The Last Judgment, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel  was censored.  After Michelangelo’s death one of his students was commissioned to paint draperies over the “offensive” nudity of many of the figures. Continuing prudery and damage to the original underlying painting have retained the draperies through restorations, and the only image of the original work is a copy by Marcello Venusti, commissioned in 1549 by Cardinal  Alessandro Farnese, who feared the original would to be destroyed.   

So why am I talking about censorship in a space usually devoted to showcasing  local art and artists? Because an incident the first week of the year hits close to me as an artist and to the artists and art lovers in our community.

The U.S. Congressional Art Competition is a yearly event for high school visual artists.  Winning entries, selected by committee, hang in the Capitol for the year.  A painting by recent graduate David Pulphus, who lives near Ferguson Missouri, is one of this year’s winners.  The piece, a colorful scene of symbolic characters  inspired by the feelings and civil unrest following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer, is unarguably controversial and has prompted protests.  It shows police officers as animal figures, one warthog-like and one less identifiable. It also shows a protester as a wolf.   It is emotionally charged and makes the viewer uncomfortable.  Art sometimes does that. Art is expression, sometimes deeply personal, sometimes reflecting issues, political situations, and feelings that are important to the artist and society.  People who don’t agree with or are uncomfortable with these images frequently try to remove them.  Michelangelo’s draped nudes are far from the only instance of powerful people imposing their view of what is “appropriate” on the rest of us. 

Pulphus’ painting, which hangs in the Cannon House Office Building tunnel was removed on January 6, when without permission or discussion Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) took it from the display. The painting was returned, and later removed again by  Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Brian Babin (R-TX)  And returned yet again to its place.  In an interview Hunter described it as an impulsive act. “You shouldn’t have something in the Capitol that depicts cops as pigs. It’s that simple.”   Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) who returned the painting to its place, sees  a First Amendment issue.  “The U.S. Capitol is a symbol of freedom, not censorship. The young artist chose his own subject and the painting will not be removed.”

As an artist, I see an attempt by powerful men to impose their view of appropriateness on the rest of us, encouraged perhaps by the advent of a new President who has been openly hostile to the press and opinions contrary to his own. Although many people have protested the painting, these Representatives are the only ones who felt that their feelings trumped the rules, and that their view counted more than the law or the rights of others.  Our rights, as artists, as citizens, are only there as long as we are willing to protect them.  Expression, even that which is controversial, has a place, and if we don’t protect that of others, the next time it may be ours that is censored.

Information on the removal/replacement of Pulphus’ painting and quotes from the representatives is sourced from Huffington Post, which also has images of the painting and of it being removed.