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Five years ago Alvaro Alvillar had the nerve to publicly have an opinion as a conservative, with the additional effrontery of being a conservative artist. This is simply not tolerated by any stretch of the imagination in New America, where the motto is “Liberty – except for you,” with the poster’s arrow clearly pointing to the right.
Alvillar was invited in 2007 to display work with a group of other artists in Atlanta’s City Hall East at his own expense. He is known for often incorporating patriotic themes into his paintings in a stylized, pop-art, look of brilliant, hard edged, color fields. Alvillar is hardly a single-subject artist, though. He presents work on love, death, violence, gangs, drugs and realities of contemporary urban life, especially the Los Angeles of his childhood.
Alvillar hadn’t yet encountered much criticism when the show opened in March 2007, at least no one was shrieking for a lawyer. His contribution to the effort was a massive, 7×14-foot background of 33 screen-printed American flags and two somewhat hidden messages: “Politically it’s OK to hate the white man,” and, “Is it OK for me to hate if I’ve been a victim?” The operative word here is “hidden,” as in obscure and somewhat hard to see.
The provocative nature of Alvillar’s statement was deliberate and was the essential point the artist was making. However, even rhetorically posing such a question stands in opposition to politically correct views, as most artists, federal employees and virtually all academics well know. Furthermore it is not on the list of trusty slogans for artists guaranteed to keep you out trouble and bring federal grants. What was he thinking?
Retribution was swift and heated, as Alvillar’s painting “Formula For Hatred” was branded racist itself by various talking heads for merely bringing up racism (irony is always wasted on liberals). It gets “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said – in Wonderland, not Atlanta. Controversy seethed locally and spilled into the national scene when several of Atlanta’s finest filed an official complaint over a piece of artwork and asked that it be removed from their sight.
The officers remained anonymous in public accounts, and it can’t be from fear. They’re armed policemen after all, so my guess is sheer cowardice, knowing they’d be in for a fight off home turf.
Atlanta police union spokesman Sgt. Scott Kreher gave a convoluted and somewhat psychologically based explanation, sounding like notes from a rough family-therapy session:
“There are other officers … who have been reprimanded and told to bring things down that were in their cubicles or in their work sites, so we feel that they should have the same rights as anyone else, that if something offends them … in a public building, the city should pay attention to that and take it down.”
So some Atlanta police envy an artist expressing himself, and their response is to oppress that artist rather than address the problem? This is spreading the misery, the soul of the socialist bureaucratic beast, which will come to a town near you if it isn’t ambushed first.
To be fair, Alvillar’s art was in the same building that houses city police headquarters and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, requiring officers to perhaps walk past the terrifying paintings with their disturbing questions. Could it cause PSTD or something? My mind fumbles looking for a reasonable explanation here. The official complaint had something to do with the charge of the Atlanta police department keeping a “diverse and competent” work force.
The art community generally expressed support for Alvillar, which was a relief for him and kept the piece up for the duration while they argued at City Hall.
Curator Freddie Sykes, who is black himself, defended the work: “I thought it was an attractive piece. If I had thought it was offensive, I would not have agreed to show it.”
He related that his only fears of censorship previously were over a few nude sketches and never dreamed such an uproar would occur over Alvillar’s statements.
Alvillar was forced to defend himself from charges of racism and promoting hate at meetings initiated by outraged Mayor Shirley Franklin. In reaction to the complaints, artists and a few police representatives faced off, forcing him to argue the merits of his work the entire month-long run.
Alvillar, who is Hispanic himself admits that he simply wanted to provoke thought with the item: “It’s made to make you think politically … is it OK to hate the white man – whatever your skin color is?”
He didn’t want to encourage racism, but his work started a nasty war of words, especially with right and left talk show hosts.
A deeper engagement with the subject showed up at PearlJam.com in a blog post. It follows the thoughts of gallery visitor Robbie Bussey, who stopped after reading the first sentence, thinking it could be interpreted as a racist comment. But reading the second statement left her pondering.
“You have to think about what answer you have to that,” Bussey wrote. “It depends where you are spiritually and with your maturity. I know I can hate, but I know spiritually that I can’t. This does make me think.”
Alvillar had hoped the work would promote conversations about racial tensions for the better, which he thinks is one of the more contentious issues of modern life.
Andrew Breitbart was intrigued enough by Alvillar’s message to grant him space to post his thoughts on art and politics on his Big Hollywood in 2009. Atlanta libertarian radio giant and attorney Neal Boortz surprisingly attacked Alvillar, although I notice there is a drive on at this moment branding Boortz a racist.
The media rushed to the side of freedom of expression – no … wait … sorry, I was hallucinating. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s title gives you a sense of their fairness and impartiality: “City Displays Racially Charged Art.”
Facing damage control and trying to explain his motives, Alvillar stated, “I play with mixed messages … an interest in the contrary, i.e. saying one thing and meaning another.”
Other concepts he utilizes are controlling perception and influence with “spin,” ideology, fear and misinformation. If Alvillar’s work was a sociology experiment instead, it proved his premise to be true.
Detective Ken Allen of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers (this is of global import, folks) felt the forum discussion, initiated through police accusations, became a “personal attack on either myself or the other police.” The Detective doth protest too much.
I wonder if Allen spends time at video game and music stores making complaints over songs like “F— the Police” by Young Buck and N.W.A. or “Fully Load Clip” by 50 Cent? These lyrics glorify and encourage murdering policemen, with deadly consequence at times.
Instead the police harassed a Latino artist who suggested that racism may still exist. And we’re constantly reading about roving gangs of enraged oil painters shooting at police.
“It really takes a lot of looking to figure it out,” said curator Styles in a vast understatement.
So why am I bringing this up five years after the fact? Because the situation has become much worse when it comes to freedom of expression on so many fronts. Alvillar targets the euphemistically named “Fairness Doctrine” as especially pernicious in its possible effects on art and speech.
In a 2009 statement, he publicly condemned most NEA artists as “shills” for the current administration “making propaganda in return for grants and other considerations.” I think Alvillar may have gotten more attention than he thought possible and touched a nerve somewhere, thereby the knee-jerk reaction to his work.
Alvillar requests that concerned people stand with him in his fight to maintain civil rights in a related video.
“Speak up and express yourself against systematic erosion of our freedoms by liberal politicians and the mainstream media,” Alvillar says.
This invitation was issued to artists and not just conservative ones.
Sykes phrased the issue in another way: “It is all right as Americans to ask questions, even if they aren’t always pleasant questions.”
It is also all right to answer them from your own conscience and without fear and trembling.