In March 2016, an exhibition of selected art works by Denver public school students, displayed in Denver’s municipal building, included a painting that portrays an obviously white policeman, wearing a KKK hood, pointing a gun at a black youngster wearing a hoodie, arms raised. A portion of the Confederate flag, imposed over an American flag, comprises the background.
Some, especially the police, were offended, and the picture was removed, reportedly at the request of the 10th-grade artist herself (she has declined any public comment). Days later, Denver’s mayor, police chief, acting superintendent of schools, and the artist’s school principal met with her. In public comments, they threaded the diplomatic needle, calling the meeting a teachable moment for all involved.
The mayor said there was no intent to censor, but, in calling attention to the public nature of the building and the sensitivities of its government workers, he seemed to suggest that there are circumstances where censorship is justified.
He is right.
In this particular case, public is the key word. The building, where the selected art works were displayed, is not just a public venue, but one devoted to the work of officials who are sworn to promote the public good. However you define the public good, it starts with a commitment to fair, non-biased treatment of one’s constituents — the public.
Officials and private citizens are equal parts of that equation. Fairness and non-bias has to flow from officialdom, but also back to them. A space that facilitates these transactions assumes a symbolism far out of proportion to its pedestrian function. It must be, and must be perceived to be, neutral toward every constituent.
The painting in question undoubtedly speaks to those who feel that African-Americans are victims of police violence. But there are others who feel differently. Imagine a different painting, hung in the same atrium among the other student art works, which portrays an African-American male, wearing something as sinister as a KKK hood, and pointing a gun at a police officer, hands up.
To treat that painting more favorably than our student-artist’s (or vice versa) would be unjust and unwise.
The student had every right to paint what she painted and her school was right in supporting her. The painting had a right to be seen. It’s where it was placed that created the issue. A private setting would have been unimpeachable; displaying it at her public school, perhaps a little more problematic, raising challenging questions about the appearance of bias but also about a school’s responsibility to promote critical thought.
Interestingly, the statement the student was making would never have had the impact it did if no one had objected to where it got displayed. Now, there’s an idea!!