January 11, 2017; Roll Call

For decades, the underground tunnel connecting the Cannon House Office Building with the U.S. Capitol has been used to display artwork submitted by students. Students compete to have their works entered by House members in the Congressional Art Competition. Winners have their works displayed for one year. The competition is coordinated by the nonprofit Congressional Institute, which also sponsors Congressional retreats and other activities on behalf of members of Congress, according to their website and the Form 990 information on their GuideStar page.

This year, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) selected a painting depicting police as gun-wielding animals in a black neighborhood where signs saying “Stop killing,” “History,” and “Racism kills” can be plainly seen. Over the last few days, the painting has been taken down by four House members on three separate occasions and returned to Clay’s office. The House members object that the painting violates one of the rules of the annual competition prohibiting “exhibits depicting subjects of contemporary political controversy or a sensationalistic or gruesome nature.” Each time, Clay has returned the painting to its previous position in the display.

Rep. Clay told Roll Call that “Members of Congress support student art competitions in our districts but we do not select the young artists and we do not judge the artwork. I had no role in selecting the winner of this student art competition and I would never attempt to approve or disapprove artistic expression.”

Clay also said, “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.”

It’s not clear whether the Congressional Institute or the House itself administers the rules under which the student artwork is submitted. But the House jealously guards what can and cannot be done on its grounds and in its buildings.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) has called the painting “disgusting.” He also disputes claims that display of the painting is a First Amendment issue, as argued by Clay. “We govern what paintings can go up here. This one slipped by for some reason.” Ryan added, “This is not a free-for-all in a contest where anything goes in the Capitol…this does not fit the rules, so we are processing this decision right now.”

Clay told his colleagues, “You want [an 18-year-old] to get on TV and cry about why his painting is taken down, you can go down that path.”

This is far from the first time in history that artistic expression has promoted political fighting. However, if an amicable settlement of the dispute between free expression and adherence to competition rules doesn’t come soon, it may become too divisive and dangerous to display student art at the U.S. Capitol.—Michael Wyland