Capitol Controversy Rages as Student Painting is Repeatedly Removed and Restored

Is the issue free speech or the rules of an obscure competition?

The US Capitol building, where government representatives are up in arms over a student's painting. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A painting showing police officers as pigs is at the center of ongoing controversy on Capitol Hill, with Congressmen repeatedly taking it down and restoring it to the wall in a fight over free speech and the rules of an obscure art contest for high schoolers.

Painted by an 18-year-old Missourian, the work shows protests against police violence raging in the streets of St. Louis, with a porcine cop aiming a gun at a protester in the guise of a wolf.

After the canvas won a prize in a Congressional art competition run by Missouri Congressman William Lacy Clay and went on view in the Capitol building, Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, took it upon himself to remove the canvas from the wall due to what he deemed is its offensive content.

The move coincided with the new Congress and the incoming Republican President, though the painting had been on view for months, and thus provided a striking example of a GOP newly in control of all three branches of government and promising a bold, conservative agenda.

Missouri Representative William Lacy Clay, who selected the artwork for display, restored it, and another Republican, Colorado’s Doug Lamborn, took it off the wall again, reports the AP. It has since been removed—and restored—yet again, as shown in tweets by local reporters.

Clay calls the Republicans’ conduct “pathetic,” while, for his part, Hunter, who first defended his actions by saying “I was angry,” now says the painting is in violation of one of the rules for the competition, which read, “Exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.” Final decisions are made by the architect of the Capitol, whom the Republicans have asked to weigh in on the matter.

None of Clay’s offices could be reached by phone, but, according to the AP report,

Clay said he’s ready to have that debate. He said there are numerous works of art around the Capitol that he and his constituents find offensive. He specifically cited a portrait of the late Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, a staunch segregationist, and statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, leaders of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has taken note of the hullabaloo, releasing a statement about the back-and-forth over offensive content and competition rules:

It is our understanding that the work went through the full selection process and was reviewed by the panel chaired by the Architect of the Capitol. Representative Hunter one-sidedly deciding that the painting was violating the guidelines only demonstrates the need to clarify those guidelines. The work depicts, in an allegorical manner, a fact of our recent past: protests against police violence. Telling young people they should not depict the world around them for fear of offending our political representatives is worthy of a totalitarian regime, not the halls of the US Capitol.

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