Today, I went to the most expensive art gallery in the world.
Tucked between Concourse B and C at the Nashville International Airport were a series of about 16 photographs. To be able to see them, you have to have an airline ticket in order to get past security. Thus, I dub it the most expensive art gallery in the world.
Hanging on a white wall where almost no one goes is a series by Jeremy Cowart entitled, "Stars and Suffering: Through the Same Lens." Right next to each other are some of Cowart's pictures of musical artists and his pictures of people suffering in Africa. Each pair provides the starkest of contrasts between the life of musicians who are well known and the life of the Africans that are forgotten.
Pictures of K.T. Tunstall and Mat Kearney appear next to images of Kaska and Danso. There's a musical act next to a young woman named Monifa, who appears to have lost the use of one eye due to some sort of fire or violence that has left a permanent scar. The difference between the first and third worlds have never been more present that in this series.
A lot of times we cry about not having everything we want, even though we've got plenty more than we need. It's ironic that we whine and moan about our own individual deficits when so many more need so much more. We are quick to mourn what we don't have, forgetting to juxtapose our lives next to others who seem to manage despite not having what they really need.
I saw it again once I landed in Houston. Driving though the ritzy Galleria area, bookended by tall hotels and upscale retail outlets, this part of town makes anyone immediately want what's being offered for one high price.
But then, you'll see the man with a tattered McDonald's cup, walking in between lanes of westbound traffic at a stop light, holding a cardboard sign, sharing with any driver who dares not apathetically look away that he has cancer. And a family. And would love just a fraction of what passersby will be spending on a cup of coffee or paying in sales tax for the new sweater that's probably #19 in an ever-expanding closet.
We can find this in any town in America. The next time you're speeding to wherever it is you're heading, look to your left and right on the highway. Chances are, poorer communities were uprooted – no, destroyed – to allow you to get somewhere to make some money. Or, pay attention to the people cleaning $400 hotel rooms, washing $50,000 automobiles or cooking $100 steak dinners.
Our world is one of the haves juxtaposed against the have-nots.
It's a shame that we don't notice this and still finding room to rant. When we juxtapose our luxury against someone else's poverty, our complaints are soon silenced by the reality of our economies. When we juxtapose every part of our day against that of someone completely different than us, we see how big our cultural and societal gaps have become.
It's easy to live a life without juxtaposition. It’s easy to ignore what's right next to us day in and day out because so many things prevent the discipline of juxtaposition:
- We can tune out the plea of the homeless for spare change with the flip of our clickwheel.
- We can navigate away from the BBC story about Darfur to tag our Facebook photos.
- We can skip pass the public service announcements with our magical DVR or TiVo.
- We can forget disparities even exist by surrounding ourselves with people who look just like us.
By avoiding juxtaposition, our obligation disappears, just like the true meaning of this exhibit. What I love about Cowart's work is that every photo is good enough to stand alone. His pictures of rock stars are great and could be an exhibit all their own. As could his pictures of Africa. We could all go to either show and marvel at his talent and ability to capture humanity in all it's splendor – bountiful or impoverished.
But by juxtaposing plight with plushness and the bottom of the pyramid with the top of it, we immediately see that the pictures aren't the point at all. The point is that 4 inch gap in between each framed image. That small swath of wall represents the largest gap we've known in the course of human history.
That gap represents the need to stop complaining and start juxtaposing.
Because then, we can start acting.