This very odd question occurred to me after Terry Messman, the editor of Street Spirit, suggested I write something for the paper in conjunction with the publication of my new book, Doodling on the Titanic: The Making of Art in the World on the Brink. Homeless people get the paper for free and sell it for a dollar on the sidewalks of Oakland and Berkeley.
My day job as a lawyer, much of which involves defending people who are homeless, doesn’t give me much chance to think about beauty. I’m all about how to squeeze my clients through the loopholes of law and convince a judge that even though they sleep without a roof over their head they’re still covered by the Constitution.
Beauty doesn’t enter into it.
But here I am, sitting in court, waiting for the judge to take the bench and this question, Are Homeless People Beautiful, is roiling around in my mind.
I don’t argue in court about whether homeless people are beautiful. It’s not something on which a judge will render a verdict. Nevertheless, aesthetic judgments about people who are homeless are always there in the mix, disappearing into a crowd of judgments about their cleanliness, their criminality, and the risk they may or may not represent to society’s health, well-being and economic prosperity.
Are Homeless People Beautiful? The answer generally is no. They are not.
This should not be surprising. People who are homeless are the targets of prejudice. And the target de jour of prejudice is invariably stigmatized as bad and ugly, morally and aesthetically displeasing.
They are invariably dirty.
“Dirty Jew,” shouts the anti-semite.
“Dirty N—–,” shouts the racist.
And people who are homeless? They are dirty, smelly, unkempt, and lazy.
Dirt is a sign of moral degeneracy. It is unhealthy and it’s ugly. Like excrement. If it’s in the street, it needs to be cleaned up. Then the street will be beautiful again. Metaphors of cleansing abound where prejudice attempts to rid itself of those who offend it.
Homeless people are constantly cited for what we call “quality of life,” offenses: blocking the sidewalk, trespassing on church steps, lodging (whatever that means), remaining in the park after curfew, etc. etc. I’m in court right now to defend my clients against just such charges. But I can’t help feeling their underlying offense is that they violate society’s sense of order, order not just as in “law and order,” but an order that people perceive as attractive, comfortable, and ultimately beautiful.
The good, the true, and the beautiful are the triumvirate at whose feet we worship.
The bad, the false, the ugly, are their opposite.
How did homeless people end up on the wrong side of that great divide?
Women are tyrannized by concepts of beauty. They mutilate themselves with liposuction and Botox, and strenuous dieting to conform to an impossible ideal.
Homeless people are also tyrannized by a concept of beauty, to which they will never be able to conform as long as they remain homeless.
I like to think of beauty as something everyone on the planet can appreciate. We all find sunsets, and meadowlarks, and fields of blooming flowers beautiful, whether we are rich or poor, housed our homeless.
Beauty is liberating. A joy. A relief from toils and troubles.
So how did it become a cudgel with which to beat people up?
The judge is late. Court was supposed to begin ten minutes ago. I start to scribble my thoughts on a yellow pad. Then I’m stopped by a thought. I’ve been thinking of what others think about people who are homeless. What would homeless people’s answer to the question, “Are Homeless People Beautiful?”
My guess is they’d find the question ridiculous. Their answer might be something like: “Well, Joe here is a beautiful guy, but Gus over there— he’s ugly as sin.” Or, “Maureen keeps her campsite nice and clean, but Davida’s place is just a mess.”
Then I think, well maybe the answer of the homeless would not be that different from that of the housed. Almost all homeless people would prefer to have a home. If they could be miraculously transported to one of those mansions in the hills with glorious views of the Bay—all clean and tidy, tastefully furnished, freshly painted on the inside and landscaped on the outside— would they not find their new surroundings beautiful, and their old campsites, by comparison, not so much?
Poverty is ugly.
Homelessness is a blight on a society as rich as ours.
Why pretend that homelessness is beautiful?
Perhaps the only difference in point of view, between those who use the concept of beauty to beat up on people who are homeless and those of us who use it as a beacon pointing the way toward a better world awaiting is the conclusions we draw from our observations, and the direction to which our moral compass points.
Once people who are homeless are not simply “the other,” but are seen as kin to us who are housed, then we housed ones will find in the houseless, the range of beauty, truth and goodness that resides in all of us. It just takes familiarity. I really believe that.
And I am comforted by this conclusion. It preserves my hope that all human beings can share in a common perception of the beautiful.
But it implies that universality can only be achieved if beauty can be extricated from all the moral judgments, contempt and disdain that infect it when it is applied to groups that we disparage. Perhaps inevitably, where we stand in the hierarchies of society, housed or houseless, rich or poor, comfortable or uncomfortable will infect our judgments about the beautiful, and until those hierarchies are dismantled there will not be a universal concept of beauty that we can all share and which will not be a tyranny of one group over another.
And until then, I’ll spend too much time in court scribbling thoughts on my yellow pad and doodling in the margins.
Oops. Time to put the pad away. The judge is taking the bench.
Osha Neumann is an attorney, muralist, and sculptor. He is the author of Up Against the Wall MotherF**ker: a Memoir of the 60s with Notes for Next Time and Doodling on the Titanic: The Making of Art in the World on the Brink. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org