As New York City transitions from a technocrat mayor to a more “populist” one, much recent discussion — at least in the press and among us liberals — has focused on homelessness. The New York Times profiled a homeless child named Dasani to illustrate the city’s larger problem: 64,060 homeless people in New York, the largest population of its kind in any US city and the highest local levels since the Great Depression. Michael Bloomberg’s response was to blame it on God; Mayor De Blasio invited Dasani’s mother to his inauguration.
Artist Andres Serrano has been thinking about the crisis, too. His response is a little different. He decided to buy hundreds of homeless people’s signs off them, use the signs for a slick video artwork with a techno beat, and post it on Creative Time Reports. The work, called “Sign of the Times,” features individual signs floating and drifting against a black background, as a club-ready remix featuring samples from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech plays hypnotically. You inadvertently start bobbing your head and shaking your butt … and then you remember you’re looking at the signs of people who have no choice but to sleep on the streets.
Serrano’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place, but his taste is bad. And “Sign of the Times” is the worst kind of faux-political art, because it turns horror into kitsch and avoids saying anything actually political — or anything at all — by hiding under the cover of trite universal messaging. You can’t not agree with his project, because no one is pro-homelessness. “I won’t say this is a political piece, because if it is, whose politics?” he writes in the accompanying text. Translation: I don’t want to commit myself to any political claims or ideas, so I’ve made a bland video about an “issue.” That issue is, sadly, not even controversial enough to raise the video to the level of propaganda, only transform it into a bizarre form of “homeless chic.”
The naiveté and myopia of Serrano’s idealism are evident in the premise of the project. As he writes it, this is the spiel he delivered to the homeless individuals he approached:
I’m an artist. And artists see things in a different way. And one of the things I see are the signs the homeless have. I’m buying these signs because I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that should be heard. Can I offer you $20 for your sign?
Leaving aside the patronizing and self-satisfied tone, one wonders how Serrano expects to tell any stories when he’s detached the signs from their owners (forcing them to make new ones), thrown them into a techno-filled void, and stamped his name on them. The artwork is under his name, and its subtitle in the video is “Andre Serrano’s Collection of Homeless Signs purchased on the streets of New York City.” Lest we forget, let’s all say it again one more time: Andres Serrano, the artist, bought these signs. From whom? Eh, some homeless people. Doesn’t matter. It’s in service of a larger point.
Ever since Serrano’s post went up I’ve been thinking about another homeless-related art project that made the rounds on the internet a few months ago. This one, you might say, is the inverse of Serrano’s. Called Signs for the Homeless, it involves artists Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope meeting homeless individuals on street and offering to make them new signs — hand-painted, beautifully designed, word-for-word re-creations of the old ones. Note the difference: Serrano paid people so he could appropriate their signs; Nakayama and Hope are giving them new, eye-catching signs in exchange for their old ones. The latter also photograph their subjects and interview them, posting the pictures and conversations on Tumblr, where others can read and possibly learn something. Submissions are welcome, too; the project is not exclusive to Nakayama and Hope.
Will the duo solve the crisis of homelessness through their art project? No. But at least they’re working to make homeless people more visible, which is a necessary first step. Serrano keeps them in the shadows and sets their pleas to a catchy beat. All we can do is bob our heads and nod along.