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 exist.
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 society.
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."