Each year since 1982, the Congressional Institute has sponsored a high school art competition whereby students submit artwork to their congressional representative’s office, which in turn selects a winner. The 435 winning artworks are then exhibited in Washington, DC, hung salon style in a hallway between the Capitol Building and Longworth House Office Building for a year. The office of Representative William Lacy Clay, a Democrat from St. Louis, Missouri, selected a painting by Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School senior David Pulphus in early May 2016. Early this month, the untitled painting was hung in the Capitol. A few days later, the Independent Journal Review, a right-wing website with a mixed record on factual reporting, published an article titled, “Painting of Cops as Pigs Hung Proudly in US Capitol.” A cycle of outrage began. Fox News picked up the story. In a ginned up moment, Representative Duncan Hunter, Republican from San Diego, California unscrewed the painting from the wall, delivered it to Representative Clay’s office, and went to Fox News to brag about it. Today, Representative Clay and members of the Congressional Black Caucus rehung the painting. Shortly thereafter Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado, removed it again, only to have Representative Clay rehang it again. Congressional Republicans are discussing how to remove it permanently.
Representative Clay did no service to the painting when he announced its selection in May 2016. “The painting portrays a colorful landscape of symbolic characters representing social injustice, the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri and the lingering elements of inequality in modern American society,” his statement said. At the time, the St. Louis American reported, “The painting is an interpretation of the months of unrest that took place in the region in response to the fatal shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown Jr. by then-Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014.” Pulphus submitted a powerful work of art and Representative Clay’s pretending the painting was innocuous is a disservice to its capacity.
Many, however, have been trying to dismiss the voice of Pulphus’ painting. In her role as a “news analyst”, Jeanne Zaino said on Fox News, “The problem here is that this does nothing to further that conversation and help us get to a better place vis-a-vis police community relations particularly in the African American community.” Are we so sure about that? As is often the case when art becomes controversial, the discussion becomes less about the art in question and more about politics, hysterics, and gamesmanship. Before we take to Twitter, let’s take a moment to look closely at Pulphus’s painting.
Describing it as a “Painting of Cops as Pigs” is a bit like describing Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” as “Naked Guy Tries to Touch Old Dude.” “Untitled #1” is an acrylic on canvas work that shows a protest taking places on the streets of St. Louis. The painting is rendered in a densely packed style reminiscent of many social justice murals. In the background of the painting, a man stares at the viewer through prison bars. The iconic Gateway Arch stands to the man’s right. At the center of the composition, a crowd of people holding signs marches through the street. Brick buildings surround the people, who are predominantly black and brown. One man holds up a sign that says “History.” A man behind him holds one that reads “Justice Now.”
Like a lot of good art, Pulphus’s painting raises many questions. Is the inclusion of a Beauty Shop a shout out to African American neighborhoods? Is the white protester with a peace sign on the sidewalk a critique of white passiveness in the face of racism? Is that meant as a direct counterbalance to the black man holding a “Racism Kills” sign on the sidewalk across the street? Is the artist asking us to think about our messages in the context of a larger debate?
The energy of the scene is tense. A white man in a blue car is frustrated by the events unfolding around him. He is trapped by the crowd. Next to his car, seemingly suspended in the air, a man hangs on a cross. In each hand, he holds a platform on chains so that his body becomes the center pillar in a scale of justice. He wears a mortarboard on his head. What does it mean for that black body to be crucified as the center pillar of scales of justice?
On the other side of the painting are two figures in police uniforms. Their heads are portrayed as wild boars with tusks. Their bodies are thick; their skin is brown and their human hands point guns at an anthropomorphized black cat that could be a cougar or a panther. Is the portrayal of the protester as a cat a reference to the Black Panthers’ long fight against social inequality? The cat man is raising a fist in the air, defying the gun-wielding boars. Above it all, two birds, one black and one white, fight in midair.
Artists paint the world around them. What can we infer about the world of this artist? He comes from a world where a passionate fight for justice is taking place. The questionably factual Independent Journal Review said an unnamed “senior Republican congressional aide” referred to the painting as “hate masquerading as art.” If that person actually exists, I wonder if they even saw the dozens of other people in the painting. To return to Michaelangelo, this is the comment of someone who only sees Adam’s small penis and not the grand gesture of God giving life to humanity.
Back on Fox News, Zaino said that the painting “alienates and treats people with a lack of respect they deserve.” Actually, this looks like a painting of people who feel alienated and don’t feel they are getting the respect the deserve. To not see that is to miss the whole point of the painting. Why is it so important for some people to focus only on the two wild boars? In a culture of disinformation, power must redirect attention from the truth. Attacking how the message is delivered is a brilliant way to prevent the message from being heard.
The president of the Fraternal Order of Police District of Columbia Lodge #1, Andy Maybo, told the right-wing, questionably factual publication the Daily Caller, “This piece of art, which depicts officers as pigs, is both offensive and disgusting. During a time in our society when tensions are so high that someone can be offended by a single word, this painting does nothing but attack law enforcement to its core.” Does it though? The artist does not portray all law enforcement as wild boars. Two squad cars are parked behind the protesters, presumably keeping them safe from oncoming traffic. Another police officer holds a black man by the arm as if he is taking him away from the scene. A better question may be: What could it be about the two officers who have pulled their guns on the unarmed protesters that dehumanizes them? Usually when I am being dehumanized, I ask myself: Am I doing something unjust that is causing this person to treat me this way? And if I am, then I stop doing that thing.
There is something “offensive and disgusting” about Pulphus’s painting. That this is the world of a high school senior is a fact that should offend and disgust us. That a person is growing up in a world where those meant to protect and serve can come to be seen as wild and lethal animals should be the concern here. When a child makes a disturbing picture, the proper response should not be to rip it off the refrigerator and pretend it doesn’t exist. The humane response is to listen to that child and find out what’s going on with him or her. Pulphus is not a child. He has arrived as an artist. The maturity of this painting is profound. And we should take his work seriously and listen closely to what it has to say.