Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri and members of the Black Congressional Caucus rehung a painting in the U.S. Capitol Tuesday that has stirred controversy over its depiction of police officers as pigs.
Mr. Clay vowed to fight for the constitutional rights of the artist, whose painting has been on display since the summer among more than 400 winners of a high school art competition sponsored by Congress.
“It is just pathetic that some Republican members and alt-right media types who constantly refer to themselves as constitutional conservatives don’t think that that same document protects the fundamental free speech rights of my 18-year-old constituent,” he told reporters.
“I do not agree or disagree with this painting, but I will fight to defend this young man’s right to express himself because this artwork is true for him, and he is entitled to that protection under the law,” Mr. Clay said.
The saga picked up speed late last week after Rep. Duncan Hunter of California removed the painting from the Cannon tunnel that connects House legislative offices to the Capitol.
Minutes before the painting was returned to its assigned location Tuesday, Mr. Hunter told reporters he still believes it should be taken down.
“The art competition rules do not allow for this kind of painting,” Mr. Hunter said. “It is just that simple.”
The ground rules of the competition rules warned against “sensationalistic” issues and “contemporary” events.
The California Republican also called on House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, to get involved in the issue, and his office directed inquiries to Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington, who is leading the House GOP effort.
Breanna Deutsch, a Reichert spokesperson, said their office is drafting a letter requesting that the Architect of the Capitol to review the painting and “make a decision about whether or not it should be hanging on the halls of the Capitol according to the [competition] rules.”
Mr. Clay, meanwhile, has urged Capitol Police to press theft charges against Mr. Hunter, a former Marine.
The painting from former high school student David Pulphus — who is now in college — is titled “Untitled #1.” It was inspired by the racially charged events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
It portrays people as animals, including a cop who appears to have the head of a boar.
Mr. Clay said he welcomes that debate over whether the painting should be removed and said the mere fact it was hung with the winners over the summer suggests it fell in line with the competition’s criteria.
“Let’s discuss it, but you just don’t walk up here and remove a painting because you are offended by it,” he said, adding that African-American struggles are historical — not contemporary.
“The African-American community has had a painful tortured history with law enforcement in this country,” he said.
He said the painting speaks to Mr. Pulphus’ experience of growing up in an age of high-profile killings of black teens — a list that includes Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.
Police organizations have criticized the painting. Mr. Clay, meanwhile, has pushed back against the idea that he is anti-police and has noted that he has the support of St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, who said over the weekend that “Police officers are not art critics.”