When you think of a place that has both great art and coffee, it’s natural to think of a hipster cafe where the baristas wear horn-rimmed glasses and correct you, insisting that it’s “esssssssspresso” and not “expresso”.
So Cafe Art’s motto “Where homelessness, great art and coffee meet” might seem a little strange. No, there isn’t an implicit joke about how hipsters dress like they’re homeless. Cafe Art works in conjunction with cafés and charity organisations to help showcase art created by the homeless.
Recently, Cafe Art provided 100 Fujifilm disposable cameras to people living on the streets. With initial training from the Royal Photographic Society for those unfamiliar with photography and a thematic brief of ‘My London’, individuals contributed an array of photos across a variety of subject matter.
Also launching a Kickstarter to raise money to fund a 2016 calendar, “All the money raised goes back into the project, either to pay for the printing of the photographs and calendar, rewarding the winning photographers, buying art materials for art groups affected by homelessness or helping individuals attend art courses.”
However, despite claiming that art and photography can help raise an individual’s confidence and sense of self-worth, the initiative’s justification that this “can be as important as more tangible benefits” is dubiously idealistic. The personal fulfilment that aesthetic engagement affords is far above the basic needs of physiological demands and the need for safety on Maslow’s hierarchy.
Rejecting any donations unless you’re buying a painting or a calendar, Cafe Art may on one hand empower homeless individuals by equipping them with a means of earning through their craft, but realistically, they wouldn’t earn enough to get off the streets. With funds raised being directed to buying art materials or paying for courses, Cafe Art is a charitable initiative for the homeless doing little to remedy their actual situation.
Aesthetic engagement, whether it be through the creation or appreciation of art is a luxury not many can afford. While art’s humanising faculties may bolster a person’s sense of self-worth, Cafe Art’s project is at most a weak attempt to mitigate a peripheral contributing factor, let alone a means of tackling the actual problem itself.
The photographs themselves range from a decent but pedestrian shot of a man carrying an umbrella next to a red telephone box to a more poignant photograph of a man reading a newspaper next to a shopping trolley stacked high with all his belongings. None of the shortlisted photos of the 2500 are bad, but neither are any of them spectacularly brilliant.
Which then poses a moral dimension to the value of the photographs from this project. If Cafe Art’s aims are predicated on the merit of the artwork produced (as is suggested by the emphasis on honing skills and opportunities) then there is a deeply unsettling implication that suggests that these pictures are special because of the plight of photographers who took them.
The romanticised idea of the starving artist is one that assumes that art only belongs to those who can afford it and is surprised when people prove able to produce works that look good or are compelling. And this project and the media coverage of it (with headlines reading “Someone Gave 100 Cameras to Homeless People in London — the Results Were Amazing”) capitalise on these elitist assumptions and then congratulate themselves on being open minded and supportive.
The capacity for art can be found in anyone, but few truly possess it, regardless of socio-economic status. Glorifying art on the basis of the artist’s situation is both exploitive and patronising.