Washington D.C.-area high school students protesting President-elect Donald Trump marched from the Trump International Hotel to the U.S. Supreme Court, Nov. 15, 2016. (Photo Courtesy of VOA, Wikimedia Commons)
Fairmont Preparatory Academy

Article Review: Student’s controversial painting of Ferguson removed from Capitol display

Article Review: Student’s controversial painting of Ferguson removed from Capitol display

Description: Police brutality is a discussion gaining increasing traction. From Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling to school discussions about racism and systemic violence, the conversation about the relationship between a community’s police and its people has been long overdue. Especially now when the number of people calling the cops on African Americans is on the rise and is noted by the media, the article by PBS presented the story of a high school student from the district that encompasses Ferguson and his painting of police officers with animal heads pointing guns at African Americans in 2017. Republicans and other conservative sentiments argued that the painting depicts cops as animals and paints them as enemies of the community. They continue that art hung in the capitol should not be sensational and should not offend the sentiments if others. The GOP was hellbent to take down the painting, whereas the Democrats viewed it as part of the child’s freedom of speech. This article will explore the ethical implications and significance of the action taken in January 2017 which still bears relevance today.

Discussion points and exploration: The article raises many important points about the interaction between ethics and art as well as the prerogatives we have in creating art. The student was making a decision to paint an image which he felt reflected the society around him. Republicans, supposedly, exercised their freedom of speech in denouncing the art as one that does not reflect the current state and one that offends policeman whom they believe it offends greatly. However, it is important to consider what rationale politicians used to remove the high schooler’s artwork. They argued that the piece of art “flagrantly disrespected the brave police officers that protect us here in the Capitol and in our communities across the country”. In saying so, the politicians who denounced the work were grasping certain assumptions as stipulations. First, they have assumed that the artwork carries meaning beyond the immediate community of which the child is part. In doing so, they are insinuating that artwork is able to communicate not just a linear situation but a larger message about the state of phenomenon and principle in a country.

This primarily raises questions about who is responsible for deriving such meaning from the art and using it as a justification to stop its distribution or honor. Is the student’s responsible for how the Republicans seem to perceive his artwork? Should a painting’s value be based on whether or not it offends someone’s sentiments? Some politicians on capitol hill seem to think so on both accounts. They argue their belief that the painting is “sensational” and therefore does not meet the criteria they have designed for the competition, warranting it being taken down. However, when we look at art through a historical perspective, many pieces that are now famous were, at the time, controversial. The move to secular art was controversial and seen as heretic, much like the move to depict women in non-domestic settings.

Art is a powerful medium through which artists are able to paint reality and its relevance to them. The student  likely painted his/her situation in the home-town of Ferguson in which racial tensions between the citizens and police are always at a high. He was simply exercising his freedom of speech through his painting and saying that it does not have a place in the government is a form of censorship. Much like politicians seemed to take offense by a teenager’s art, students have a right to take offense to a government which now seems to carry the right to dispel conversations it is too uncomfortable to have.

The article also implies that art is inherently political and that taking political offense from an inanimate object is completely rational. Politicians in the event act as though the art itself contains a large voice and that their endorsement of it carries political weight to their constituents. This is, again, clearly shown through the statement by Congressman Lamborn: “I decided to continue the protest started by my colleague Congressman Hunter and I hope that permanent action is taken to remove this brazen attack on the brave men and women who make up the thin blue line.” This implies that art does evoke emotion and ethical questions about the state of society, despite not actively voicing itself. It is important to understand that art is passive and can only hint at certain ideals. It is, ultimately, up to people to create meaning from art and derive offense. Thus, it may not be appropriate to place blame on the art for the meaning we derive from it, as we are the agents in the action. Furthermore, taking down art which offends sentiment raises questions regarding the ethics behind discouraging shared knowledge and experiences.

Art has long been the medium through which people encourage and nurture social change and progressivism. With the removal of the painting from Capitol Hill, the government is promulgating its discouragement of civic protest and engagement by restricting knowledge of the art’s message based on identity and ethics. Citing political offense as a cause to take down art is neglecting the intuitive value that art holds for itself, as most art from disturbed communities is understandably controversial in some manner. Should we only accept art that is equal to all, we will essentially be favoring the privileged class who often never bear the wrong end of a failing government or discrimination. Under this dogmatic view, any art which offends tradition should be taken down, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other works which were progressively challenging in their form and message.

In addition, the child should not be restricted in his choice of depiction since it is an item of both his personal knowledge and situation as well as shared knowledge. It is personal for the student in the sense that he is a part of a community in which conversations about police brutality are likely prominent, and maybe he has had a personal experience with this event as well. Also, the debate about police brutality is already shared knowledge in the sense that everyone is familiar with the tensions between minorities and the police in communities. Thus, the student’s expression of his personal knowledge onto a canvas to promote shared knowledge is nothing out of the ordinary and should be seen as his freedom of expression.

Although the student’s painting may be considered offensive to certain sentiments in conservative American beliefs, the student has the right to express what he believes is the truth. The student, again, lives in Ferguson, which has long been notorious for its history of police brutality and violence towards the African American community. If art is no longer a safe medium for a child to voice his/her thoughts about the government, we are then stripping the youth of their opinion and power. Personally, I am completely in support of the student who painted the image he/she decided to.

Art is simply a reflection of what the painter perceive as reality. It is a ridiculous sight to see politicians taking so much offense to a student’s work of art and toggling over whether or not they should decide to uphold the first amendment. I think that it is dangerous for the future of the country to discourage the youth’s discourse and civic engagement through censorship and bias. If only works of art that do not offend the sentiment are nurtured by the government, then the government is, in essence, preserving itself through a constant state of emergency and an abuse of power.

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