Allegheny student’s artwork sparks online controversy

What began as an art project between two friends has sparked outrage on social media after a cropped image showcased the words “kill cops,” one of many phrases featured in the piece. With the artist’s consent, the triptych has been removed from public view on Allegheny’s campus as a result of the complaints.

Initially, the piece was not meant to be shown to anyone else; the artist said it began as a project worth “making for the sake of making” in order to help find inspiration for an academic class project. The artist and a friend, a fellow student, wanted to think about how they were feeling and explore the intricacies of art — a discipline people do not fully comprehend unless they have worked in it themselves, the artist said.

“I don’t view the world in the way that most people do, obviously,” the artist said. “I am an observer of the world … and I make things in response to that and my experiences.”

While trying to come up with ideas for the class, the artist thought painting was the best way to let ideas flow, so the artist and a friend began talking about different compositions and layerings to incorporate into the work. Even though a friend assisted with the paintings’ creation, the artist is considered to be the sole author of the work.

Because the artist and professor have received threats, The Campus has decided to keep their identities anonymous. The professor who teaches the artist’s class was unavailable for comment.

The whole piece is comprised of three large paintings and shows what Allegheny has described as “an urban street scene” in an official college statement.

Contributed by the artist
The unnamed triptych has since been removed from public view on Allegheny’s campus due to online complaints. This photo shows the full work. The original photo posted on Facebook was a cropped image.

Playing with ideas like color theory and juxtaposition, the two students wanted the “vibrant, thick” colors and phrases to be “in your face” and “desensitizing to the rest of the piece” — representative of how people act today, the artist said. The artist cited social media platforms as examples of this behavior. While the artist does not use social media, the original post drew the attention of over 1,000 on Facebook.

Crawford County Prothonotary Emmy Arnett tagged Allegheny College in a Facebook post, condemning the work and the college for permitting it to be displayed. Arnett also urged the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 97, the union of Meadville’s police department, to find another location for its upcoming concert, which has been held on campus before and is scheduled for March 17.

“Shame on you Allegheny College for allowing this to hang on your walls,” Arnett wrote. “I hope the FOP finds another venue for their concert.”

When contacted by The Campus, Arnett said she had no further comment.

To respond to the number of complaints, the college released a statement of its own on the Allegheny College Facebook page.

On Monday, Feb. 25, students received an email from Provost and Dean of the College Ron Cole about the online outrage, copying the official college statement at the bottom of the message:

“The artist, the art department and Allegheny College do not condone violence toward police or any group of people,” the official statement read. “This artwork when viewed fully documents an urban street scene in which many controversial slogans are visible. The intent from the artist is to call for an end to mindless violence, just the opposite from the context being circulated on social media. But, because of this unintended consequence, the artist has agreed to remove the piece from public display. To further this conversation, the art department and the artist will offer a panel discussion to the campus community later in the semester.”

The FOP Lodge 97 posted on its Facebook page, saying Allegheny administrators were asked by “some employees of Allegheny” to remove the picture because of the “kill cops” portion. The post also expressed the FOP’s disappointment that the original requests to take down the art were ignored.

“It is known that some employees of Allegheny asked administrators for the picture to be removed because of the Kill Cops portion,” the post read. “Their request was ignored even with a warning that the depiction could be inflammatory.”

Lodge 97 President Greg Beveridge could not be reached for comment.

Cole admitted the administration was aware of the artwork earlier in the week, and he said he “absolutely” did talk to the art department soon after. In conversations with Cole, the department and the artist, they reached a decision to find an appropriate studio space for students to use to create work, Cole said.

“This was in a public hallway,” Cole said. “It wasn’t in a studio or a gallery area.”

Cole said he viewed the discussion as a collaboration and thought using a public hallway to create art was not an appropriate space for students to be working in. He said the decision to create a private space was the right one.

“The statements that were written were done so in a comical fashion in relation to the whole grand scheme of things,” the artist said.

Reflecting on how people are easily manipulated by “click bait,” the artist said the phrases written on the paintings were done so “in a comical fashion.” The artist said the words were meant to move people into a discussion and allow them to question why they are upset by certain elements of the piece and the world as a whole.

“It’s pretty much the formula of how everything’s been run recently,” the artist said. “Outrageous statements, ludicrous imagery, but no one cares — clearly. But the people that are reacting to this in such a negative way are the ones that don’t understand.”

The artist said the people who have voiced their outrage are motivated because the phrases are counterintuitive to their way of life.

The artist said any form of homogeny or “pushing out the other” is a form of hatred. Talking about hate speech and citing President Donald Trump as the “epitome of hatred,” the artist said the hypocrisy of statements made by public officials went into the thought process while creating the paintings.

“At least being consistent would give more of a basis for a lot of these people’s anger … There’s still people saying the N-word, calling people all of these derogatory words and saying that it’s fine because it’s consistent with the American values,” the artist said. “But that’s not hate speech to them because it fits their world.”

The paintings were made in one weekend — for fun, the artist said.

About two weeks after starting the pieces, the artist took the paintings to a studio space in a hallway in the art wing. The artist said that while working on the pieces, Allegheny security officers stopped to look at the paintings; however, they continued walking and did not start a conversation or ask questions about the artist’s work.

“Rather than discuss anything with me, they decided to continue to walk out frustratingly,” the artist said.

Public Safety did not comment on the matter.

The artist thinks hiding behind social media and political platforms that are founded on facts that only benefit selective viewpoints is sad. Despite the angry messages posted online, the artist does not wish any ill will towards the individuals who cropped and re-posted the image.

“The person that took the image originally, they decided to not show the entire piece,” the artist said. “The saddest thing is that they know what they chose to focus on. They know how they cropped it. They’re aware of what bothered them, so they tried to erase everything else aside from that one statement because that’s what matters to them. That’s the only thing that they see.”

Cops are the enforcers of the law, the artist said. They are everyday people too. The artist’s uncle was a cop and father was in the military; however, the artist said nobody has asked about the artist’s relationship with law enforcement.

“That’s funny because it’s almost like I’m being forced to think of myself as the other — in a construct that’s not even real,” the artist said. “And it’s because someone’s upset because their world is being shaken, but I think it needs to be because you can’t stop change, and that’s just a fact.”

As a discipline and vocation art cannot be understood by people until they “live it” and “be in it,” the artist said.

The artist’s paintings were incomplete and were not meant to be shown in a public setting with only a selected portion posted. The artist did say members of the class understood the piece and the messages it was conveying.

“I never had an artist’s statement or a title for any of these pieces, actually because I never saw them as that,” the artist said. “They weren’t put on that platform, but someone else forced (them) into it. So, now I do, in this setting, clearly, I have to make a title, and I’m still working on that.”

The artist said the art has “morphed” into something else, saying it has become a symbol rather than a piece of work.

“So, what does that say? Should I give it a name?” the artist said.

The work speaks for itself, the artist said, adding that the phrases in the piece are interchangeable, specifically “kill cops” and “clap thots.”

“They’re interchangeable,” the artist said. “It’s all wordplay.”

People need to be reminded that thought is put into artwork, the artist said.

“The thought is that it’s supposed to be taken as a joke — as a desensitized interpretation and viewing — for fun,” the artist said.

No people are dying in the piece, and no violence is occurring; however, the artist said the only violent responses have been on Facebook.

Artists have no control over the reactions to their work, the artist said.

“That’s the whole point,” the artist said.

There should be a way to communicate without violence, the artist said. The artist said professors have been supportive but acknowledged they are probably scared, as they are members of the community. However, the artist said professors are willing to stand up for the right to create.

Allegheny administrators have been concerned about the artist’s safety and have had discussions with the artist about the mutual decision to remove the piece from public view. The artist also added that college administrators are looking to avoid a lawsuit, recognizing that is part of the position they hold.

“I don’t have hatred or any animosity towards them directly,” the artist said. “It’s a systematic thing, just like everything else is.”

Reflecting on the decision to take down the paintings, the artist said Allegheny’s position in Meadville presents an opportunity to move beyond controversy and violence.

“Having a liberal arts college in the middle of a conservative area is pretty much asking for controversy,” the artist said. “So you tell me, should a liberal arts institution back down to a conservative community, not for politics, but for the sake of preventing true hatred and violence … or should we just continue to allow hatred and close-mindedness prevail?”

Anyone could reply with the “true answer,” the artist said.

On campus, the artist said he has received nothing but love from Allegheny students, expressing gratitude for their support.

“They’re ready to fight — if necessary,” the artist said. “And not in the physical way, obviously.”

The artist is not afraid of the Meadville community either — at all. Having worked with members of the Meadville community and organizations, the artist does not think some community members are aware of those relationships.

Will the artist continue creating? — of course, the artist said.

“You can’t tell me that this is the end of making art,” the artist said. “No, no, no, no — I’ve had much worse things happen to me in my life, and I still make art, and I don’t think there’s anything that will stop me. This is not hindering me in any sense. It’s just bringing …  more seriousness and passion, if anything, to my artwork.”

People who know the artist, know that the artist is not a hateful person, the artist said, but none of the individuals who vocalized their outrage have reached out personally to have a discussion about the overall piece.

The artist and art department are working to organize a panel to discuss the piece and the outrage sparked by social media posts to be held later this semester.

“I’m here to have a conversation,” the artist said. “I’m here to have fun. I’m here to have intellectual conversation, and I’m not here to hate. In fact, I’m here to show how stupid it is to hate. It’s a waste of energy.”