Visitors from all over the world stream into the People's House every year to admire the art adorning its labyrinthine hallways. The artwork in our Capitol is stunning, to say the least. The collection includes statues, paintings, mosaics, murals and even installation pieces.
This month, the Capitol halls were filled with paintings entered in "An Artistic Discovery," the 2016 theme for the annual United States Congressional Art Competition. The prize for winners in each Congressional District includes displaying their artwork in the Capitol for a year – quite a prestigious honor for any young artist.
The winner of the 2016 contest was David Pulphus, a student who recently graduated from Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School in St. Louis. Mr. Pulphus' piece, "Untitled #1," received the recognition from the Honorable William Lacy Clay, who represents the Congressional district in which Mr. Pulphus resides.
Unlike the other entries in the competition, the display of "Untitled #1" has raised some eyebrows – and some considerable ire. Visitors, staff and Congresspersons alike were taken aback to discover that the winning entry from Missouri's 1st Congressional District contained highly controversial imagery, including a depiction of a uniformed police officer as a pig aiming a gun at a black man. Others have cited additional imagery in "Untitled #1" which they believe also violates the contest's rules (e.g., a black man in a graduation cap being crucified upon the scales of justice).
Last June, the St. Louis American ran a feature piece on the contest winner entitled "David Pulphus honored by U.S. Congress for protest painting." In that article, the writer described Pulphus' winning entry as an artistic interpretation of the controversial shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson.
Per the Washington Times, the rules of the 2016 contest in which Mr. Pulphus competed specifically disallowed subject matter depicting controversial political situations. Graphically depicted violence and frank sensationalism were also impermissible.
The controversial imagery, according to some, is in clear violation of the rules of the contest. As a result, this painting has seen more ups and downs than the stock market in recent months. Assorted Congresspersons have physically removed the painting and delivered it to Congressman Lacy's office, requesting that he display it within his private office only.
The Hon. William Lacy has responded to repeated removals by replacing the painting in its original location. In addition, the Congressman has threatened to enlist the assistance of the Capitol police to charge his colleagues with theft. Reportedly, the Capitol police have thus far declined to get involved.
Congressman Lacy is citing freedom of speech. Those opposed to the display of the painting are citing contest rules as well as rules governing the display of artwork in the Capitol building. Regardless of whether the painting stays or goes, the core issue driving the furor remains: a profound lack of understanding of what the First Amendment does and does not cover.
Contrary to what Lacy and his supporters allege, neither Mr. Pulphus nor any other citizen has an inherent right to display the artwork of his or her choice in the tunnel connecting the office buildings of the House to Capitol Hill. If this were the case, any citizen could walk into the People's House, affix an internet-enabled television to one of the walls, and stream pornography all day long. That, of course, is an extreme example, but the reasoning stands.
Our Constitution does not "grant rights" to the citizenry. Our Constitution serves to reign in the power of the federal government. This fundamental concept is widely misunderstood. Our Constitution specifically enumerates and limits powers granted to the federal government. It is not a collection or list of rights "granted" to the people who created it and live under it.
The First Amendment prevents governmental entities from punishing citizens who may speak out against them by enacting laws abridging freedom of expression. Failure to display a painting which is in clear violation of the rules of an art contest does not constitute the establishment of a law designed to abridge freedom of speech.
Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the official website for the government-sponsored visual art contest seems to be a bit behind. Currently, they are displaying only the winners from the 2015 contest. Curiously, while updating the website with the current winners does not appear to be a priority, refreshing the entry guidelines (rules) for the 2017 contest is.
Good luck, 2017 contestants. Given the current political climate, next year's controversial entries may well trump "Untitled #1."