Poverty: Yesterday and Today

The Museum of Art here at BYU is holding an essay contest, and since there's a chance to win an iPod touch AND my teacher counted it for his class, I decided to do it. Now I think I will share.

Here is the prompt:
"The Museum of Art is hosting a writing contest that requires students to compare the issues presented on canvas by Victorian artists to the contemporary issues that they read about in the newspaper, see on television, or study in their classes. After viewing the collection, students will pick one artwork from a group of preselected works that they feel best explains how the issue presented is also reflected in contemporary society. The student will then write a brief essay (400-800 words) that describes how the Victorian artwork helped them understand a contemporary issue and how that issue affects them."

Here is the painting:

And here's what I said:

Most of the social issues that we hear about today on the news or in the newspaper are things that have existed for many years. By simply watching the news for five minutes one will undoubtedly come across such issues as immigration, healthcare, poverty, and war. These and others were just as prevalent in years past as they are today, though they may have been portrayed in different ways, such as through art.

In 1874 when Sir Luke Fildes painted his Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, newspapers were a common form of discussing social issues. Whether to express peoples’ discontent with various items of interest or just to create awareness, they were the way of sharing opinions and bringing others to an understanding of what was happening in the world. This is why Fildes was met with some resistance and disdain when he used his talent of painting to depict a scene of poverty, which was a major problem at the time. People were not used to seeing such blatantly realistic and “undesirable” images, especially in paint. Painting was an art reserved for things of beauty to be displayed in galleries and the homes of the wealthy. Fildes knew that using a refined medium to depict this subject would certainly catch peoples’ attention and convey a clear message.

That message was not just that poverty existed. It did, and this was a powerful reminder of that fact, but Fildes was really saying something much more poignant. A quick glance over the painting and anyone can see a crowd of people huddled together against the winter cold, waiting in line in a dark alley. From the title we can understand that they wait with the hope of one night’s warm sleep in a bed at a public ward. However it is only when looking more closely at the details of the painting that Fildes’s deeper meaning is revealed. While many of the figures blend into the cold dark background, certain ones stand out. A small, decently dressed family on the right draws the eye of the viewer because these particular figures have been painted in more luminous colors. To the left, a widow with two small children stands in the foreground, and immediately to their left an older, distinguished-looking fellow seeks advice from a police officer. The reason Fildes highlights these specific characters is to remind everyone that poverty is not something that only affects the lower working class. Once-happy families with children are not necessarily immune. Widows are not immune. Even distinguished gentlemen who once dressed in expensive clothes and mingled with aristocrats are not immune. Neither are the young nor the elderly.

Even today we tend to think that we are exempt from the problems of society that we hear about on a daily basis, but Fildes wanted everyone to be aware of the fickleness and uncertainty of life. We may be in high standing at one point or living happily with our young family, but problems that lead to poverty can and usually are unexpected.

This painting affects me in a variety of ways. First, it reminds me that poverty is very real. At the grocery store where I work, I daily see people scrounging for dimes and nickels to buy any tiny bit of food they can get, and sometimes there still is not enough. Even here in Happy Valley, people beg for money or food. People sleep on the streets. Children starve. We generally think of ourselves as safe from these possibilities, but even my own parents recently lost their jobs with the decline of the economy. To me this reinforces what Fildes was trying to say. We never think these things will have a direct affect on us, but they can.

Second, I am reminded of how blessed I really am. Yes, things are a little stressful at times, but our family still has all the basic things we need. I am still able to go to school and receive an education. I have food, clothes, and a place to live. Here at school we tend to call ourselves “starving students,” but none of us has to wait in line every night in order to sleep with a roof over our heads. The reality that Fildes successfully portrayed in his painting remains true today: while many of us might be on a tight budget, there are always other people who have less. Poverty is a very real creature, and we need to be aware and ready for those moments that we do not foresee.


Francesca said...

Excellent essay. It is clear, well-written, and very explanatory. And so very true! I hope you win!

The Clingo Family said...

Seriously, EXCELLENT essay!! I don't know anything about art or care about art, but that essay was very good and kept my attention! haha. (And not just because it was yours)Now looking back at the picture, I see exactly what you mean. You're so insightful. I hope you get that ipod touch.

Very good Beth. A+ ;)

Chase & Cait said...

Great essay! what you said in the first paragraph about the painting was the first thing I noticed too. Some faces stuck out, others were blurry. There are children and adults in the painting. I think you hit what Fildes was trying to say head-on. Poverty is a universal issue, and anybody can be affected by it regardless of age, status, race, etc.

I also liked how you called poverty a creature. Very good language.

Yara said...

Excellent essay, Beth. I'm proud of my littlest sis!

I think, too, the decently dressed family reminds us that we may encounter people in similar situations every day and not know it. They look just like us, and they may have a place to live, but they may not be able to buy food or other necessities.

And because there is such a stigma attached to poverty (if you looked for work harder ... if you saved your money .. .if you didn't buy that house/car/etc ... you wouldn't be where you are now; it's your fault), they may not reach out for help until it's too late, and like the well-dressed family in the painting, they are standing on a street waiting for shelter or food.