James 5:4–6 highlights the economic injustices on the back of which the prideful rich, condemned in the preceding lines, have accumulated their wealth: ‘Behold, the wages of the labourers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out …’. Justice and righteousness are often associated in Scripture with the recognition and defence of the materially poor. Those whose voices go unheard by the representatives of political and economic power ‘[reach] the ears of the Lord of hosts’.
Historically, the production of art was linked closely with the rich and powerful, who had the funds to make commissions; and yet many artists chose nevertheless to depict the lives of the poor in their work. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters (1565), Diego Velázquez’s The Waterseller of Seville (1618–22), and Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885) all spring to mind. Depicting the poor does not, of course, necessarily mean fighting for them: under the sentimentalizing gaze of the rich, their lives can become quaint decoration for the walls of large houses. But today, the street artist Banksy is a pre-eminent artist not only of but also for the poor.
Sweeping it Under the Carpet is explicitly about democratizing not just the locations but also the subjects of artworks, about giving recognition to those who do not usually receive it, who labour under unfair and unequal systems—echoing the passage from James. Banksy has commented, ‘In the bad old days, it was only popes and princes who had the money to pay for their portraits to be painted. This is a portrait of a maid called Leanne who cleaned my room in a Los Angeles motel’ (Bull 2011: S20).
A melancholy but politically meaningful irony is that Leanne’s recognition would only be temporary. Two versions were painted in London: one in Chalk Farm on the wall of a performance venue (shown here), one in Hoxton on the exterior of a commercial gallery. Both have since been painted over. Banksy’s medium is part of his message in this sense. By showing Leanne about to hide her sweepings under a carpet, the work suggests how the wealthy and powerful sweep issues of social injustice and inequality ‘under the rug’, in the very way his street art, which highlights these issues, gets painted over.
Bull, Martin. 2011. Banksy Locations and Tours Volume 1: A Collection of Graffiti Locations and Photographs in London, England (Oakland: PM Press)
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; 14whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.