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Controversy Lingers Over Capitol Art Competition

Deadline for student art submissions is Thursday

Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. passes by the painting by Missouri high school student David Pulphus after it was rehung in the Capitol tunnel in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. passes by the painting by Missouri high school student David Pulphus after it was rehung in the Capitol tunnel in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Submissions to this year’s Congressional Art Competition for high school students close on Thursday while the controversy from last year’s contest still hasn’t dissipated.

Debate still lingers over the painting by David Pulphus, a constituent of Rep. William Lacy Clay, that depicted police-community relations in Ferguson, Missouri. Some Republican members took matters into their own hands and removed the painting from where it hung with others in the Capitol tunnel.

[Controversial Ferguson Painting Removed From Display for Third Time]

Clay doesn’t have a role in the selection process once his office receives the art submissions from constituents. An independent panel of judges in his district — teachers, art dealers and gallery owners — selects the winner and the congressman sees it the day it is announced.

He vigorously defended Pulphus’ painting on free speech grounds.

Conservatives and Republican House members objected to the painting, which depicted police officers as pigs shooting at a crowd of protesters. In turns, lawmakers had the artwork taken down and delivered Clay’s office, before Clay would rehang it each time. After a series of back-and-forths, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan asked the Architect of the Capitol to remove the painting and a federal court ruled the move legal.

[Clay to Appeal Judge’s Rejection of Student Painting]

Clay said last week he would appeal the judge’s rejection of his attempts to return the painting to where it hung with other contest winners in the tunnel connecting the Capitol and the Cannon House Office Building.

The congressman and Pulphus are arguing that the removal was a violation of Pulphus’ First Amendment rights.

HOH reached out to some of those Republican lawmakers involved in removing the painting — Reps. Duncan Hunter, Brian Babin, and Dana Rohrabacher — those who publicly disapproved of it — GOP Rep. Dave Reichert, a former sheriff — and those who defended the painting — Reps. Cedric L. Richmond and Jamie Raskin, both Democrats.

None wanted to talk about this year’s contest.

From center left, Reps. <a class=
From center left, Reps. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, Alma Adams of North Carolina, William Lacy Clay of Missouri, Conyers, and Hank Johnson of Georgia speak in front of the painting at a press conference in the Capitol tunnel in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer is protesting last year’s controversy in a novel way: His office isn’t participating in the congressional competition for the first time in his 11 terms in the House.

[Reichert Finds Ferguson Police Relations Painting in the Capitol Offensive]

“It’s pretty simple and straightforward,” Blumenauer said. “Young artists ought to be able to compete based on their skill and their originality and their ideas, and local art experts ought to be able to help select and then we ought to be able to declare a winner and exhibit it without somebody else second-guessing and, worse, censoring.”

Blumenauer is holding his own contest and the winning artwork will hang in his D.C. office and perhaps rotate to other locations. He said he has been amazed by the entries.

“There’s a pretty wide range of artistic expression, but I think that’s the name of the game — for people to challenge their own abilities and our sensitivities,” he said. “It’s all acceptable that some may have different forms of artistic expression in terms of the medium they choose and the subjects.”

[Hunter Removes Controversial Ferguson Police Painting from Cannon Tunnel]

Like Clay, Bluemauer will have a panel of art experts from his district select the winner.

“This is above my pay grade,” he said. “I don’t pretend to be sophisticated enough to be able to pick from all the submissions and, candidly, I’d hate to have to choose.”

He called the members who opposed Pulphus’ art last year “self-appointed vigilantes.”

“It ought to be clear that there will not be outside interference to try and somehow have prior censorship or, after the fact, which is even worse after somebody would win the competition to decide ‘No, no, they’re not going to be able to represent their community after all,’” Blumenauer said.

[Clay: Taking Down Ferguson Painting is ‘Unconstitutional’]

The Oregon Democrat called last year’s controversy “shameful” and “embarrassing for Congress.”

“It’s just not the role of government to be involved with political censorship, in my judgment,” he said.

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Photos of the week ending June 14, 2024