Tug of war over Capi­tol art­work

Re­pub­li­cans say Fer­gu­son-in­spired paint­ing too of­fen­sive to dis­play

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

The clash be­tween mem­bers of Congress over a paint­ing that de­picts po­lice of­fi­cers as pigs boiled over Tues­day, with Repub­li­can law­mak­ers re­peat­edly tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands to re­move the stu­dent art­work from a Capi­tol com­plex hall­way and Democrats re­spond­ing by re­hang­ing the piece and de­fend­ing its dis­play.

The back-and-forth prompted Rep. Cedric L. Rich­mond, Louisiana Demo­crat and chair­man of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus, to warn that “we might have to kick some­body’s ass” if the pat­tern con­tin­ued.

The drama over the paint­ing started ear­lier in the day af­ter Mr. Rich­mond, Rep. Wil­liam Lacy Clay, Mis­souri Demo­crat, and other mem­bers of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus re­stored the paint­ing to its place on a tun­nel wall in­side the U.S. Capi­tol. They said they were strik­ing a case for free­dom of speech.

House Re­pub­li­cans said the art­work vi­o­lates the terms of the stu­dent art com­pe­ti­tion. The of­fice of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wis­con­sin

Repub­li­can, sig­naled that he would be­gin the of­fi­cial process of re­mov­ing the paint­ing, which de­picts po­lice as gun­wield­ing pigs.

The paint­ing had been on the wall since the sum­mer. Mr. Clay chose it as the win­ner from his dis­trict for the 2016 art com­pe­ti­tion. But a fierce back­lash cul­mi­nated last week when Rep. Dun­can Hunter, Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can, uni­lat­er­ally made the de­ci­sion to pull the work off the wall and re­turn it to Mr. Clay’s of­fice.

Mr. Clay and fel­low black law­mak­ers on Tues­day re­hung the work, “Un­ti­tled #1,” from for­mer high school stu­dent David Pul­phus. The paint­ing is said to be in­spired by the un­rest that fol­lowed the 2014 shoot­ing of Michael Brown by a Fer­gu­son po­lice of­fi­cer.

Mr. Clay said he didn’t agree with the mes­sage but de­fended the artist’s right to ex­press him­self.

“This is re­ally not about a stu­dent art com­pe­ti­tion; it is about de­fend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion,” Mr. Clay told re­porters. “It is just pa­thetic that some Repub­li­can mem­bers and alt-right me­dia types who con­stantly re­fer to them­selves as con­sti­tu­tional con­ser­va­tives don’t think that that same doc­u­ment pro­tects the fun­da­men­tal free speech rights of my 18-year-old con­stituent.”

Mr. Hunter also stood his ground. “The art com­pe­ti­tion rules do not al­low for this kind of paint­ing,” he said. “It is just that sim­ple.”

Mr. Hunter, a for­mer Ma­rine, urged Mr. Ryan to get in­volved. The speaker’s of­fice said Rep. David G. Re­ichert of Wash­ing­ton, a for­mer sher­iff, is spear­head­ing the Repub­li­can re­sponse.

“We are ask­ing the Ar­chi­tect of the Capi­tol to re­view the paint­ing in ques­tion and to make a de­ci­sion about whether or not it should be hang­ing in the halls of the Capi­tol ac­cord­ing to the rules ex­plained in the guidelines,” said Bre­anna Deutsch, a Re­ichert spokes­woman.

Un­der rules of the con­test, “ex­hibits de­pict­ing sub­jects of con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy or a sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic or grue­some na­ture are not al­lowed.”

The guidelines also dic­tate that the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion of what can dis­played is made by “a panel of qual­i­fied per­sons chaired by the Ar­chi­tect of the Capi­tol,” though it is un­clear whether the re­view was com­pleted be­fore the art­work went on dis­play.

The Ar­chi­tect of the Capi­tol’s of­fice did not re­spond to emails seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

Ms. Deutsch said she be­lieved that “should have hap­pened be­fore­hand” and that it “would not make sense for them to re­view it af­ter­ward.”

Other Re­pub­li­cans, mean­while, jumped into the fray.

Rep. Doug Lam­born of Colorado pulled down the paint­ing af­ter Mr. Clay put it back up, spark­ing the stern re­buke from Mr. Rich­mond, ac­cord­ing to Politico.

When Mr. Clay hung the paint­ing for a sec­ond time, Reps. Brian Babin of Texas and Dana Rohrabacher of Cal­i­for­nia yanked it down and dropped it off again at the Mis­souri Demo­crat’s of­fice.

“It has be­come a very child­ish cha­rade,” Mr. Clay told re­porters af­ter hang­ing the paint­ing for a third time. “When you think about the ci­vil­ity and deco­rum of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the in­sti­tu­tion has re­ally gone down in my opin­ion if we are re­duced to tak­ing an 18-year-old’s paint­ing off the wall.”

Asked if he would re­hang the paint­ing if it is taken down again, he said, “Who knows?”

Mr. Pul­phus’ paint­ing por­trays peo­ple — in­clud­ing po­lice of­fi­cers who ap­pear to have boars’ heads — as an­i­mals. Black char­ac­ters are hold­ing signs that read “racism kills” and “stop killing.” The back­drop fea­tures the Gate­way Arch of St. Louis and a black man sport­ing a grad­u­a­tion hat on a cru­ci­fix that dou­bles as the scales of jus­tice.

Po­lice or­ga­ni­za­tions said the paint­ing is of­fen­sive and crit­i­cized the de­ci­sion to hang it in the Capi­tol com­plex.

But St. Louis Po­lice Chief Sam Dot­son has de­fended Mr. Clay. He said this week­end that “po­lice of­fi­cers are not art crit­ics.”

Mr. Clay said Mr. Pul­phus’ paint­ing re­flects his ex­pe­ri­ence of com­ing of age dur­ing the high-pro­file deaths of black teens — in­clud­ing Mr. Brown — and said he wel­comes a de­bate over the art­work.

“Let’s dis­cuss it, but you just don’t walk up here and re­move a paint­ing be­cause you are of­fended by it,” he said.

He said he as­sumed the paint­ing met con­test guidelines given that it had been on dis­play since the sum­mer.

“The build­ing com­mis­sion al­ready ap­proved all of this art­work on this wall,” he said.

He added that the paint­ing does not vi­o­late the “con­tem­po­rary” is­sues clause be­cause the black com­mu­nity has a “painful and tortured his­tory with law en­force­ment in this coun­try.”

Mr. Clay said the Capi­tol in­cludes mul­ti­ple pieces of art that he and his con­stituents find “deeply of­fen­sive,” in­clud­ing stat­ues of Con­fed­er­ates Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

The con­gress­man told The Wash­ing­ton Times that he would be of­fended by a paint­ing that fea­tured the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag, but he would not look to censor it.

He said he doubted that any high school stu­dent would sub­mit such a paint­ing as part of the com­pe­ti­tion.

“But even if it did, you have to re­spect that artist’s view, and that is all I am say­ing about David Pul­phus. He has a view­point, and he put it on can­vas,” he said.


PRO­TEC­TIVE: Demo­cratic mem­bers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (from left) Wil­liam Lacy Clay of Mis­souri, John Cony­ers Jr. of Michi­gan and Henry C. “Hank” John­son Jr. of Ge­or­gia de­fend the paint­ing by Mis­souri high school stu­dent David Pul­phus.

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