It all started with a congressional art contest.
The winner would get to display their painting in the long hallway that connects House office buildings to the U.S. Capitol. It would be seen by thousands of people, including some of the most powerful in the country — members of Congress, staffers, lobbyists, and visitors.
David Pulphus, an 18-year-old student in the Missouri district represented by Rep. Lacy Clay, won the contest with his striking painting of a violent and tense clash between police and protestors — a nod to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that garnered national attention in 2014 after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson.
As promised, Pulphus' painting was displayed in the hallway of the U.S. Capitol complex, where it hung for seven months. Then things got interesting.
For better or worse, the painting has become the centerpiece of a complicated conversation about race, power, and the role of art in politics. The painting depicts police officers as pigs. Literally. (Actually, they're more warthog-ish, but that's just my interpretation.)
Some police organizations took issue with this depiction and asked, in a strongly worded letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, that the painting be taken down. Shortly after, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) took it down himself. Then Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Missouri) put it back up. A few hours later, two other Republican representatives — Dana Rohrabacher and Brian Babin — took it down again.
If the point of art is to get people talking, here are three big questions we should be talking about:
1. First, what really is "offensive"? And what should you do when you're offended by something?
If you're a police officer, being depicted as a pig is probably offensive to you. That's fair. Likewise, you'd probably want to speak out against any narrative that all police officers are bad or inherently violent or racist.
If you find the painting offensive, however, consider this: Is the painting more offensive or horrifying than the number of unarmed black people gunned down by police officers every year? Isn't it totally reasonable and completely understandable for black Americans to want to express their feelings and speak out through protest, the written word, or visual art?
When members of Congress took the painting down without the permission of the colleague who hung it up, that was a declaration that their point of view on the issue — that the painting is offensive and police officers shouldn't be depicted looking bad — takes precedence over Pulphus' right to express how he feels about the police.
When one of the most powerful people in the United States government calls an 18-year-old's painting "disgusting," he contributes to the kind of active silencing that Pulphus' painting speaks out against.
2. What kind of art should be in our congressional halls, anyway?
The halls of our Capitol are where history gets made and where the giant machine of government operates (in theory). Presumably, the artwork in those hallowed halls should reflect the best of us.
There's definitely something to be said for not wanting to hang a painting that depicts a moment in our history no one is proud of. If that’s the case, though, those speaking out against the painting should hold all of the art in the Capitol complex to the same standards.
It kinda makes you wonder why those same people haven't done anything about these giant marble statues of racists and slave owners:
3. Is it possible there's a larger point being missed?
Maybe? Just a little?
All this quibbling over whether the painting should hang in Congress means no one is really talking about what the painting actually depicts.
The unrest in Ferguson happened after the shooting of Michael Brown and escalated after a report found evidence of racial bias in the town’s policing. That’s a real problem that people — especially black people living in Ferguson — were right to be mad about.
It's also a problem with some tangible solutions. If only the people fighting over the painting had some sort of power to introduce or support legislation that could address it. If only! Perhaps their time would be better spent doing that rather than playing hide-a-painting with their colleagues in Congress.
What we have here is a sobering reflection of the state of conversation around race relations in the United States, and it reminds us why we need art like this so badly.
One side is voicing frustration about the violence and distrust he sees in his community, asking only for someone to listen or to see what's happening. The other side frames it as an attack on police officers who are simply trying to keep communities safe. It's not really about the painting — it's Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter condensed into a petty quibble you might have with a roommate.
So make no mistake: The fate of this painting is important. Not just because it will settle this particular argument, but because it will set a precedent for what the government is willing and ready to pay attention to.
Ask yourself: If members of our Congress can't even stand to look at a painting, how can they be prepared to take on the complicated and sensitive work needed to heal the divide that the painting represents?
If art exists to raise questions and ignite discussion, than this painting has gone above and beyond. Maybe that was the point. Art has a way of getting under people's skin and getting them to talk about things they might not have otherwise.
Art has a way of revealing the truth.