them to leave early for a doctor appointment, by not docking their pay for a school conference, by giving them food or other resources off store shelves.

Dodson calls these gestures "acts of economic disobedience," and they are not done without the potential risk of losing one's own job. The people Dodson interviewed said they took action despite the risks because they could not turn away from suffering, and because to not act would make them complicit in a morally corrupt system. (How corrupt? Consider this: The four hundred richest individuals in the US possess more wealth that the bottom fifty percent of Americans. Four hundred have more than one hundred fifty-five million. No wonder we need all those food stamps.)

Heroic acts of empathy like those Dodson describes are becoming more common as they become more necessary. Such empathy is essentially an act of imagination. One must conceptually experience a reality not one's own, and respond to it with compassion and creativity. I was discussing with a friend the other day her idea that service is essentially a creative act. This is an intriguing notion, that service, which we think of as a response to another's need, can in fact be rightly conceived as exploratory, imaginative, original on the part of the giver. And if from creativity one extrapolates creation, then service becomes in essence an artistic response to the world.

As one who has known a number of people deeply embedded in acts of service, this makes perfect sense. Many of the individuals I know who minister to the needs of others, whether as nurses, case workers, educators, or others, are deeply creative people. It is no easy thing to respond year after year to the plights and sufferings of those less fortunate, and to do so effectively takes passion, commitment, spontaneity, resourcefulness, and ingenuity, all qualities of the artist at work. It also takes high levels of detachment, of savvy, of penetrating intelligence, also provinces of the artist, and the results are often equally as enlightening and inspiring. Indeed, the main difference between an artist and a creative service provider may be intention; one strives to create an aesthetic effect, the other a practical one, although I'm not all that sure of this distinction.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
photographing for the FSA in 1936.

This all brings me around to the photograph at the top of this post. Dorothea Lange, like poet Elizabeth Bishop I wrote about in an earlier essay, is an artist I responded to at a very young age, well before I could articulate exactly why. I don't remember where or when I found the postcard of this image, but I remember I was moved not only by the defiance of its message but by the passion and compassion of Lange in taking it. She was working for the Farm Security Administration when she made it, a US government agency that employed photographers to document the conditions of poverty to support legislation to alleviate it. This was in the years following the Great Depression, when it seemed, as it does today, that the "big men" had taken America for their own. (In Inside Job, there's a similar image, of graffiti on an urban wall demanding, "Where's my fucking bailout?")

The Depression was a turning point in American politics. I believe we are at the fault line of a similar paradigm shift now, on a far larger scale in which old orders of dominion and false ego, be they economic, political, social, or personal, will be replaced by new modes and methods of action. Dorothea Lange left a comfortable career as a studio photographer to go into the streets and express the suffering of men in bread lines. Her art was her service. I know artists today who are leaving the studio to engage the changing times in direct, sometimes unglamorous, ways. I believe that those who remain in their practice are being called to service of their own. Lisa Dodson told me that many of the people who come up to her after her talks are artists seeking to make a contribution with their work.

This, I believe, is where the muse wants us now, in the world, bearing witness to the needs of humanity and serving the higher consciousness of love and compassion. Really, it must be so. Otherwise, the big men who care nothing for these things will continue to control everything, even the air.


Anonymous said...

This is so excellently written. I think your interpretation of the film, the current state of our nation, and where we are [hopefully] headed are spot on.

Btw, I thought of you in hearing the Japanese emperor say the following in response to the on-going devastation: "I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times."

Harry Kloman said...

Good morning, Tim. I just read your post-Ireland essay on your blog. Outstanding work. Just the other day, I was thinking about things along the same line: If so much money is concentrated in the hands of so few people, what are the chances of the Republicans' beloved "Joe the Plumber" ever getting their hands on any of it? There simply isn't enough to go around unless the wealthy give up some of it. George Bush Pere was right: It's voodoo economics - which didn't stop him from taking the job when offered.

You make an analogy comparing artists to people who work in "acts of service." The analogy works, except for one thing (and this will make your head explode): people who give food to the working poor, or who provide
social services to them, are actually giving them necessities. The former
ameliorates; the latter is a palliative. You will dispute this with passion,
I know. But looking at a work of art never fed anyone's child (probably not
even the artist's!). I'm not saying we don't need art. We do. I only wonder
if the money spent on some art couldn't be better spent in troubled times.

Rich people give money to the arts so that rich and middle-class people can have their diversions. I would be much happier if money given to the arts required, for example, that underprivileged school children be able to go to
the symphony or the theater. It wouldn't feed their bellies, but at least the money would go toward feeding their minds, and not the minds of people who can afford a theater ticket on their own (and who, as you point out, are
part of industries, like banking, that got us here in the first place - it galls me to see a bank's name among sponsors on a cultural event).

Put bluntly: Can we afford, both morally and literally, to be so high minded (was that the sound of your head exploding that I just heard?!)

I wish Obama could read what you wrote. I wish you worked for him. Not that he'd show the courage to take on the banks. But at least you might make him feel guilty. Better than nothing, I suppose.


Timothy Cahill said...

Hi Ayami. Economic justice will find us or we will find it. The latter has every chance of being harmonious, but I'm afraid the former will look like what we're seeing now in Japan -- upheaval, deluge, meltdown. Ideas are so powerful, we have to continue to speak to the necessity for justice to rise out of compassion rather than coercion.

Timothy Cahill said...

Harry, old friend, great to see you here. Let's get right to the distinction you make between the service of artists and others whose acts are more practical and pragmatic. Your distinction between "ameliorative" and "palliative" service is interesting, but does it not suppose that art is essentially a form of consolation a/o escape? I tend to agree more with William Carlos Williams, that "It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there" -- in other words, art is as necessary to our survival individually and collectively as food, shelter, safety. Albert Schweitzer once retorted to the photographer W. Eugene Smith that "philosophy is for men with full bellies," but art is made by people with empty bellies, under fire, in concentration camps. I agree with your statement that arts money should be spent on paying for children to go to the symphony or theatre, but of course, the first money has to go to employ those who make the music and the plays. Unfortunately, that money increasingly comes from corporations and individuals who have earned their wealth exploiting the essential injustice of our economic structure. What to do? As regards your hope that the man in the White House might read what I've written here, from your lips to President Obama's ears, amigo. I would love to see this administration begin a latter-day FSA to send photographers, film-makers, artists, and writers out into the country documenting what so many Americans endure each day. But first the administration would have to remove the Wall Street apologists from its inner circle, though, else the artists would be out there giving the lie to everything official policy is asking us to accept.

JoAnn F. Axford said...

It takes great courage for this visual artist to enter into this dialogue of such eloquent writers......
Although there are artists who make their art to make a living, there are just as many, or more I would guess, who make their art because of some deep rooted need to make art. Though I don't know that an artist feels that the process of creating her/his art is an "act of service", I think that many have appreciated that their need to make art has also satisfied another's need to engage that art. I don't think that art is only for those with a "full belly". I am also disappointed that I have not seen Obama including the arts in any of his economic recovery initiatives. It is also upsetting to see that in these economically troubled times, the arts are losing their funding and the art and music classes are being cut. If this keeps up, we may fill our bellies but will be emotionally starved.
Keep this dialogue going, beyond the blogs!

Timothy Cahill said...

Dear JoAnn, your eloquence can stand with anyone's. Thank you for contributing your thoughts. "Service" as I use it is meant to be a fluid term, to open up the definition of what it means to minister to others. To create beauty, as you do, serves the rest of us in ways that are vital. In the short term, human beings can survive (but not thrive)in a world without beauty. But I doubt humanity could long endure deprived of it.

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