How controversial Capitol painting can show us who we are

Story highlights

  • Seph Rodney: Controversial Capitol painting isn't great art but it is revealing
  • Artwork shows us a side of ourselves we might prefer to ignore, he writes

Seph Rodney holds an MFA in studio art and a PhD in museum studies. He has taught at Parsons School of Design and is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. He has recently been contracted by Routledge press to produce a book based on his ongoing research regarding the personalization of the museum visit. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Why is a painting by a high school student the object of a tug-of-war between rival factions of the 115th Congress? The painting ended up in this fracas after it won Democratic Representative William Clay's congressional art competition last May.

Seph Rodney
In my considered opinion, the painting, "Untitled #1" by high school student David Pulphus, isn't very good. Its figuration is amateurish; the content doesn't just veer towards, but fully embraces the sentimental, and its symbolic content is relatively cliché. It shows a protest march. There is a figure, in the foreground wearing a graduation cap nailed into a crucifix that doubles as what might be the scales of justice with the modern, oppositional yin and yang symbols held in balance. Various hand-made signs are held by civilians, including one that claims "racism kills." Yet perhaps most controversially, there's a police officer depicted with a boar's head, aiming his weapon at someone who might be a protester.
Apparently because of this anti-police sentiment, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, has found it necessary to denounce the work on the Mike Gallagher radio show, saying, "It's disgusting and it's not befitting the Capitol."
There are several things wrong with the Republican response to this controversy.
It only makes logical sense to have a curator (who deals in visual art) judge this issue. If the Republicans are going to stack the deck, they should at least do so in ways that are believable. More importantly, why do they care? Is their worldview so fragile that seeing cops depicted as pigs (or boars) threatens it? Is the image so offensive to them they feel that it must be expunged from their field of vision, lest they succumb to its argument?
CNN has reported that Clay stipulates that House members cannot select the artists, do not sign off on the artistic concepts and have no role in judging the competition, so we should not view this as an act of petty provocation. Despite Clay's affirmation that the painting has been hanging inside the Capitol, along with over 400 other winners, since the summer (so this is not news), Mr. Clay, a Missouri Democrat, has had to rehang the painting at least three separate times this month after House Republicans had it taken down and put it back in Clay's office.
The argument that Speaker Ryan and other Republicans have made is one pertaining to rules. Ryan reportedly said, "It's not about the First Amendment, it's about the rules of the Capitol. The art competition rules do not allow for this type of painting." Representative Dave Reichert from Washington led the GOP efforts to have the painting taken down. Reichert -- who has said the painting will be taken down permanently — sent a letter to the architect of the Capitol requesting him to review whether the painting conforms with the contest rules, which bar "exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic and gruesome nature." Clay, however, argues that it is a matter of First Amendment free speech rights, and has diligently fought the GOP member's attempts to remove it from the Cannon tunnel.
As problematic as the GOP response to this painting is, their response is no surprise to me. It has been my experience growing up in the US that the Republican party has consistently been the party of those (white, heterosexual, Christians) who insist that every image they encounter corroborate their view of reality or be erased. They relentlessly attack art and cultural works when they don't conform to their picture of the world. But they don't just want to remove them from sight; they want to invalidate them, and by extension invalidate all other perspectives not their own.
This concerted effort at erasure begat multiculturalism as a philosophical alternative to the assimilation strategy of the melting pot; it begat identity politics and the culture wars, which at their core were all struggles to recognize people of color, people who have a range of sexual orientations and those who are agnostic, atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or other, as just as crucial to the American story as anyone else, and therefore deserving of representation on their terms in all the nation's social, political and cultural institutions.
Here's the awful truth: Police officers have acted on instinct rather than careful consideration in a way that many view as beastly. That's how you end up killing Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy with a toy gun, or John Crawford, an adult man also holding a toy gun, or another black man, Oscar Grant, who was shot to death with his hands already cuffed behind his back. The list of black men murdered by police is familiar to us. It begs the question: "If you cannot rationally distinguish between friend and foe, then why are you entrusted to protect and serve?" There are rules of police conduct that are violated every day that result in the callous murder of black men, and yet Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republican guard are instead offended by a painting that gestures toward that truth.
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Though the painting is not great art, the student's picture makes a crucial statement, which is what art should do. It has historically been within the purview of art to show ourselves to ourselves, to reveal who we are and what our priorities, ways of seeing and ethics are — the best and worst or ourselves.
The Speaker of the House is correct in saying that the painting is disgusting. It is, in that it reveals disgusting behavior, which police have perpetrated repeatedly, with no conscientious objection from him. Instead he and his Republican Congress spend time denouncing a painting and having it removed from their sight, not because they are principled, but precisely because they are not.