On the morning of April 8th we headed off to meet people from The International Movement ATD Fourth World. Not having taken much notice of this particular meeting while looking through the itinerary for the week I didn’t know what to expect. After a metro trip and a typically brisk twenty minute walk we arrived at our destination in a rather nondescript part of the city. After being let in we were led up a stairs and in to a room full of colour. Accompanying the predictable furnishings of table, chairs, etc., were dozens of paintings, drawings, small sculptures and a drape hanging from the ceiling.
Once we were seated I found myself opposite a poster with the heading “I’m Hungry in My Head”. I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a typical meeting about poverty, with talk of poverty lines, indicators, and E.U. social policy. We were introduced to Marc, Philippe and Dan (from Yorkshire). Whatever I expected from the trip to Brussels I certainly didn’t expect to be listening to a Yorkshire man in such colourful surroundings.
To begin with we were shown a video to introduce to us what ATD Fourth World was all about.
During this video we learned about its history as well as its outlook and approach to poverty. Father Wresinski founded the movement in 1957. Born into extreme poverty himself, he was only all too aware of the indignity and stigma attached to being poor. He hoped through the organisation to help the most poverty-stricken to live with dignity and to help them to be able to lift themselves out of poverty. It aims to build awareness of poverty as a fact of life. Central to its work is a rights-based approach in that it sees poverty as a violation of human rights in terms of lack of decent housing, education and employment. In the video it became clear that the sharing of knowledge and culture through street libraries, play schools, and art workshops were a large part of its work. Footage was shown of a concert pianist giving a performance outdoors in a run-down area of Paris surrounded by shabby, high-rise apartment blocks. This event had been organised by ATD.
Along with this image what was most memorable about the video was the descriptions of life and struggle given by those in extreme poverty. One man spoke of how he burned cable in order to sell the remaining wire as scrap to be able to give his children a better life. He hoped to buy them toys for Christmas.
After the video we listened to Marc, Philippe, and Dan discuss their work in Brussels. Set up in 1988 the Brussels office focuses on grassroots expression. They go in to poorer neighbourhoods of the city with art accessories to give creative workshops. Every Saturday they also have street libraries and they began this in the Les Marolles region of the city, which we had visited the previous day. (Later, when leaving, we were shown the van they use for this work. See below.) They pointed out that under Article 27 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights people have a right to participation in cultural life. Generally they are received well in communities, as the contact is easy and open when armed with paints and brushes. They tend to work with parents and children together so that they can see each other doing something positive and creative. The importance of going out in to the community was also stressed because a lot of families and individuals would not come to a centre, as they would feel too intimidated. The contact gained between ATD and the poor can sometimes help to build bridges between these people and social services, it can create an opening for social workers. Although their work might seem impractical at first, they argue that artistic activity helps poor people to become more confident and so empowers them to help themselves.
In terms of funding they do receive some money from the EU and public finance, but most of their money comes from private donations. They bemoaned the fact that trying to get funding from the EU or other sources is a very long and slow process. They also voiced their concern about receiving funding. What was feared is that in return for such funding they would be asked for “results”, that would mean concentrating on those on the verge of getting out of poverty to the detriment of those in more severe circumstances.
Overall, they believed that one of the biggest difficulties for the poor was the lack of dignity they suffer and the lack of respect for them. Essential as food, water and shelter is, the poor need more than this. People cannot live on bread alone. Peter pointedly mentioned at the end of the discussion that there is no indicator for the poor receiving respect, or maintaining their dignity. When the talk ended we all took some time to admire the work on display in the room. I was no exception.
On leaving we were shown the van used in the outreach work.
In the afternoon some of the group, myself included, decided to visit the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. This museum exhibits paintings from the 15th to 20th centuries. On climbing the steps past the obligatory columns and statues and passing through the main door we found ourselves in a huge and imposing atrium. After a little debate and sign searching we discovered that we needed to buy tickets for 3.50 euro each in order to view the paintings. We purchased our tickets and headed off in different directions.
I decided to make straight for the 15th and 16th century paintings. On my way I began to think how the morning meeting with its emphasis on art as self-development and empowerment differed from the symbolic exhibition of wealth and power surrounding me. How many of those whose paintings and drawings we viewed earlier had ever been to this museum or any museum for that matter? How many could afford the entrance fee? Most of the paintings on show failed to grab my attention, with some exceptions. One of these was a copy of a Hieronymus Bosch work. The Triptych with the Temptation of St. Anthony depicts St. Anthony being harassed by devils and demons that take the form of beggars, lustful monks, and other ‘undesirables’. Moving from painting to painting it dawned on me that the only portrayal of poor people was this negative one. Furthermore, they were certainly absent in person. Painting after painting depicted the high and mighty, or, the Almighty. There was even a painting of a skeleton being crucified, but the destitute were nowhere to be seen. This was a form of social exclusion of the poor that I had not considered before.
Later on that day some of our group were exiled to another hostel due to a booking mix up. They moved from our base, the Jacques Brel Hostel, to the Van Gogh Hostel. Apparently, Van Gogh had worked in the hostel building briefly in 1880. It could not have been more apt. One of the few painters in the history of Western art to have portrayed the dispossessed in his paintings, and who had lived a lot of his adult life in poverty, had appeared on our trip. Not far from Brussels he had painted many a picture with peasants as their subject. These paintings portray the poor with dignity.
Back in Cork the following week I decided to check the Museum’s website to get another look at the Bosch replica. The brief description accompanying the image listed some of the subjects in the triptych: “crippled beggars, hideous minstrels…itinerant riff-raff…”. It continued, “The triptych is intended as an allegory of earthly ruin, symbolised by despicable social situations and classes. They embody the lack of virtue of undesired members of society…”.
Unfortunately, it seems to me as a result of studying the issue of poverty and social exclusion during the course, that this is how a large number of policy makers view the poor. They are all too often portrayed as an immoral ‘underclass’.