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How Creative Expressions Illuminate the Numbers

Kara Walker's Subtlety Sugar Baby Sculpture
Photo by Phil Alexander from Creative Time's public-sourced Digital Sugar Baby.

Thomas Piketty, author of the recently published Capital in the 21st Century, has been called a “rock star”. His message has clearly struck a nerve, not just in the rarefied halls of academia but on the bestseller lists of Amazon and the New York Times. Wealth inequality and capitalism go hand and hand, and he has collected and analyzed the data to prove it.

Piketty is not the first person to make this observation, and really we already know his conclusions through our own observation, intuition and plain old common sense. Nevertheless, the time seems right for his contribution. It’s quite a statement of public interest that a 700-page, data-filled economics tome should top the bestseller lists, currently beating out Flash Boys, Thrive, and Lean In.

Piketty identifies a central tenet of capitalism: as long as the return on private financial capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy (r>g), wealth will accrue to those with the capital. An innocent enough observation, but one that states only part of the equation. When more wealth accrues to those with capital, less wealth accrues to workers and the commons. Even that statement sounds a bit innocuous.

Great wealth carries the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and environmental exploitation that come hand in hand with invention, scientific breakthroughs, and economic growth. We need only tune in to ourselves and our media to connect the dots between unbreathable air in Asia and our iphones and apps at home. Yet when we are presented with data—even data as impressive and compelling as that of Piketty—we only see numbers, graphs, and charts. We don’t see the very real connections, causes, and effects that swirl around these abstract representations of people’s lives. We may know in our guts that inequality is wrong or harmful and yet still fail to internalize and act upon this knowledge.

If you are a person who has trouble compartmentalizing, it helps to engage in these issues at multiple levels and with various aspects of ourselves. Art is one way to do this. I find that although I am steeped and vitally interested in the financial system and our economy, I cannot glean from my reading the heart-wrenching reality of the underpinnings of inequality. I need to feel it deeply and differently than in my conceptual brain.

This has happened for me as I have viewed and reflected upon the images of a recent work, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, created by Kara Walker (shown above). Walker has built a huge sculptural installation in the soon-to-be demolished Domino Sugar Refining Factory in Brooklyn. I have not visited the site, but I can feel its power through images (including the captivating "making of" video viewable from the link above). It feels like a loving assault.

Walker’s sculpture is strikingly beautiful--white, shining, tactile. The subject is a massive African American woman identifiable by her features and kerchief, a caricature but not really because she is big and powerful. She’s a survivor of violence, rape, and hatred. She is embedded in a factory where the canes that had been farmed by slaves were brought to be processed and “refined” into pure white sugar for the privileged. Walker's extensive title for the work describes it as "an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World," but you can get a much richer sense of the artist's vision from this interview between Walker and NPR reporter Audie Cornish.

Let’s not quibble over whether Piketty’s numbers are 100% accurate. We should know beyond a doubt that something is wrong when 30% or more of the wealth of this country is owned by 1% of the population and when 25 hedge fund managers accumulated more wealth in 2013 than all of our country’s kindergarten teachers combined. Let’s instead use every bit of our intelligence, intuition and emotions to figure out how to make things more fair!

Art illuminates data. Piketty is a master of measurement, and Kara Walker is a master of the evocative power of art. One without the other is incomplete. We need both if we really want to be equipped to achieve justice and equality.

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