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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why I'm Bitter: Cruelty of Starvation

Over 2.2 million people have already signed the petition condemning the recent work of artist Guillermo Habacuc Vargas. The backlash is due to the nature of an exhibit "Eres lo que lees" - you are what you read spelled out in dog food - that subsisted solely of a dog, chained to the wall, starving to death as people watched. Vargas explains:
"The purpose of the work was not to cause any type of infliction on the poor, innocent creature, but rather to illustrate a point. In my home city of San Jose, Costa Rica, tens of thousands of stray dogs starve and die of illness each year in the streets and no one pays them a second thought.

Now, if you publicly display one of these starving creatures, such as the case with Nativity, it creates a backlash that brings out a bit of hypocrisy in all of us. Nativity was a very sick creature and would have died in the streets anyway."
As cruel and inhumane his exhibit is, how sickening it is to showcase inflicted starvation right in front of us and call it "art," he has a point. What has he accomplished?

One could argue he sacrificed one poor animal in order to bring the issue of the cruelty of starvation into the forefront. That poor Natividad's life was slowly, torturously, stolen right under a purposefully placed sentence of food serves as a shocking reminder how painful, heart-wrenching, cruel and shameful it is for a living creature to starve to death in the midst of readily edible food.

It is easy to cry foul-play and lament this poor dog's death as meaningless.

I, however, find a vitally important lesson to learn from this cruelty. Stray dogs like Natividad suffer similar fates everyday, not just in the slums of Costa Rica, but worldwide. He dangled unnecessary suffering right in front of us and people are outraged as they should be.

But if it were not for Natividad's visible, tangible sacrifice, how many would still be outraged? Are we upset because this one dog starved to death in the presence of food, or because he forced us to acknowledge that living beings starve to death in the midst of plenty every second of everyday? That stray dogs like Natividad have only a future of hunger, pain, and death and are, by and large, completely ignored?

What if instead of a dog, Vargas had tied up a 2 year old child underneath a sign made out of rice, or corn, or Frankenberries, or deluxe Belgium Mousse? Would we be more outraged that an artist displayed a child literally starving to death under the shadow of a meal on a showroom floor, or that it took an artist to make us wake up to reality?

According to UNICEF and related organizations:
  • Every 3.6 seconds someone dies of hunger
  • It is estimated that some 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition, about 100 times as many as those who actually die from it each year.
  • The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is well-fed, one-third is under-fed, one-third is starving
  • Malnutrition is implicated in more than half of all child deaths worldwide - a proportion unmatched by any infectious disease since the Black Death
  • Half of all children under five years of age in South Asia and one third of those in sub-Saharan Africa are malnourished.
  • Throughout the 1990's more than 100 million children will die from illness and starvation. Those 100 million deaths could be prevented for the price of ten Stealth bombers, or what the world spends on its military in two days!
  • One in twelve people worldwide is malnourished, including 160 million children under the age of 5.
  • In the U.S. hunger and race are related - in 1991 46% of African-American children were chronically hungry, and 40% of Latino children were chronically hungry compared to 16% of white children
  • One out of every eight children under the age of twelve in the U.S. goes to bed hungry every night.
  • To satisfy the world's sanitation and food requirements would cost only US$13 billion- what the people of the United States and the European Union spend on perfume each year.

Now I know I am a little late on the Vargas issue, but how is it that 2.2 million people care enough about one dog's starvation death, and yet the starvation deaths of 17 million human children every year don't spark nearly as much outrage? Is it because 17 million is too big a number to swallow, to understand?

Then what about just one child dying from starvation - just try to picture one single little infant, her face sunken, her ribs protruding through her thin skin, her cries so faint and weak you barely notice them, her tears so much more precious because of dehydration, her hunger so powerful and her mother so unable to meet such a simple need, her death so devastating, so earth shattering for her family.

Now realize she is only one of 328,600 children under the age of 5 estimated to die this year - in the industrialized nations! In the least developed nations, 14.2% of all children under 5 each year will die, many completely and easily preventable from cruel causes like starvation. That's over 17 million deaths! Where's the outrage?!! Why does one dog matter more than 17 million human children?!!!

That's why I'm bitter

1 comment:

WiddydiploMatt said...

I love your point about the ONE child. Does it really matter whether the number is 17 million or 50 million or 100,000, if even ONE child is unfairly starving in the world and we have enough to help that child? Statistics are helpful in glimpsing the extent of the problem, but they fall short of actually igniting any moral courage in even the most perceptive and bitter (as you use it) individuals. In the human psyche, it only takes one, oppresively tangible example, rather than millions of intangible examples, to start an internal war.

Having said that, what the viewers of this art form clearly lack is PRINCIPLE. We can't visualize the one child or the 17 million children because we have a hard time extrapolating and extracting abstraction from what we know to be true. We are impulsive and reactive to what we take in with our eyes, especially when it is unexpected and out of place: "That starving dog belongs in the street where he blends in and we'll see him but we won't reflect on him."

Therefore, I think the failure of the art form is that even in a room with white walls and endowed patrons passing by, where the abstract principle is literally handed to your eyes in dog food and dog flesh, the artist underestimates how reactive we can be. Whereas he might have thought that the shock of such a presentation would compel us to stop and consider that we are ALL to blame for this tragedy, we actually go for the "easy" reaction which is to blame the artist directly for not preventing this. Really, all he did was move the inevitable to a more visible location. I'm sure he predicted a strong reaction to his work, but he may not have predicted how thoroughly distracting this reaction can be to the necessary abstraction and reflection required to instill principle and mobilize real change.

But then again, he's not finished yet...and neither are we: the reaction-distraction destroyers and principle promoters.