In the Eyes of the Beholder

by Erik Scott Booth

   Even before the sunrise light graced the morning sky above Central Park, the unsettling crime had been discovered by joggers. NYPD officers had already roped off the area to conduct the investigation, as local reporters and camera crews arrived by the dozen, eager for a story and ready to capitalize on the tragedy.   The flash of the crime scene investigator’s camera cast haunting shadows, as the now receding darkness gave depth to the hues of red that flowed down the structures surface, while lifeless eyes stared blankly skyward from the two disembodied heads that lay upon the ground at the base of the monument.

   ‘No Whites at the table!’ shamelessly proclaimed the message spray-painted in black upon the monument.   The symbol of anarchist and the letters BLM also marred its surface. Sculptor Meredith Bergmann had broken the bronze ceiling in August 2020 with the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, by honoring suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and African-American Sojourner Truth, while shedding light on the nationwide lack of recognition and memorialization of historical women. However, to some, Bergmann’s inclusion of Anthony and Stanton at the sculpted table with Sojourner Truth was an unwelcome intrusion into Black history, an affront to the current cultural movements. Truth’s sculpture was the only one of the three bronze women at the table to retain her head.   News reports later that day would state that city officials had decided to remove the monument due to its insensitive and controversial nature. An action that had become more and more common in society.

   The view of Central Park from his 20th-floor room in the Ritz Carlton never failed to inspire Anton Christov.   He had admired it for nearly a week now. An accomplished and sought after artist in many mediums, Christov, as he preferred to be called, graced the pages of magazines with his photography, as well as the homes of the privileged elite, who sought paintings and sculptures bearing his name. Christov, a prideful man in his early fifties, always seeking perfection, with little tolerance for those who didn’t agree with or understand his vision, seldom took criticism well.   

   There were only two days left until the opening night for his current exhibition, but Christov felt the exhibit was lacking something.   He always felt this way before every exhibit he had ever done, but this time the thought persisted.   There was still much to be done in preparation, but he would leave much of this work to his assistant Troy Bradley.   

   Christov discarded the morning paper without having even read the headlines from yesterday’s stories as he waited for his companion. Troy exited the bathroom smiling at Christov as he dried his dark bronze-colored skin still damp from his shower.   Troy was young enough to be Christov’s son.   Often this mistake would enrage Christov, but amuse Troy, who would playfully taunt him with “Daddy” when it happened. Troy would also quip “my mom’s Black,” if anyone raised an eyebrow at his joke. His sense of humor and impulsiveness frequently got him in trouble, most often with Christov. But their relationship both professional and personal was stable. Troy was Christov’s personal assistant, masseuse, and love interest.   Christov realized Troy had an eye for art, as well as aspirations.   Troy looked to Christov as a mentor, a lover, as well as a means to an end.   Troy didn’t consider himself a bad person for his duplicitous mentality, after all, it’s the art world, and it wasn’t like Christov wasn’t getting what he wanted out of their symbiotic relationship as well.

   “I’m heading to the gallery. I’ve texted you some additional names for personal invites on opening night.   Send them out quickly,” Christov instructed Troy with a voice that hinted at a slight Italian accent.   “Leak my arrival time at the gallery to the press, nothing like a big spectacle,” Christov sighed.   “Can you think of anything we’ve missed?”, the artist seemed anxious.   “Nothing. Everything will be fine,” Troy assured.   “Thanks,” Christov whispered in Troy’s ear.   They kissed and Christov left for the gallery.

   After Troy completed his tasks, he watched the local news.   The primary stories involved the current social issues both racial and socioeconomic. The story of the statue in Central Park unsettled him.   “So much anger,” he mumbled to himself as video from the scene played.   Troy turned from the television and noticed the camera Christov had left on the coffee table.   Curious at what hadn’t made it into the gallery, he decided to scan the memory card of the recent photographs.    It was a mixture of the usual Christovish photography, Troy thought to himself. Landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, some buildings, and a few pictures of people.   There was a series of photographs of a white businessman, helping a homeless African-American to his feet, and buying him lunch at a local deli. Those, he thought, were powerful. There were also pictures of themselves at various travel destinations. This made Troy smile.   As Troy continued to scan the files, he came across one picture that made him pause.   He studied the picture for some time, and in a moment of emotion, he found himself shedding a tear. ‘This,’ he thought to himself, ‘this is something.’   He pondered the image for a long time. Then a thought formed in his mind. He decided to have this image printed for the galleries opening, and prominently display it for Christov, as a surprise, and for his love for him.

   Opening night had finally arrived and the hall leading to the gallery was already packed with art connoisseurs, socialites, critics, and a select number of the general public.   Troy had spent the day making sure the night would be perfect.   He sipped a glass of champagne, as he once again studied the photograph found on Christov’s camera, now displayed prominently near the entrance of the gallery.   The doors opened and people began entering the gallery. A larger amount of people than anticipated arrived, and even more, were entering the gallery. Christov will be pleased, Troy thought.   He turned around to walk across the room and realized a woman was standing directly behind him. She raised her eyebrows. “Excuse you!” she rudely remarked. Troy stepped to the side and said, “Apologies.”.   “Yeah, you better!” she quipped as she walked away, heading towards the displays.   ‘What the h?’, Troy’s thought was interrupted by the very same words. “WHAT THE HELL?!,” yelled the same woman, now standing next to the display Troy had set up to surprise Christov. Everyone looked in the direction of the woman, which was followed by a collective gasp amongst the crowd. Troy felt his heart begin to race.

   Fashionably late, Christov arrived in a limousine. Paparazzi lined the red carpet leading into the gallery. He donned Versace sunglasses in an attempt to repel the blinding flashes from the numerous cameras.   A woman pushed her way through the line of photographers and declared “I love you Christov!,” as she lifted her blouse, exposing her bare breast. “Ah, no thanks,” Christov responded with a smile. “Well then fuck you faggot!” she shouted as she flipped him off. ‘Classy New York’, he thought. He shook his head, realizing that crazy had pretty much become the norm these days.   Besides, it wasn’t like his sexuality wasn’t public knowledge, as he wondered what she expected of him. As the sound outside grew softer, he noticed another sound of growing intensity as he approached the gallery. ‘The sound of adoring fans’, he smugly thought. He opened the door and walked through.

   The room was filled with raised voices. Christov walked towards a podium set up for the opening night function.   “There he is!,” a man yelled, pointing toward a stunned Christov.   The room fell quiet.   “You no-good racist white mother fucker!!” screamed a woman, who’s voice shattered the silence. The young woman, who’s expression of complete indignation erased her youthful beauty, was clad in a colorful traditional African garb, in honor of her heritage. Christov recognized her as D-list celebrity Raneesha Fransey. Raneesha, a self-proclaimed Black supremacist, was predominantly known for her racially divisive content posted on YouTube, as well as anti-white television segments called ‘Encoded’ on television channel EMP-Tv. She was a performative artist.   Performative outrage and performative victimhood were her usual acts.   Once, when she was fading into obscurity, she forced her Caucasian husband Patton, to wear a leather harness and leather thong, complete with a ball gag, while walking him on a leash, at times on all fours, through Central Park to display her dominance over him. A bizarre attempt to bring herself back into the limelight. To no one's surprise, their marriage was not a healthy one. But here and now, Christov was the focus of her ire.

   “What is this shit?!,” demanded Raneesha. Christov was beyond confused. No one had ever called any of his art or photography ‘shit’ before.   “What’s going on here?   What are you talking about?,” Christov questioned, trying to remain calm. “Don’t act so coy, racist.   You know absolutely well what the problem is. This!,” Raneesha pointed toward the photograph Troy had put on display earlier.

   The photograph itself was simplistic. Surrounded by a 36 by 48-inch gray frame, it was a canvas split diagonally in half, with the lower-left half of it black, and the upper right half white.   “What is this?,” Christov questioned.   “This isn’t my work,” he continued, glaring at Troy.   “Christov, I know you didn’t have time go through the last series of photographs, to put all the ones you wanted on display. I chose this one because it spoke to me. It seemed so relevant to the issues of today.   I didn’t think it would be this big of a deal,” Troy said meekly. “Not a big deal? Not a big deal!!,” shouted Raneesha. “I guess it’s not a big deal if I call you two faggots either, is it?!   Y’all know exactly what this represents.   It represents whites in a position of dominance and power over blacks, and don’t you deny it,” Raneesha loudly asserted.   Troy responded, “No, no.   That’s not it at all. It represents hope, and the perfect balance between both peoples, where neither dominates the other.”   “It’s racially unsettling.” quipped a young white woman, while another was pointing at Christov repeatedly shouting “Shame, Shame, Shame.”    An older Hispanic man loudly proclaimed it as a symbol of hate, while two women behind him cried.   Then almost everyone in the room began loudly talking over one another and talking progressed quickly into shouting once again.

   A tall middle-aged African-American man dressed in a business suit voiced his opinion while accessing the picture.   “You are all missing the point of this picture. It’s about the struggle between good and evil, light and dark.” “What?!,” interrupted Raneesha.   “So you equate black with evil?!   Fuck you! You’re a coon.   Your opinion don’t matter!” she insulted.   Raneesha glared him down, as the exchange escalated the situation.   The humanity behind in her eyes faded.   All that remained within her was primal rage, hate, and the unhinged programming of radicalized ideology. “I’m a coon?” the man pointed towards himself.   “Listen b—,” to his frustration, he was interrupted by an older white woman, who had laid her hand upon his wrist and declared, “you’re both wrong, it’s about the patriarchy. It glorifies male dominance over women”.   He shook off the woman’s touch and turned his focus back to Raneesha.   Before he could speak, an effeminate gay Hispanic man interjected that the picture represented the beauty of interracial relationships, while a woman of Asian descent next to him countered that she believed that the picture represented approval of racial segregation.   Her eyes were red and filled with tears. “No,!” barked a Middle Eastern man, whose words overlapped the Asian woman’s. “It glorifies the white colonization of Islam.   Look how it bastardizes the sacred Islamic State Banner,” he continued.   The African-American man, who was still locked in a glare with Raneesha, finally got his words out. “You bitch!” and that was all it took.   The room erupted into chaos.

   Raneesha was the first to strike. She had no tolerance for what she frequently referred to as ‘Uncle Toms’ and ‘Sellouts’.   She connected a slap across the face of the African-American businessman with a thunderously loud clap. He pulled his arm back to retaliate, but shook off the urge and quickly retreated from her presence.   Several art displays were being smashed, while paintings and photographs were slashed with keys and pens. Christov’s art was being thrown across the room, or at other attendees who had held opposing views.   Raneesha tore the objectionable piece, that had started the upheaval from its mantle, and hurtled it at Christov, who only managed to avoid it impacting his face, by ducking at the last possible moment.   “What have you done??,” Christov shouted to Troy, who was seven feet away from him. “I only wanted to help,” Troy responded.   “You’ve ruined me!,” Christov yelled. Then a sculpture was shattered across Troy’s head, and he disappeared from Christov’s view. Through the chaos, Christov made his way back to the podium and looked out upon the crowd, which now could only be described as an all-out riot. Troy had not faired well.   He was partially obscured by three women over him, as he lay face up amongst the shattered sculpture on the floor, bloodied, battered, and semiconscious, he continued to suffer the repeated impacts from three-inch spiked stilettos to the face, ribs, and groin. Christov could no longer contain himself.   He fiercely tipped over the podium he had been using to shield himself from the artwork being hurtled around the room and slamming it to the floor with a loud crash. The noise stopped madness for the moment.

   “Listen to me!   LISTEN TO ME!!,” Christov shouted.   “All of you are at each other’s throats for what, what you think this, this photo represents, but none of you are asking me!,” shouted Christov. “Those of you who are critics and connoisseurs, who belittle artist every day, using your own personal taste as a measure of beauty and success, you don’t have a clue what art is,” his voice still raised, “Others bring their personal demons, and find them in everything they look at. The truth is this isn’t a photograph that was meant to be in this gallery. It is a photo of two colored chips overlapping each other.   A black one and a white one I used for testing the settings on my new camera.   I thought I had deleted all of the test pictures,” Christov explained.    “My partner, in his zealousness, and overly ambitious nature, like all of you here, read some meaning into something, where there was none.” He saw Troy slowly roll to his stomach, dazed but very much alive, to Christov’s relief.   A tear ran down Christov’s face. “Perhaps, on second thought, it does represent something. Perhaps, it is like a mirror, reflecting all of the ugliness, ignorance, rage, and hatred we all harbor inside, and that same ugliness we expect from the rest of the world. The worst in human nature is not based in reality, but more often in what we expect,” he said somberly. “Go. Go home.   We’re done here.   When you get there, look at your loved ones and ask yourselves, ‘Is this the world you want for them?’ Pray for them, pray for yourselves, pray for this world.” he concluded. “Fuck you!,” Raneesha yelled from the crowd, and Christov turned, shaking his head, and left the gallery as the sounds of sirens could be heard approaching from the distance.

   The next day's headlines, top television news stories, social media posts, and even radio chatter would all center on the incident at the gallery.   Most would condemn the cause as an act of hatred and pure evil, while others would see it as an act of defiance. It would be a topic in the news for just one week, but long enough. There were also nightly protest that week outside of the gallery. Then protest gave way to riots, resulting in the windows being shattered, the gallery being looted and set ablaze, which triggered the fire sprinklers, causing substantial damage to the gallery.   Months later the gallery would be reopened as an African-American culture and art gallery, as reparations for perceived offenses. Then the news cycle changed and the next outrage eclipsed the story. Christov had made several attempts to clarify the misunderstanding with the media but to no avail.   The story had taken a life of its own, and it was easier to perpetuate a story of racism and white supremacy when such topics boosted ratings, then to hear a story that didn’t follow that narrative.    Christov would never appear publicly again. Especially after several physical altercations with the public, including having a bottle of what he believed was human urine, dumped on him in a restaurant, and since, an ever-increasing fear of what someone could put in his food. His name had now been tainted beyond repair, and his art was removed from public view.    He realized that his works were likely being destroyed. Christov had become a disgraced and broken man through it all.

   It was four years afterward when Christov’s obituary made the news.   According to the obituary, there was a small service in his birth town Terracina Italy, only attended by a few of Christov’s closest family and friends.   The announcement was released a week after the service, as to avoid paparazzi and the potential for protesters, as well as keeping the location of internment secret. His death would be celebrated in certain circles of online activist and media personalities alike, but to the rest of the world, it would go unnoticed.

   Troy wasn’t celebrating, nor was he grieving from his manor house just outside Tossa de Mar, Spain.   The last four years had been hard on the young protege. He had learned much of how the art world and the real world worked, since the incident in New York City. Troy had harbored deep guilt over what had transpired that night, and how his actions had ended Christov’s career.   However, in time, he had made his peace with Christov.   Though no longer in the shadow of his mentor, and fortunately for him, his name had lost all association with Christov since that day, Troy had become an accomplished artist in his own right.   He wasn’t yet making as much per piece as Christov had during the height of his career, but he had a reputation of being a solid artist, as well and twice as prolific as many other artists. Critics would often remark on the impressive duality of his works, where separate pieces in one collection could starkly contrast each other in style, mood, and medium.   Troy had become a rising star in just a few short years.

   Troy sat down at the pottery wheel in his studio, to dabble in an art form he hadn’t quite mastered yet, to amuse himself, or at times for stress relief, and more often than not, just to clear his mind.    As Troy shaped the clay he reflected on his first time meeting Christov. It was an overly awkward introduction, followed by an equally awkward conversation, from an enamored fan.   Troy laughed at the memory. “I bet you thought I was a stalker the first time we met,”   Troy said out loud as he turned his head.    A chuckle could be heard from the figure that stood behind him. “No, just weird.” the figure replied.   “Gee thanks. Well anyway, you look good for a dead man.” Troy responded as he stopped manipulating the clay. “No, don’t stop.” the figure stated. “Let’s have some fun.” Christov slid a box behind him and sat, rolling up his sleeves, and put his hands on top of Troy’s, moving them towards the clay vase he had been working on. “Seriously?   The scene from Ghost? And you called me weird?” Troy said laughing. “Shut up. We have a lot of work to do.   But, let’s just enjoy the moment.” Christov teased. “Do you think people will ever realize that more than half of ‘my’ works, are actually yours?” Troy’s tone changed. “The better half.” he continued. Christov frowned. “Is that how you see it?” he asked. Troy nodded. “Don’t look at it that way. I’ve seen artists gifted with great technical skills create flat lifeless works. Yours are inspired, emotional, and alive. The perfection of skill comes with time.   You’ll be there soon. You will likely surpass me in talent a few years from now.   I saw that raw natural talent within you.” Christov added.   “What happened, happened. Probably for a reason and probably for the best. Neither of us can change it, but what I can say is that these past four years away from the public have given me a new perspective, and freed me from the self-doubt brought by critics, or trying to appease the unappeasable that commissioned my work. It’s quite liberating.” he continued. “Yeah, but what if you’re recognized out in public?” Troy asked.   “Short hair and trimmed beard, with a splash of color, and I’m good to go. Or maybe it will be my turn to write your obituary for the world.” Christov joked.   “We’ll cross that road if it happens. For now, let’s just keep doing what we are doing. This, what should we say, ‘ghost artist’ collaboration.” he smiled. “I’ve had four years to put this all in perspective.   Art inspires the world.   It’s timeless. Look at the works of ancient civilizations.   From architecture to art little has changed. But their works continue to inspire and be improved upon. Who created the first painting, or the first sculpture? No one knows exactly who, but their influence lives on.   What public art of mine that’s been removed, in some way or another has already influence artists of tomorrow, as yours will too. Of this, I am sure, as what is seen can’t be unseen. Through you, my works will still be seen, but without the stain of stigma. Art is the need for expression. It’s imagination given form and a part of a soul given birth.   It’s love in the purest form.   I have no regrets because we have each other.”   Christov said, as he moved a clay-covered finger down Troy's nose and smiled. “It’s your time to shine,” he whispered into Troy’s ear.


© 2020

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