The clash between members of Congress over a painting that depicts police officers as pigs boiled over Tuesday, with Republican lawmakers repeatedly taking matters into their own hands to remove the student artwork from a Capitol complex hallway and Democrats responding by rehanging the piece and defending its display.
The back-and-forth prompted Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, to warn that “we might have to kick somebody’s ass” if the pattern continued.
The drama over the painting started earlier in the day after Mr. Richmond, Rep. William Lacy Clay, Missouri Democrat, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus restored the painting to its place on a tunnel wall inside the U.S. Capitol. They said they were striking a case for freedom of speech.
House Republicans said the artwork violates the terms of the student art competition. The office of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, signaled that he would begin the official process of removing the painting, which depicts police as gun-wielding pigs.
The painting had been on the wall since the summer. Mr. Clay chose it as the winner from his district for the 2016 art competition. But a fierce backlash culminated last week when Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, unilaterally made the decision to pull the work off the wall and return it to Mr. Clay’s office.
Mr. Clay and fellow black lawmakers on Tuesday rehung the work, “Untitled #1,” from former high school student David Pulphus. The painting is said to be inspired by the unrest that followed the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
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Mr. Clay said he didn’t agree with the message but defended the artist’s right to express himself.
“This is really not about a student art competition; it is about defending the Constitution,” Mr. Clay told reporters. “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.”
Mr. Hunter also stood his ground.
“The art competition rules do not allow for this kind of painting,” he said. “It is just that simple.”
Mr. Hunter, a former Marine, urged Mr. Ryan to get involved. The speaker’s office said Rep. David G. Reichert of Washington, a former sheriff, is spearheading the Republican response.
“We are asking the Architect of the Capitol to review the painting in question and to make a decision about whether or not it should be hanging in the halls of the Capitol according to the rules explained in the guidelines,” said Breanna Deutsch, a Reichert spokeswoman.
Under rules of the contest, “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature are not allowed.”
The guidelines also dictate that the ultimate decision of what can displayed is made by “a panel of qualified persons chaired by the Architect of the Capitol,” though it is unclear whether the review was completed before the artwork went on display.
The Architect of the Capitol’s office did not respond to emails seeking clarification.
Ms. Deutsch said she believed that “should have happened beforehand” and that it “would not make sense for them to review it afterward.”
Other Republicans, meanwhile, jumped into the fray.
Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado pulled down the painting after Mr. Clay put it back up, sparking the stern rebuke from Mr. Richmond, according to Politico.
When Mr. Clay hung the painting for a second time, Reps. Brian Babin of Texas and Dana Rohrabacher of California yanked it down and dropped it off again at the Missouri Democrat’s office.
“It has become a very childish charade,” Mr. Clay told reporters after hanging the painting for a third time. “When you think about the civility and decorum of the House of Representatives, the institution has really gone down in my opinion if we are reduced to taking an 18-year-old’s painting off the wall.”
Asked if he would rehang the painting if it is taken down again, he said, “Who knows?”
Mr. Pulphus’ painting portrays people — including police officers who appear to have boars’ heads — as animals. Black characters are holding signs that read “racism kills” and “stop killing.” The backdrop features the Gateway Arch of St. Louis and a black man sporting a graduation hat on a crucifix that doubles as the scales of justice.
Police organizations said the painting is offensive and criticized the decision to hang it in the Capitol complex.
But St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson has defended Mr. Clay. He said this weekend that “police officers are not art critics.”
Mr. Clay said Mr. Pulphus’ painting reflects his experience of coming of age during the high-profile deaths of black teens — including Mr. Brown — and said he welcomes a debate over the artwork.
“Let’s discuss it, but you just don’t walk up here and remove a painting because you are offended by it,” he said.
He said he assumed the painting met contest guidelines given that it had been on display since the summer.
“The building commission already approved all of this artwork on this wall,” he said.
He added that the painting does not violate the “contemporary” issues clause because the black community has a “painful and tortured history with law enforcement in this country.”
Mr. Clay said the Capitol includes multiple pieces of art that he and his constituents find “deeply offensive,” including statues of Confederates Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.
The congressman told The Washington Times that he would be offended by a painting that featured the Confederate battle flag, but he would not look to censor it.
He said he doubted that any high school student would submit such a painting as part of the competition.
“But even if it did, you have to respect that artist’s view, and that is all I am saying about David Pulphus. He has a viewpoint, and he put it on canvas,” he said.