After an official ruling from the Architect of the Capitol, a high school student’s painting that depicts police officers with animal heads has been definitively removed from its spot alongside other art contest winners in an office corridor of the U.S. Capitol complex, where it had hung undisturbed for more than six months before it became a political bone of contention over the past several weeks. The untitled painting by 18-year-old David Pulphus is now hanging in the office of Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay, who says he plans to challenge the decision that curtailed his constituent’s freedom of expression.
The painting is just one among dozens of student artworks from across the country selected to hang in a corridor of the Cannon House Office Building for one year as part of the Congressional Art Competition. Pulphus’ work depicts a protest march foregrounded by a police officer aiming his weapon at an unarmed subject. At least one officer in the painting is shown with the head of a boar, while his target appears to be a wolf or black panther, as The Hill suggests. Also prominently featured in the painting is a young African American man crucified on the scales of justice, and protest signs such as “RACISM KILLS.” Pulphus completed the painting while he was a student at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School in St. Louis.
Although the painting had hung in the corridor since June, it raised no outside notice until this month when Fox News’ Eric Bolling urged viewers to call Rep. Clay or their own Congressional representatives to demand that the painting be taken down. Clay staunchly refused to censor the work, but California Rep. Duncan Hunter literally took matters into his own hands, unscrewing the painting from the wall and then depositing it with Clay’s office staff. Since then, the work was restored by Rep. Clay and removed by other House members multiple times.
Finally last week Speaker of the House Paul Ryan formally requested that the painting be removed by the Architect of the Capitol, who oversees the buildings and grounds. Ryan claimed that Pulphus’ work does not conform to one of the art competition’s rules barring “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature.” This week, Rep. Clay dismissed that justification in a statement:
The assertion that the painting did not comply with the rules of the Congressional Art Competition is arbitrary and insulting. Like the other 400-plus entries, this painting was accepted and approved by the Congressional Art Competition last spring, and it has been peacefully displayed in a public forum for more than six months.
An editorial in the Washington Post pointed out that some other Art Competition paintings still on the wall also address political topics, and that the singling out of one work “should alarm anyone who thinks the First Amendment, unlike art, is not a matter of personal taste and choice.” Rep. Clay has not yet detailed how he plans to challenge the Architect’s decision, but did note that “Supreme Court precedent clearly falls on the side of artistic freedom as protected speech.” Last week Clay joined with his newly elected colleague Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a professor of constitutional law at American University, to send Speaker Ryan a letter outlining the First Amendment rights at stake.
In an op-ed for The Root Etefia Umana, a St. Louis-area activist, journalism student, and friend of David Pulphus, said the artist told him only that “the art speaks for itself.” Unfortunately, for now it can only do so from within the confines of Rep. Clay’s office–and of course the multitude of news outlets that have now covered the dispute!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.