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The art of debate

Public art should spark discussion

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The arts community never feels so much like a community until it is under attack and the wagons circled. Such was the case on April 2. The city of Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the City Gallery East exhibition space, convened a public forum to discuss a controversial work on exhibit in the annual Pin-Up Show. Despite formal and informal complaints about what some have called a racist work, the artwork has inspired the kind of important discussion that only affirms why art should be displayed in public settings.

The artwork in question – as anyone knows who watches local news, reads the daily paper, follows Doug Monroe's Atlanta magazine blog or listens to talk radio's Neal Boortz – is "Formula for Hate."

The work is by Mexican-American artist Alvaro Alvillar, who continues to express amazement, shock and anxiety over the hullabaloo his work has caused. He seems especially distressed by the insinuations that he is a racist for creating the work. Against a 7-foot-by-14-foot background of 33 screen-printed American flags, Alvillar has offered the provocative question, painted in bright acrylics and fluorescents: "Politically its [sic] OK to hate the white man. Is it OK for me to hate if Ive [sic] been a victim."

Several Atlanta Police Department officers filed complaints about the work, prompting the Office of Cultural Affairs to convene the April 2 forum. The discussion left Alvillar feeling "relieved," he says, though the continuing controversy compelled him to draft an explanatory artist's statement on view at the gallery.

Part of that April 4 statement reads, "This is not my first work of art that appropriates the United States flag. That has been going on since 1997. This is the first one that apparently offended someone enough that they felt the need to take action to remove it. I can and do appreciate that. That is the very same feeling that led to the creation of this piece."

Yet the battle continues.

Detective Ken Allen, a representative of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, believes Alvillar's work represents not a provocative question but a definitive statement. The 21-year veteran of the Atlanta police force says he felt the forum "turned into a personal attack on either myself or the other police." Of the nine panelists invited, eight were representatives from the arts community. Allen says that from his perspective, that imbalance made the discussion feel more like a kangaroo court.

Allen says the complaining officers will continue their efforts to remove what they consider an offensive work placed in a highly visible public setting frequented by police officers and other city employees.

Camille Love, director of the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, stands by the decision not to remove it.

There is validity to both perspectives. Alvillar says inspiring hate was not his intent. As for the police officers whose superiors instruct them to purge bias from their own workplace, "Formula for Hate" must seem like a confusing contradiction.

The controversy is instructive.

It illustrates the necessity of more art in public spaces rather than less. To those members of the public without exposure to the provocative and inquisitive nature of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, the piece must seem threatening.

It's a problem of our politically divided, hate-radio-fueled culture of black-and-white extremes. The kind of nuance and reflection that art requires has been effectively purged from public discourse, public schools and public spaces.

The controversy illustrates the necessity of retaining a city-run public gallery such as City Gallery East. Love's office has lobbied for some future public gallery space as the City Hall East building at 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. is turned into a multimillion dollar mixed-use development. It remains to be seen whether a public gallery space will continue in some new form in the city.

The worst outcome of this controversy would be the removal of the work.

By now, many in the general public already know what the artwork says, and removing it won't wipe its existence from our memory banks.

The police have a right to be offended. "They're people just as well as anyone else," Allen says.

We all have a personal line between what we will tolerate and what we will not.

But the worst possible outcome would be to remove "Formula for Hate," stop talking about that line and where Alvillar's work falls on it.

The best possible outcome?

It's twofold. Artists would recognize the value of engaging in public discussion of their work. And the public should realize that without the questions raised by contemporary art, we will remain a nation governed by absolutes, without the chance for reasoned, complex thought and consideration of the many gray areas in our world.

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