In March of 2007, two police officers in Atlanta, Georgia filed a hostile work environment complaint against a work of art that went up in Atlanta’s City Hall East where, among other things, the city police headquarters and Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs are located. Atlanta’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers called for the immediate removal of the art. The artist was called a “racist” and the art a work of “hate.”
The people who spread the word “racist” were those in the media eager for headline grabbing attention, but the only reason it became a city-wide controversy was due to the fact the art show took place in a public building, not in a gallery. For this reason, local conservative radio also added fuel to the controversy.
I should add that no taxpayer money funded any of this. All of the participating artists installed their own work, took it down themselves, removed it when the show ended and no work of art was bought by the city.
I should also add that I am the artist in question, and it doesn’t get more SNL comedy sketch than this.
Imagine two police officers filing a “hostile work environment” complaint because they had to walk past a work of art that hung, for a brief period, in the building where their station is. Forget about guns, knives and other weapons, or the physical, mental and verbal abuse they encounter daily…. No, obviously, nothing could be worse than a work of art that pointed fingers at no one in particular. You can see for yourself below:
“FfOoRrMhUaLtAe” [altered to make out letters]
The piece is called “FfOoRrMhUaLtAe,” (formula for hate) which also served as a clue for deciphering it. In capital letters, the first sentence reads: “POLITICALLY ITS OK TO HATE THE WHITE MAN,” which, without punctuation, can be interpreted as a statement of fact, a question or as a provocation — the latter being what the officers claimed it to be in their complaint.
The fact is I intended it to be what it is — a statement of fact. Ironically, while I was painting the piece, the Duke Lacrosse case was coming to an end after making headlines for a year and proved my work’s point when prosecutor Mike Nifong was reelected after promising to prosecute those “privileged” young white boys for a crime, it turns out, they did not commit.
“FfOoRrMhUaLtAe” [altered to make out letters]
“Formula for Hate’s” second sentence, in small case letters reads: “is it ok for me to hate if ive been a victim” [see enhanced photo above], also sans punctuation. The purpose of this sentence was for a little introspection on the part of the viewers, regardless of the kind of victimization they may have experienced in their own lives.
The numbers on the piece began with 76, for the year 1976, our Bicentennial — to 07, for 2007, the year the piece was made. The last print ended with my initials, AA, which served as the signature.
It went up and was on view a week before the official opening night. There was a little of the expected rumbling, but it would take a few days before all hell broke loose. When it did, for the next two weeks my work and I were in every local paper, on every local news channel and on a couple of local radio talk shows. I even heard from Fox News, but think my hesitation about going on live television blew that. Apparently, the big boys don’t like it when you hesitate, which was probably for the best, they would have eaten me alive. I was also all over conservative and liberal blogs. Apparently, I was an equal opportunity offender.
As I see it, the real story was the one I witnessed as an artist who created a piece that got an awful lot of publicity in a city the size of and with the history and make-up of Atlanta. The kind of scrutiny someone was quoted in the press saying was not fit for “the city too busy to hate.”
If only that were true. I can tell you that when people first started to make out the sentences on my piece, not knowing I was the artist, I overheard things. First, there were sounds about how the artist “must be black,” and then some would notice my signature and remark about my being an, “angry young Latino,” or something. The blogs were even more extreme.
While this was going on, something was happening behind the scenes. I was embraced by some in the media who thought the work was a provocation, but the more they called and the more questions they asked, the more it became clear to them that I was not the artist they wanted to write about.
They wanted to write about my reaction to a country that wasn’t living up to its promise of diversity and how this fueled my work. To some in the press the story was to be about a disenfranchised minority artist justified in producing work called “racist” and “hate art” by the status-quo white majority.
The press my work received proved “POLITICALLY ITS OK TO HATE THE WHITE MAN” true. Through the use of the hatred and victimization that is still alive in this country, politicians and race baiting profiteers in the media constantly manipulate the system and the people through fear and intimidation for their own gain.
Finally, all the uproar came to a head when, at the urging of Atlanta’s Mayor Shirley Franklin, I was asked to head a public forum and discussion panel to explain my work. The hope was that it would calm down the tension my art was creating in the city.
The most interesting observation I made at the forum was what happened when people showed up. With the exception of Timothy Tew of Tew Galleries, the only person I asked to be on the panel (he shows my wife’s work) and Mr. Larry Walker, a well known artist/educator, not a single panelist came up to me before the forum began or after it was over. The curator of The Contemporary and other art notables, all of them familiar with me before that day, made a point of ignoring me.
When it was time for the forum, we all took our seats and were introduced by the host, who said a few words about why we were gathered there. Because I had asked permission to read a statement before the forum officially began, she then asked me to read it. Here’s the opening paragraph:
I love my country! The United States of America, in my opinion, is the greatest country on earth. It is the most diverse place in the world and open to anyone willing to obey its laws. It is the most generous. When there is need anywhere in the world, the citizens of this country personally reach deep into their own pockets, and more, to provide anything that is asked of them. No questions asked and nothing expected in return. It is a place of limitless opportunities. It is still the place where you can reach for the stars. Within reason, anything is possible. It is a place where you’re given a second chance, again and again. If you’ve fallen, and you’re willing to look deep inside and make the necessary changes, this is the place where a second chance is only the beginning of the gifts offered you. I could go on and on about our qualities, but there is not enough time here for that now….
I then spoke a little about personal responsibility and how we must all learn to live together.
The purpose of this statement was not for the sake of educating people about art or the meaning of “Formula for Hate.” The purpose was to introduce me, the artist, to those gathered, to those who had followed the coverage and would watch the coverage of the forum. I wanted people to know who this artist was — who the mainstream media had labeled a racist and promoter of hate. I wanted to let them know that what they had been told was a lie and at best a tried and true example of promotion by the media for the pure sale of time and space. My goal was not to interpret the art or change anyone’s interpretation of it. The piece speaks for itself and I was there to speak for myself.
After I spoke, the most visible example of a possible understanding came from the officer who spoke after I did and who was there to represent the officers who had brought the complaint. Where I thought he might open his statement with an attack on me and my art, he instead mentioned how he had no personal grievance with me or the work. His grievance had to do with public funded art in a public building. When he mentioned he had no problem with me, he looked at me. It was one of those moments where two people share a, “I get it, and I’m cool with you” understanding. That was a relief.
After he was done speaking, we took questions. The first was from a woman who offered a backhanded compliment of my statement. She said, “You’d make a good politician.” This was followed by a question about taxpayer funding of controversial art, but after that the forum took its own course away from art and towards unrelated issues.
Even if it didn’t translate into work, sales or representation, what the forum did for me was take away the fears I’d lived with. Although I was accused of having set out to get attention, beyond the normal attention an artist wants, that just wasn’t the case. I wasn’t at all prepared to be called a racist self-promoter, but at least the forum seemed to have cleared that misperception up. It was also a huge learning experience and good for me. You can’t pay for that kind of experience or the knowledge that comes with it.
I also learned that as much as some in the media pretended to be on my side, their interest had nothing to do with enlightening others about what the piece meant or who I was. This was a story they sought to promote for their own reasons and when it became clear that I and what “Formula for Hate” stood for wasn’t what they had thought or “hoped” for, the painting, the artist and the story itself, ceased to exist.
The local television news and papers covered the forum, but not a single word of my statement was ever mentioned, not once. The interviews and the phone calls died that day too. As a matter of fact, the last media call I received was just before the forum from an editorial writer who had wanted to befriend me and introduce me around to his friends and connections. After the forum, I never heard from him again.
Such is celebrity.
I can’t say for sure, because it would be pure speculation on my part, but knowing the Atlanta art community and what is currently in vogue, I believe that had “Formula for Hate” been what people thought it was and what the media was promoting it to be, I might have been embraced and invited to be a part of the local art scene.
Later, inspired by the controversy over my piece, there was another panel held in Atlanta to discuss the role and impact art can have on a community.
I wasn’t invited.
We artists need gallery representation to sell our work, and the right gallery can mean the difference between failure, barely making a living, and thriving. Finding the right gallery is the goal and I don’t know of any galleries that sell contemporary art with a conservative leaning message. So, we’re stuck having to be our own gallery, so to speak, and the time, money, packaging, delivery and everything else it takes to promote ourselves is time taken away from painting — and without paintings you have nothing to promote. Under normal circumstances — meaning, had I been a left-leaning, self loathing, anti-American, anti-conservative artist — the opportunities that could have come from the media coverage of “Formula for Hate” would have been the best case scenario for any artist, represented or not.
I’m sorry to say that was not the case and it would have made a huge difference in our lives when we needed it most. I believe in what I’m doing and while my wife and I do what we must in order to provide for our two kids, I will continue to paint, when I can. Life is life and I’m not complaining, $&#% happens and sometimes it doesn’t. We live in the United States where anything is possible and we’re better off than most.
If you’re an American and all you do is complain about your life not being fair, you haven’t a clue about what’s going on in the rest of the world.
You can see Alvaro’s portfolio here.