And each time Clay promptly returned the painting to the wall. “I do not agree or disagree with this painting,” Clay told reporters at one rehanging. “But I will fight to defend this young man’s right to express himself because his artwork is true for him and he is entitled to that protection under the law.”
The painting was one of more than 400 entries approved for year-long display by the nationwide Congressional Art Competition. Since 1982, the contest has asked students in each congressional district to submit artwork which is judged by a panel of judges in each district, not the congressmen.
Sooner or later, a dust-up like this was bound to happen. Art and politics don’t always mix well. Art thrives on free expression of different points of view. Politics gives us political correctness in various forms, such as the belief that police should only be depicted in a respectful way.
Pulphus’ painting expresses a vision that, right or wrong, is closer to that of protestors in the streets of Ferguson. His vision is more negative than my own. Yet I find the picture to be less “disgusting” than the social problems that it is trying to critique, social problems that we Americans need help from Congress to solve.
One might take Pulphus’ painting as a wake-up call to attack the root causes of our racial, social and political divides. Instead, some people want to hide the art.
But lawmakers should be cautious about that. Attempts to censor can come back to bite you.
I am reminded of another art-vs.-politics dispute in which the racial roles were reversed. In 1988, a group of angry black Chicago aldermen marched into the esteemed School of the Art Institute of Chicago to take down a painting of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington only months after his death.
The painting, titled “Mirth and Girth,” was painted by David K. Nelson, a student with a reputation for outrageously irreverent work. Those were tense times along racial fault lines in Chicago politics. Washington was revered in many black Chicago households.
Yet barely a day after the painting was taken down it was put back up, an acknowledgement of how freedom of expression should never lose out to politics.
Ironically, one of the leading aldermen in that protest was Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther leader who has since became a popular Democratic congressman — and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been supporting fellow member Clay and the display of Pulphus’ painting.
The moral of this story: Don’t rush to censor someone else’s expression; you might want to use your own freedom of expression someday.