By now almost everybody knows the story of Lacy Clay and the painting shown above – when there’s a story that involves conservative outrage, it gets around thanks to the first rate rightwing propaganda network. But just in case you don’t know why the image above is interesting for more than its aesthetic qualities, or if you’ve forgotten the details, here’s a quick summary of the events:
There’s something called the Congressional Art Competition for high school students in each congressional district. Each year, the most recent winner’s painting is hung in a tunnel passageway between the Longworth House Office Building and the Capitol. Over six months ago, Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay (D-1) hung the painting above, by the winner of the competition in his district, St. Louis high school student David Pulphus.
The Independent Journal Review, a right-leaning news site, noticed the painting recently and decided that its depiction of seemingly beastial police was worth a little outrage, which led Fox News to pick up the story. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) saw an opportunity to publicly flex his John Wayne muscles, grabbed the painting off the wall and deposited it in Rep. Clay’s office after lots of well-publicized posturing. Rep. Clay quickly flexed his muscles right back at Hunter and rehung the painting. Whereupon lots of other GOP representatives tried to get in on the show, publicly bloviating while shuttling the painting back and forth. Finally Republicans decided to call in a big gun and appealed to the Architect of the Capitol who ruled that “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.” So, now it looks like there’ll be a premature bye-bye to Pulphus’ painting.
Do you see anything funny (both ha-ha funny and otherwise) about this scenario? If not, let me lay it out for you:
- Isn’t it conservatives who are usually mouthing off about about political correctness? As Alex Nowrasteh recently wrote in the Washington Post, “conservative writers fill volumes complaining how political correctness stifles free expression” and yet here they are actively trying to stifle free expression in the name of that god of the blue-haired country-club matron, “good taste.” Something offends them and theirs, it’s got to go, but when it offends me and mine, we’ve got to shut up because political correctness.
- Speaking of PC, are policemen and women really so fragile that they can’t face up to the fact that there are whole segments of the population that don’t regard them as protectors? Why do Republicans want us to enforce “safe spaces” for cops, when they’re so disturbed by the same kind of “safe spaces” on campuses (and, for the record, I oppose controversy-free zones on campus too).
- How does it help police to deal with “wounds that we’re trying to heal,” in the words of the president of the St. Louis County Police Association, if we stifle any point of view that doesn’t flatter the police? Lots of us believe that a wound can’t heal until its existence is freely acknowledged. Why aren’t these congressmen more interested in finding out why an intelligent, talented young man depicts police with animal faces? (And, by the way, he also depicts a protester with a wolf face – there’s lots of diverse animal imagery in the picture.)
- Jonathan Adler argues that there are inconsistencies in the response of the Capital Architect: that the office did not object to the painting when it was first hung six months ago, and that other paintings with a political message have not been removed (he offers an example here), adding that “this painting was targeted because of its specific message, not because it is too political.” In other words, the criteria used to remove the painting is inspired more by the particular PC ox that is being gored than by an objective application of the rules.
- If I were a cynical type of person, I might think that Rep. Duncan Hunter’s embrace of the controversy – and he was the one who really got it going – might have had something to do with his desire to deflect attention from the ethics investigations into his campaign finances in which he was forced to reimburse $62,000 to his campaign for charges including “oral surgery, a garage door, video games, resort stays and a jewelry purchase in Italy.” But that’s just me. For purposes of discussion, I’m willing to accept that he and his very tasteful pals are just enslaved by conservative PC.
If Rep. Hunter and his GOP colleagues weren’t so politically correct, however, they might have been more willing to use the painting to encourage discussion of the questions that it raises. Adler notes:
On Thursday, someone placed a “Blue Lives Matter” flag on the wall above the painting. Whether or not such an impromptu display is allowed under the Capitol’s rules, this is a much more appropriate response than stealing the painting from the wall or otherwise seeking to have it removed. Displaying the Blue Lives Matter flag is a way to express disapproval of the painting’s message and endorse a counter-message. It is, in short, responding to potentially offensive speech with more speech. It is exactly what conservatives (and others) tell college students to do when they are confronted by speech that offends them, whether it’s an art installation or a speech by an Internet provocateur.
Of course, if there were to be a real discussion, folks like Hunter and the particular constituents he panders to might have to take into account the way their political correctness plays from an African-American perspective. As Etefia Umana writes in The Root:
These elected officials’ behavior is a clear display of privilege. African Americans get the message: Freedom of expression is only for police-worshipping, privileged citizens. The representatives will likely not be punished because law enforcement and elected officials have far more restraint for white “protesters” than for black resisters.
A detail from the Thomas Hart Benton painting in the House Lounge on the third floor of the Missouri capitol [Show Me Progress file photo].
David Marner posted a photograph of two individuals exchanging phone numbers using a panel of the priceless Thomas Hart Benton mural in the Missouri capitol House Lounge as a convenient writing surface. Apparently this happened at pro “right to work” media event hosted/attended by a number of republicans.
It’s not necessarily stupidity. Ignorance? Personal exceptionalism? Notwithstanding the inability to contemplate the damage done to a work of art by one individual behaving in that manner, what of the damage done if the thousands of visitors who go to see that work every year acted in the same way?
We can understand, though not excuse, stupidity or ignorance. Personal exceptionalism is neither understandable nor excusable and is much more destructive.