Art and the NOPD:
The New Orleans Police Department is again the subject of controversy but not the kind typically associated with New Orleans’ sometimes-infamous police force. This latest dilemma involves an artist-police officer who committed a serious lapse in judgment. Det. Charlie Hoffacker is as well-known in the art community as he is in the police department. His artwork—often depicting the violence of the city streets—hangs in prestigious galleries and is often purchased by people wearing exotic finery, not crisp police uniforms. What has brought Det. Hoffacker into the news is no gun battle with a street kingpin. No, the officer’s artistic sensibilities mingled with his frustration while at the scene of a grisly murder. Hoffacker drew in the blood of a crime victim, and according to his superior officers, possibly compromised the crime scene.
This publicity for the officer/artist—possibly a mixed blessing—has resulted in a debate about artistic expression, crime, and the manner in which an artist may take liberties with his or her subjects. Hoffacker’s paintings are no simple depictions of lovely landscapes. Rather, they take a harsh gaze at the city’s underworld. Homeless people stare out from his canvas, painted onto the very signs they use to panhandle. The artist buys them for $5 from often very grateful homeless people. A fuel junkie pumps gasoline into his arm in yet another artistic creation, and amorous Klansman are held up to ridicule. Terry Hankton, New Orleans’ most dangerous kingpin, stares out from Hoffacker’s canvas, his mugshot recreated from bullet casings. The young detective’s art hangs in upscale restaurants as well as in galleries frequented by the Uptown and/or New York crowds.
What I find most interesting is the commentary on the artwork. Hoffacker certainly should have done nothing to compromise a crime scene, but any artist or writer sometimes feels compelled to express his or her artistic leanings. Some people, however, have focused on the art in condemning Hoffacker and not his actions at the scene, claiming that his art glorifies crime. Such comments are misguided. Many authors and/or artists depict violence in their work. Illustrating the violence of the world is the artist’s function and even duty. The earliest poets, dramatists, and artists recreated the violence as well as the beauty of the culture in which they lived. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus are violence-filled. And we cannot forget the history plays in which Henry V vied for the throne of France or Richard III plotted to retain power. Violence in literature predates Shakespeare. Who could forget the violence but powerful beauty of Euripides’ plays or the tragic majesty of Virgil’s epic? And in visual art—no one could deny the power of Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents or Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. Such is the purpose of artistic creation. Not all of these artists were violent people, but as artists, they depicted what they’d experienced in their society, their education, and/or their religious faith.
When I wrote my historical novels, I found myself treating some of the most horrific events in history. Love at War, set during WWII, showed humanity at its worst; nonetheless, depicting the events surround that conflict as anything other than brutal would have been dishonest and insulting to those who’d experienced the traumatic events of the time. When I wrote From Ice Wagon to Club House, I illustrated the horror and unseemliness of Storyville, the bloodbath that was WWI, as well as the poverty deriving from the Depression and the misguided laws of Prohibition. Many of those events were not glamorous, pretty, or times to be glorified; however, they illustrate important aspects of our culture and should not be ignored. Through my novels, I show the strength as well as the frailty of humanity and the lasting power of the spirit.
Maybe Det. Charles Hoffacker’s actions were questionable at that crime scene; however, his artistry is undeniably brilliant, powerful, and a masterful commentary on the urban landscape.