Third Screen: Entertainment vs. Recession Porn


Who is rich and powerful? Who is poor and weak? Artists and journalists always write about these things, but how they do so is telling.

During this current economic crisis, a disturbing number of journalists and artists have let the struggles of the poor become a sort of arm candy issue.

Case in point: David Lynch has just launched a project in which he will introduce over a thousand short films on street people, and they are compelling films, but it's all about production values and how much the haves care about the have nots even though the haves get to go home at the end of the day and the have nots just sort of sit down on the curb where they'd been talking and wave goodbye to them. It's really more about bad luck as art. Maybe it's even art abuse.

What are we growing in the petrie dishes of art and journalism these days when it comes to central topics like poverty? In "Too Poor to Make the News," an opinion piece in The New York Times by Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich, she talks about the "Nouveau Poor" and "recession porn" and what she sees ahead:

... In Los Angeles, Prof. Peter Dreier, a housing policy expert at Occidental College, says that "people who've lost their jobs, or at least their second jobs, cope by doubling or tripling up in overcrowded apartments, or by paying 50 or 60 or even 70 percent of their incomes in rent." Thelmy Perez, an organizer with Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, is trying to help an elderly couple who could no longer afford the $600 a month rent on their two-bedroom apartment, so they took in six unrelated subtenants and are now facing eviction. According to a community organizer in my own city, Alexandria, Va., the standard apartment in a complex occupied largely by day laborers contains two bedrooms, each housing a family of up to five people, plus an additional person laying claim to the couch.

Overcrowding -- rural, suburban and urban -- renders the mounting numbers of the poor invisible, especially when the perpetrators have no telltale cars to park on the street. But if this is sometimes a crime against zoning laws, it's not exactly a victimless one. At best, it leads to interrupted sleep and long waits for the bathroom; at worst, to explosions of violence. Catholic Charities is reporting a spike in domestic violence in many parts of the country, which Candy Hill attributes to the combination of unemployment and overcrowding.

Artists argue, fairly I think, that we make trouble into art so that people will pay attention. But is it becoming an escape from attention? Is our need for entertainment overwhelming our need to feel reality?

Art knows that making trouble beautiful does not keep it from being trouble. So how does this kind of eclipse occur? It happens if we read and watch only the news. It happens if we read and watch only fiction and films. And it's inevitable if either activity becomes nothing but entertainment.

This piece originally appeared on True/Slant.