Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Peasants and Beggars


Jackie asked me about articles on beauty in urban neighborhoods, so my mind wandered as I thought to myself, "But what do we really mean by beauty? Whose beauty? The Anglo-Saxon ideal or the African-American ideal?" (The recent exchange on music in the church included a comment by Jackie that some folks can't get beyond the 19th century, which I assume to be Victorian, Edwardian culture, etc.) I then started to think about why the contemporary discourse on poverty, illness, old age and death is so insufficient in this era of speed, beauty and health. We have no patience for melancholy (psychiatric over-prescription is a real problem), for old people who walk and talk slowly, and needless to say, for the poor.

Beauty is indeed the question; I have been advocating it in my last posts as part of elite Episcopalian social responsibility. I am not taking those thoughts back, but I wonder if we should also think about representations of the socially marginalized. I did a quick search for images of the beggar in the history of western art, and intriguingly I found that pre-modern depictions of beggars and cripples are usually absent of any psychologism or sentimentality. More importantly, as demonstrated by the great northern painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting, Peasant Wedding, there is no fetishization of the poor as the "other." Where are the "poor" in this painting? The decor of the room is bare and simple; the celebrants of the feast are in humble peasant attires and their manners naive and rough; the food looks like soup. By our standards, these northern European peasants of the 16th century would be poor. But in this painting, they are the hosts of a feast; moreover, they're letting the beggars into the party in the upper left hand corner. The beggars, for that matter, don't seem to look as miserable as the modern bourgeois would like. We are more used to romanticized depictions of near naked children, bare-footed yet doe-eyed, sitting on the road. If they happen to be dark-skinned, it sets them even farther away from our comfortable lives and allow us to shed even more tears of pity. But this painting presents a raucous scene of festivity that is completed by the entry of the beggars. If they are taking away resources, the beggars also add joy and merriment.

Pieter Bruegel represents a school of painting that is relatively indifferent to the aesthetic standards of the art academies, which in Italy and France began to flourish based on a systematization of artistic achievements of southern Renaissance. Instead, Bruegel is known for enigmatic, ludic scenes that derive from the vernacular, the folkloric. He is the painter of the peasants and their non-ideal faces: crooked noses, fat chins, missing teeth. Yet no one who has spent some time looking at Bruegel's paintings could remain untouched by the unruly tenderness that he gives to these figures. They are paradoxically both ugly and beautiful: they occupy the ambiguous zone between the real world and the fairy tale. In this strange way, this painting does not separate the world into the rich and poor, the beautiful and the ugly. Instead, it divides the world into the hosts and the guests, both of whom have a right to fill the house where food abounds. I wonder if there aren't some things to be learned from such a view of the world.

The need for beauty is human, but it is also essentially fascist and totalitarian (there are hundreds of books and articles about fascism as the aesthetization of the world), unless we commit ourselves to loving only what is both beautiful and good, and what is good must be real. Crooked nose and missing teeth are real; the uncouth manners of the peasants are real; the bare benches and pots of brown-ish soups are real; and the disruption of the party by the hungry beggars is real. But Bruegel seems to be charmed by such realities; he muses on them; he transforms the beggars and the peasants, not by idealizing them as 19th-century bourgeois novelists would do, but by distancing himself just enough to give us a totalistic view of how the world is composed.

I think this painting is the perfect image for Jackie's community kitchen, because it includes the beggars into the world. Ultimately, homeless people and bourgeois people still belong to one world, they still tread the same ground on God's earth - this is the greatest mystery of all.

1 comment:

gale said...

Your post reminds me of the Ashcan School in turn-of-the(19th)-century New York City. Paintings of vibrant street life, mundane activities - women hanging clothes, washing their hair on a tenement roof. These paintings were a self-conscious critique of the sentimentalization of poverty (by the Victorian do-gooding elite).

They are different in that the painters were sometimes a part of the "slumming" middle class youth - Harvard graduates who got it into their heads that they could truly experience life if they lived as bohemians among the urban immigrants. But paintings of bloody boxing matches, seedy bars, and (black, white ethnic) working people did challenge the reverence many early twentieth century Americans had for Beauty and Progress.