Cops as pigs art in Congress evokes Harold Washington as gay/trans art in Chicago

The row in Congress over a student’s artwork depicting police as pigs evokes a similar battle over insulting art and freedom of expression that occurred in Chicago years ago over a student’s painting that depicted Mayor Harold Washington wearing a bra, G-string, garter belt and stockings.

The sides were completely reversed then and it is a perfect example of how principled stands can be corrupted by political positions. A classic case of the shoe being on the other foot.

Politico sums up the recent spat in Congress thusly:

The painting, by a high school student from the district that encompasses Ferguson, Mo., addresses strife that erupted between African-Americans and police after the death of Michael Brown. It shows police officers with animal heads and faces pointing guns at black citizens. A sign in the background reads “racism kills.” It was selected as part of a competition that displays art projects in the Capitol.

Critics say it depicts cops as “pigs” and doesn’t belong hung in the Capitol. But supporters say it’s a matter of free expression and Constitutional rights, and its Democratic defenders are venting increasingly pointed frustrations at attempts to remove the artwork without permission.

“We may just have to kick somebody’s ass and stop them,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the [Congressional Black Caucus].

Returning to the Chicago incident back in 1988, here’s a summary of what happened:

The controversial painting (“Girth and Mirth”), done by School of the Art Institute student David K. Nelson Jr.  was removed from a private exhibit by three black Chicago aldermen–Bobby Rush (2nd), Dorothy Tillman (3rd) and Allan Streeter (17th)–who bristled at its disrespectful portrayal of Washington. The seizure, done with the assistance of Chicago police–was termed unlawful by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU later filed a suit on Nelson’s behalf that was later settled for $95,000 in damages.

Bobby Rush now is a congressman whose website is silent about the recent removal of the cops as pigs painting. One can only guess  if he’d now be on the side of the CBC in favor of free speech.

The battle against insulting and insensitive art is as long as artistic expression has been around. Conservatives were on the side of sensitivity when it came to such things as the “Piss Christ,” a depiction of a crucifix inside a jar of urine. Progressives today are insisting on “safe spaces” where “insensitive” and “insulting” speech cannot be heard, even in public places.

My view is that today’s art has often crossed boundaries of good taste, to the applause of snobs. But censoring art is a dangerous endeavor and a threat to freedom of thought and expression. Private institutions have a right to display what they choose (within the legal boundaries of laws against slander, etc.); public displays of art in public places controlled by government are another matter, full of legal pitfalls and complexities.

One needs to tread carefully when trying for an appropriate balance. But one ought to at least be consistent.

Added note: In line with this thinking I am not displaying either painting.


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  • The 1988 Chicago example gives reason for hope. Maybe this Missouri high school student can recover $95,000 from Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) and Rep. Brian Babin (Texas) as the School of the Art Institute student did from the aldermen.

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