Recently I saw a documentary about artist Michael Heizer’s installation “Levitated Mass,” which involved transporting a 340-ton boulder from a quarry in Riverside, Calif. to the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art at the cost of some ten million dollars. Although the film mostly steered clear of sentiments against the project, I kept thinking of the cost and even more so the effort in contrast to the same investment in human services.
Most of the people in the documentary had to do with some aspect of moving the boulder over 90 miles on a custom 300-foot-long trailer with over 200 wheels: employees of the engineering company which transported it, the museum, or one of the 22 municipalities which had to sign off on the implications of the rock being routed through their streets. But as thousands of people gathered along the route to rubberneck or cheer, there was plenty of opportunity for man/woman on the street commentary as well, including in some of Los Angeles’s poorer communities.
Only two people in the film made obvious objections to the project, one an unemployed man who declared the project’s expense and effort ridiculous, and a woman who reasoned if the money hadn’t been privately raised there would have been a riot (instead of the peaceful, in awe, and low key party atmosphere which prevailed). The remarks seemed well-timed and even true, but raised another point: does such expense and effort in another direction, away from what would help you, only matter if you’re the one suffering?
Throughout the film I kept thinking of the boulder as a metaphor for hunger as well, how immovable the problem of hunger sometimes seems, how much money and effort are expended to move it only a short distance. While Kitsap food banks enjoy strong support, there are people who believe food banks add to the problem without quite articulating what the problem is. There are people who want to support the kids we serve, but not the adults, even as the majority of the adults are seniors or are struggling with medical crises or disabilities.
What I think they really mean is they don’t want to support the lazy, the addicted, or deliberate users of the system. There are some of those in any system, but at our food bank they’re statistically negligible. Another news flash to the detractors: needing a food bank, though a fantastic service where available, does not land you in luxury, and is not the equivalent of being able to buy and choose your own groceries. People use food banks because they’re what stands between them and hunger.
Some experts have contended government programs nearly solved domestic hunger in the 1970’s, and that continued cuts are what contributed to the rise of food banks. I suppose they mean nearly solved in the sense of an effective mechanism to address the issue, not as in hunger would never occur again, because that seems impossible. As long as the primary way we obtain food now is through stores and the “big food” chain, as long as housing remains a disproportionate amount of most family budgets, and as long as people struggle with aging, illness, and low wages or lack of work, hunger will exist.
Does the fact our local efforts won’t eradicate hunger mean we shouldn’t address it? No. It’s like saying you wouldn’t treat cancer because you can’t assure its end. But also like cancer treatments, current hunger “treatments” are a kind of workaround, a systemic failure to examine or have a solution for its probable causes.
Is art more important than human services? Would any of the privately raised funds for “Levitated Mass” have found their way into human services without the project? Doubtful. Of course neither the artist, the museum, or the engineering company moving the boulder were thinking of this, nor would there have been any particular reason to frame the question this way, had the undertaking not been so massive. They were all thinking of their own interests, just like the unemployed man in the crowd was thinking of his own. It’s analogous to the investment in technology and entertainment: you think if they can do that, if the same investment of intellectual capital not to mention other capital was made, could we solve it?
The people who need us (in over 24,000 individual services last year), aren’t thinking of art either. Let’s put it this way: food banks are an artful solution to an intractable problem, requiring an extraordinary effort. It is a magic act, and we are levitating a mass of people.