A few days ago I found myself in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, walking around Bedford Avenue, where I like to hang out when I’m in NY. On the wall to my left was the by-now familiar image of a beaten man down on his luck, sitting under the quote, ‘I used to be worth something.’ The first time I saw this piece of street art was a year ago, maybe more. I’d gotten familiar with it by now.
But this time round I spotted an extra inscription.
It said, ‘Fuck this sad fool.’
Think that’s nasty? Think again. I did, and my initial shock at the crass comment gave way to a nod. Sad fool indeed! There’s a perfectly sound reasoning behind the comment. Glorifying sadness such as the above is the same as glorifying defeat, and it can’t be allowed to pass. What does this man portray, after all, other than total, utter defeat and failure? ‘Look at me,’ it says, ‘I used to be something, but now I’m not, and I’m ok with it. Look at me revelling in my situation, indulging in my own downfall. This is me not trying to change things. I’m perfectly content to just sit down and look destitute, with my loafers on and my slack pants and collar shirt wrapped tight around me, not trying to turn things around. I’m doing my best not trying to become anything again.’
Oh yeah? Well, fuck you, asshole! You’re pitiful! A disgrace! Look at you, wallowing in the mire of your own defeat, trying to score sympathy points. All you deserve is for your image to be either erased, never to be seen again, or defaced, making sure that people who see it know what you represent: a victim mentality.
It would be different if this man were shown to be doing something. His fall from a person of worth to a worthless being could be portrayed in a thousand ways without indulging in the surrender of failure. He could be seen scrounging for food, or getting dirty in the glitzy shadow of a bank, or working a job, highlighting his humiliation and defeat – images that would invite rage and contempt for the system that did this to him. No one would have the gall to ridicule or deface such a statement. If they did, they would be the sad fools, not the man in the picture.
But the artist got it wrong. He or she chose to depict the callousness of modern times through the image of an idle person, a man who used to be worth something, and who’s now worth nothing, not because of what was done to him, but because of what he chooses to do about it: nothing.
Sad, sad fool. (I’m really talking about the artist. All this time, it’s the artist that got to me, I just realized.)
As a parting thought, let me note that the artist may have intended to capture that terrible moment in time when a person is lost, stunned or broken. I agree, moments like these are common and important. We better acknowledge them and empathize with those who are down on their luck.
But I don’t think this is the case. If that were the artist’s intent, the image wouldn’t come with a caption. ‘I Used to be Worth Something.’ Please! More sad sauce, anyone? The words ruin it, like an overeager prompter at a play, shouting over the actors and reducing the performance to a cheap spectacle.
Should have let the image do the talking. It expresses so much more by just sitting there, tapping people’s emotions as is.