By F. Lennox Campello
Bottom Line Up Front: A Congressman selects a painting from his district to hang in the U.S. Capitol building, and the painting depicts cops as animals. The painting, done by a student artist named David Pulphus, shows the protests and riots in Ferguson, Mo. after a police officer shot Michael Brown.
It also shows a muscular Brown (I think, because of the graduation cap) as a Christ on the cross, and a feral slim black wolf (in Timberland boots?) encountering the obese police.
As a work of art, the painting, done in a naïve style, leaves a lot to be desired, as a narrative work, it is powerful enough that it started a mini art war in Congress!
The painting was chosen by or on behalf of Congressman Lacy Clay (D – Missouri), and was part of the well-known Congressional Art Competition. The Pulphus painting sometimes hangs, then gets removed, then gets re-hung, and then was finally kicked out, in a tunnel between the Capitol building and the Longworth House Office Building. Clay represents Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police after fighting with a cop who had stopped him.
The real life cops (who are depicted as fat animals in the painting, one seems to be a horse, and one seems to be some kind of a wild pig, and curiously, all seem to be black or brown) were justifiably pissed off by the depiction, and complained vociferously about the piece, and where it was hanging.
Andy Maybo, president of The Fraternal Order of Police District of Columbia Lodge #1 said, “This piece of art, which depicts officers as pigs, is both offensive and disgusting. During a time in our society when tensions are so high that someone can be offended by a single word, this painting does nothing but attack law enforcement to its core. The fact that a member of Congress would advocate and praise such a painting is reprehensible. We, in law enforcement, regardless of the police department we work for, are held to higher standards that certain Members of Congress now have made a mockery of.”
And then Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) personally removed the painting from the wall, and then the painting became a political football, as narrative art often does… you never see anyone bitching about abstract art, do you?
It is not the first time that artwork has been censored/removed/covered up in government buildings in the DMV; and more often than not, artwork is “censored” waaaay before it is ever hung – censored in the selection process that is… when was it the last time that you saw a nude acquired as a public artwork in the DMV? I will tell you, somewhere between the 1800s and the halcyon days of the WPA.
“Older” artwork, even historical pieces, has been censored by political censors routinely around here…
Remember when Luis A. Luna, the Assistant Administrator, Office of Administration and Resources Management announced a decade ago a decision to install a “temporary screen” to cover up several historical murals on the 5th floor of the Ariel Rios building in Washington, DC. These murals were created under a 1934 U.S. Treasury art commissioning program, and have apparently been the subject of complaints over the years, and were also once previously covered up during the Clinton Administration, before being apparently exhibited again during the Bush administration, before being hidden from view once more… no idea if they are covered up again, but five gets you ten that they’re either covered up or (worse) have been removed. The murals which have titles such as “French Explorers and Indians,” “Torture by Stake,” “The Red Man Takes the Mochila,” etc. depict a diverse set of panoramas ranging from spectacular scenes of the often violent interaction between the American West’s native nations and the new settlers, to artistic recreation of historical meetings between European explorers and native Americans.
Soooooo… who was right and who was wrong in the recent Pulphusian saga? As faithful readers know, I’m nearly always on the side of the artwork, and rage against the censor. This case is a tough one for me personally, as I really, really understand the thin blue line perspective on this.
In some cases where I have been on the side of the censor, it has always been from the perspective of “he who owns the walls”, but that doesn’t apply in this case, as those Capitol walls are owned by the people of the United States.
Is the painting insulting to police? Of course it is; it was meant to carry a very caustic message, and it does that superbly well.
Does Duncan have a right to remove it, since it was properly sponsored by another politician? Of course he didn’t – not in the manner in which he did (although I can sympathize as to why he did it).
I would then err on the side that the painting needed to hang freely, lest we approach art as Cuba, North Korea, China, Iran, etc. approach art.
How did it end? The painting was removed because it technically violated the rules of the competition, which disqualifies “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature” and states that such depictions are “not allowed.”
I don’t like the painting and the flawed narrative that it relays, but initially I defended the right of the painter and his sponsoring politico to hang it. But then, once you read the rules of the competition, it is clear that (technically) it should never have been hung in the first place – not as part of that competition anyway.
I’m not 100% sure, but I suspect that there’s nothing to stop Congressman Clay from purchasing the painting from Pulphus and hanging it in his office.