Opinion

If You're Outraged By This Photo More Than Poverty Itself, Then We've Got a Problem

It’s easier to cancel a person than the issue itself. And the issue is far more complicated than it seems.
IMAGE Solenn Heussaff
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What is art if not to disturb the comfortable?

A photo of a celebrity and her art has been circulating the net. Despite all her talent, she was burned for supposedly using poverty porn for her own benefit. At first glance, it’s a shallow picture and an even shallower issue. The post has been deleted, but its screenshots are immortal and now play a part in the longstanding debate of the purpose, responsibility, and nature of art in the Philippines.

The photo features Solenn Heussaff, actress and artist, posing in front of a piece that’s part of her upcoming exhibit "Kundiman" at Modeka Art Gallery. But it’s not the painting of nature or fashionable rug that caught people’s attention—it was the background, which according to one sarcastic netizen is courtesy of “the systemic oppression of the Filipino people.” According to the comments section, the jury of morality in the universe, it was a classic example of poverty porn and the ignorance of the elite. #EatTheRich, they cried.

And suddenly the toxic nature of cancel culture turned its wheels again. Yes, it was a massive mistake, one she has taken accountability for, but the level of bullshit toxicity that exists on social media nowadays makes it possible to be more pissed at a social media post than poverty itself.  Suddenly, it’s so easy to write someone off as ignorant than to make an effort to enlighten. We put so much energy into trashing a celebrity than addressing the government (that we voted into power) that has let poverty run rampant in the first place.

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Oh, the irony.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of this moment is the discourse it has ignited on the purpose and responsibility of art in the first place. Poverty porn has been around of ages, there’s nothing new about that. But poverty has been depicted in works by Filipino artists countless times without crossing the line to exploitation and the trap of poverty porn. The main difference? It all boils down to intent and whether the poor are used as an aesthetic device or a catalyst for discourse.  

In 2021, can we still allow art to exist for art’s sake? Yes, art is personal, but it is also, always, political, despite what many claim. Can we create art and exhibit art in a vacuum, at fancy galleries where the poor are unlikely to set foot in? Take a look at how we create and exhibit art, not just in the Philippines, but in the world. Has art, like so many things, been reduced to profitable content?

But we digress. Going back to the issue of Solenn’s art, yes, the presentation of her artwork was a public misstep, but it should be seen as a case study instead of a subject of hate. In this scenario, what is the moral responsibility of the artist? Particularly to the subjects of the art. How do you depict the poor without exploiting them, and how can the artist repay the subject? And perhaps the most challenging question to ask is how do you depict social realism without falling into the trap of romantic embellishments?

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These are questions still being answered in classrooms and theses. Art is all about asking questions and attempting to answer them in a way words will never accomplish. Well, we certainly won’t find the answers in a few angry tweets. But one solid thing we can hang onto is that art, when featuring those  suffering, should not be allies of oppression. If you know who you do art for and why, then you’ll know where you stand.

As Banksy once said, the purpose of art is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. We’re not sure if Solenn succeeded in the former, but she certainly did in the latter.

If you’re pissed about poverty, then what are you doing about it?

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