In his book, Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Response to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present, Art Hazelwood puts both the art and the reality of homelessness in front of a public that too often averts its eyes from the plight of those living on the streets.
Hazelwood traces the history of the economic, political, and cultural forces that have shaped social policy from the Great Depression, through the relative social equity of the Great Society, to the current Great Recession. He shows that artists have not only seen and understood, but also responded to the crisis by focusing attention on the connection between public policy and people without a place to live.
Homelessness is one of the many symptoms of the systematic shrinking of the public sector over the last 30 years, starting with the Reagan presidency. Hazelwood points to influences such as the media’s distorted reporting on homelessness and the rise of corporate culture that has driven tastes and markets for art. In contrast to the art of the 1930s and 1940s, contemporary art has little social content. Although it’s difficult to gauge the impact on our collective social conscience of a photograph of migrant farm workers or a public mural depicting working people, Hazelwood asserts that socially driven art, posters, film, plays, literature, and music can collectively inspire people to think and take action.
Major museums and galleries seldom display art that reflects the reality of working people or the unemployed. According to the Government Services Agency more than 11,000 works of art created through Depression-era programs like the Works Progress Administration are languishing in museum vaults around the country.
While major museums and galleries may not be actively seeking art of social conscience, artists are still producing it. As today’s economic forces shape and promote a culture that numbs and diverts viewers, Hazelwood reminds us that we need art to awaken and activate us.
Reviewed by Sam Redman