Ethics Quiz And Analysis Exercise : The Congressional Art Competition Winner’s Painting


The painting above, by high school senior David Pulphus, is now hanging in the U.S. Capitol complex, its award for being selected as the first place prize-winner in Missouri Democrat Rep. Lacy Clay’s annual Congressional Art Competition last May.  It is not clear whether Clay personally selected “Untitled #1” as the winner or had a part in the section, but the African American congressman  praised the work according to a press release:

His visually stunning acrylic painting on canvas entitled, “Untitled #1” will be displayed at the U.S. Capitol Complex.  Pulphus will travel to Washington, DC, courtesy of Southwest Airlines, to unveil his winning entry.  The painting portrays a colorful landscape of symbolic characters representing social injustice, the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri and the lingering elements of inequality in modern American society….

In his remarks to the overflow crowd of young artists, parents and teachers who gathered at Webster University’s new downtown St. Louis campus in the historic Arcade Building, Congressman Clay said, “Tonight, we are celebrating our sixteenth year of recognizing outstanding young artistic talent. As you can see from the artwork on display here, the level of talent is truly impressive. Your work is inspiring, and I encourage all of you to continue to develop your creative abilities.”

Your first Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of 2017 is to answer this question:

Was it responsible, fair, and ethical for Congressman Clay to have this painting displayed in the U.S. Capitol?

I think it is a tough question. In fact, it’s an excellent opportunity to begin the year by practicing and applying one of the ethics decision-making processes, like this one from the Josephson Institute,  in the Tools section:


1. Determine precisely what must be decided.
2. Formulate and devise the full range of alternatives.
3. Eliminate patently impractical, illegal and improper alternatives.
4. Force yourself to develop at least three ethically justifiable options.
5. Examine each option to determine which ethical principles and values are involved.


1. If any of the options requires the sacrifice of any ethical principle, evaluate the facts and assumptions carefully.
2. Distinguish solid facts from beliefs, desires, theories, suppositions, unsupported conclusions, opinions, and   rationalizations.
3. Consider the credibility of sources, especially when they are self-interested, ideological or biased.
4. With regard to each alternative, carefully consider the benefits, burdens and risks to each stakeholder.


1. Make a judgment about what is not true and what consequences are most likely to occur.
2. Evaluate the viable alternatives according to personal conscience.
3. Prioritize the values so that you can choose which values to advance and which to subordinate.
4. Determine who will be helped the most and harmed the least.
5. Consider the worst case scenario.
6. Consider whether ethically questionable conduct can be avoided by changing goals or methods, or by getting consent.
7. Apply the three “ethics tests”

* Are you treating others as you would want to be treated?

* Would you be comfortable if your reasoning and decision were to be publicized?

* Would you be comfortable if your children were observing you?


1. Develop a plan of how to implement the decision.
2. Maximize the benefits and minimize the costs and risks.

·Monitor and modify.

1. Monitor the effects of decisions.
2. Be prepared and willing to revise a plan, or take a different course of action.
3. Adjust to new information.

Any reply that goes through the whole process will be published as part of another post, with my comments.

Consider these factors in your responses:

1. This is art. The artist is obviously talented.

2. Art is often political in nature, and that should not be a factor in disqualifying an artwork.

3. Nor should the fact that it offends people, even many people, even justifiably. (Police advocates are not happy, for example.)

4. Painting police as pigs is no less biased and hateful than painting African Americans as apes. Would a masterful painting depicting a black victim in a police shooting as a gorilla be similarly deemed worthy of display in the  Capitol?

5. The painting, as well as the Congressman’s remarks, continues the false narrative about Michael Brown’s shooting. Does enshrining such a continuation of a lie give it credibility?

6. I will stipulate that the Congressman’s comments are incompetent, divisive and irresponsible. Is he saying that the talent of the artist is “inspiring,” or that falsely portraying the death of Michael Brown as the murder of an unarmed man by racist monsters in uniform is inspiring…and what exactly is it supposed to inspire?

Your assessment and analysis are encouraged.



23 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz And Analysis Exercise : The Congressional Art Competition Winner’s Painting

  1. This is not a close question at all. This is propaganda and the furthering of a false narrative. Freedom of expression is one thing. But placing this prominently in the Capital with the blessing of Congress is quite another.

    I thought Republicans controlled Congress. Where are they?

  2. Absolutely not! Congressman Clay is using the cover of “this is good art” to advance his agenda of distrust and hated toward the police which is something that Washington D.C. hardly needs now. This is no “Guernica” which was based on an actual terror bombing that occurred. The painting is just a propaganda piece that will likely result in more police being targeted and killed.

  3. Politics should not be disqualifying but nor should it bias the opinion of the opinion of the judges in favor of the art.

    It seems that the second niggardly principle might apply. The Congressman should know that the selection would be deemed offensive by some constituents and would further the false narrative that police are hunting young black males.

    If Congressman Clay employed the methods outlined above in his decision process then I find no ethical breach. However, I doubt if ethical considerations were part of that choice.

    Perhaps if we spent more time reinforcing positive messages there might just be less perceived social injustice

  4. This is a difficult question to analyze, and not simply because of the detail of the decision process. The process is prospective, starting with a determination of precisely what must be decided. It is difficult to determine exactly what that is.

    Are you asking whether the painting should be exhibited?

    Are you asking whether the Congressman should have picked that painting?

    It appears that this is an annual contest conducted by the Congressman, presumably for his constituents.

    It is unclear where the painting is displayed, whether in a generally public area, or in the Congressman’s office area (where he would presumably have a great degree of control and judgment regarding the decor).

    It appears that there is only one decision to be made: whether or not to hang the painting.

    It is difficult to discuss any alternatives for two reasons. First, there are only two options: hang the painting or not hang the painting. Secondly, we do not know what any of the other submissions looked like. This painting may very well have been the best painting submitted; if so, the only fair thing to do would be to treat it like every one of its predecessors.

    Was it responsible for the Congressman to hang the painting? Leaving aside the Congressman’s endorsement or analysis of the subject matter depicted, the question should be whether it is responsible for any elected official to participate in such contests, as it is impossible to control what the contestants will submit. That is the real trap here. Once the contest is established, attempts to decide winners and losers based upon the content of the message smacks of censorship. So, whether it was responsible conduct to hang this painting really depends upon whether it is responsible to have such a contest in the first place.

    Was it ethical? Again, leaving aside the Congressman’s commentary or endorsement of the message conveyed, I don’t find anything specifically unethical about the painting. There are a lot of things I do not like about the painting, but it is creative, it exhibits a particular style, and it portrays a very real sentiment held, whether rightly or wrongly, by a great number of people. I am not sure whether it enhances the credibility of the false narrative of the Michael Brown shooting, but it does display the very real tension that many people across the nation have felt since that event (and even before).

    As for the pigs/gorilla question, one might argue that the portrayal of police officers as pigs exhibits bigotry, making the painting (or, at least, the hanging of the painting) unethical. I think that such a point is trumped by artistic license. It is a shorthand that is easily understandable; the police are pigs and lawyers are sharks; you cannot simply switch them around. The same point can be made when portraying a politician as a donkey, an elephant, or a rhino. As for whether the portrayal of black people as gorillas is similar, it is similar, but worse. Such a painting may have equal artistic value as this one, but such a portrayal of government actors toward a subset of the citizenry should not be endorsed by the Government.

    And, that is exactly why such contests pose a trap. If this painter painted the gorilla painting, it would not win, even if it had all of the artistic merit that the pig painting has.


    • Complicating things is the…wolf?…in the orange shirt that the officer is pointing a gun at. Who is he supposed to represent? No one else in the painting looks like that. And not all of the cops are depicted as pigs either.

      • I noticed that too, though I thought it was a dog.

        Maybe it is that some people (on both sides) act like animals.

        Not really sure.


      • I had some trouble figuring out what the animals were supposed to be. I thought the youth was supposed to be a…jackal or hyena, perhaps? The main cop, a warthog. The cop in the left corner a horse, or maybe a wolf.

        It could just as easily be construed as the youth “preying” on the cops. That’s the beauty of art, I guess. It is really is open to interpretation.

    • You expressed most of my ideas/thoughts. I agree with your overall conclusion that an art competition sponsored or promoted by a member of Congress rings of censorship. Imagine an entry honoring the American Nazi party marching through Skokie, Illinois. Would the painting, if done in the same style and level of artistic expression, have won? Would said winning painting be displayed in the Houses of Congress?

      For me, there is a lot of missing information about this contest or program that would help determine whether this selection was ethical or not. I didn’t check the other entries or the ground rules. These are important questions to determine whether it is ethical to display this piece:

      1. Did the competition have a theme? For instance, was the theme social justice or race relations with law enforcement in Missouri? How many pieces were submitted?

      2. Were the submissions from amateurs (e.g., high school students) or professional artists?

      3. How were the entries selected?

      4. Who was on the committee? Was the Congressman on the committee?

      5. Was a prize given?

      6. Were there different categories such as sculpture, photography, graphic design/art, or mixed media?

      7. Why, of all the entries, was this entry selected?

      I disagree with the artist’s perspective and statement. However, that is irrelevant to the ethical inquiry. I thought that keeps coming back, though, is the promotion of the “Hand Up. Don’t Shoot.” narrative. If that narrative is false, does that make the artist’s statement false? ?I am not sure.


    • I agree with your take on censorship in general, and that whether or not to hang the painting is probably the issue at hand, but is it really out of bounds for the Capital to have standards pertaining to obscenity? Is it right and fair to depict our law-enforcement officers as soulless, demonic animals in this particular venue? Does it serve the public interest to put up something so unfairly polarizing at a time like this?

      • “soulless, demonic animals”

        I think you’re projecting here; I see animals, but I don’t see anything “soulless” or “demonic” about them. But again: art is subjective.

        It’s also been pointed out already that at least one of the civilians in this painting is depicted as some kind of animal as well; the most prominent one, in fact. That one looks no more “soulless” or “demonic” to me than any of the officers (not all of whom are portrayed as animals).

        Overall I think the painting is flawed (why are some cops and some civilians depicted as animals, but not all?) but definitely shows potential. It’s a simplistic message, but since it was a youth art context that’s about what I’d expect.

  5. Use some intuition, people. Art communicates through emotion, and it sounds like maybe hyper-analysis is counterproductive in this case.I can’t say with absolute certainty whether or not hanging this in the capital is ethical, but make no mistake about what the artist is trying to convey.

        • The violent people are animals. The officer arresting or escorting the individual on the right is not acting violently, nor is the individual himself. Protestors are human. The white bird and the black bird show a racial conflict as well as a good vs. evil symbol (with the “wolf” being literally and metaphorically “black”). You see similar images in the yin-yang on the scales of justice, though one side has both black and white sides and the other has only the black side.

          Then, you don’t see black lives matter anywhere. The written signs are history, stop killing (not stop killing black people, or stop killing us), and racism kills. No hands up don’t shoot.

          And the crucified black man? I can’t tell if the artist thinks he has been sacrificed, or if he is showing someone like Michael brown who was deified by the crowd.

          There is a lot of ambiguity here.


          • Ooh, I like that, Jut.

            I also wasn’t sure where Jack got the idea that this “continues the false narrative about Michael Brown’s shooting.” I don’t see any reference to “hands up, don’t shoot” here. Jack?

  6. The painting, which had been on display for months without objection, has been removed. It was not politically correct, now that the definition of political correctness has reversed.

    A controversial award-winning painting that depicts police officers as animals was removed Friday morning from a congressional wall by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, following complaints that it was offensive.

    Joe Kasper, chief of staff for Hunter, said the congressman personally unscrewed the painting from the wall and delivered it to the office of Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, who sponsored the congressional competition won by the painting’s creator.

    The painting was selected as the Missouri winner last May and had hung for months in a tunnel that connects House office buildings to the U.S. Capitol.

    Hunter aide Kasper said the painting was discussed Friday morning in the House Republican Conference, where several representatives said they objected to it.

    “When it rises to this level of controversy, somebody should make a move to take it down,” Kasper said. “The funny thing about this is, nobody was sure who had the authority to take it down, so Hunter said, ‘I’ll do it.”

    Its presence became controversial over the past two weeks when conservative bloggers wrote about it and a Fox News commentator called for its removal.

  7. This “exercise in ethics” is pure PC propaganda. I grimaced but endured reading this nonsense. I pity anyone who thinks this has anything to do with “scholarship” or inculcating wisdom and virtue. The university in the main hates both. God forbid I would have to endure the rotten atmosphere of academic intolerance now that I’m old enough to know better.

    The phrasing of the question legitimizes a betrayal of his oath by the filthy Congressman who hung this piece of marxist trash. A true Son of Obama, our soon to be Ex anti-American C-I-C.

    Capt. Hunter happens to be my Congressman. I am so pleased to know he has the balls to do what’s right. To hell with any Democrat POS who wants to argue the point. This is a Win-Win for American Deplorables. Bring it on!

    • A rare example where I’m passing along a comment that really doesn’t conform to the guidelines, but passion matters, and I enjoyed it.
      My answer to the quiz is that there’s nothing wrong with Marxist, racist or political art from an art perspective, and the painting might have deserved the award. But the Capitol is no place for hateful and divisive art.

  8. “Awaiting moderation”

    What BS! There’s nothing moderate about that PAINTING!
    This is pure propaganda. The want it both ways.
    Evil is the proper ethical description for the Congressman and the student. Whoever has the nerve to tell the truth will be punished by these know-it-all prigs who treat this as an academic exercise. Liars all.

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