The actions of the Congressional Black Caucus in threatening violence to defend the ‘cops as pigs’ painting hanging in the U.S. Capitol complex is in direct contrast to Black Democrats in Chicago in 1988 who flashed a handgun and used police to take down a painting of the late Mayor Harold Washington that depicted him wearing only women’s underwear. Washington had recently died in office from a massive heart attack. One of those involved in taking down the painting, Bobby Rush, is now a congressman representing Chicago.
The painting, by art student David K. Nelson, titled Mirth and Girth, showed the African-American Washington wearing white lingerie including a bra, stockings, garter belt and G-string style panties.
Untitled #1 by David Pulphus, 2016 winner of Congressional Arts Competition selected by office of Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO).
Mirth & Girth is a portrait painting by School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) student David K. Nelson, Jr., depicting the recently deceased, popular African-American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington wearing only a bra, G-string, garter belt and stockings. After a brief showing at a May 11, 1988 private student exhibition in the Art Institute, angry African-American aldermen, including Ald. Allan Streeter, Ald. Bobby Rush and Ald. Dorothy Tillman, arrived with Chicago Police Department officers and confiscated the painting, triggering a First Amendment and race relations crisis and a civil lawsuit.
…At some point between when the painting was confiscated and when it was returned, a 5-inch (13 cm) gash was made on the canvas. Nelson filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that the painting’s confiscation and subsequent damaging violated his First Amendment rights. He and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) settled with the city for $95,000 (1994; $138,000 in 2008) in compensation for the damaged painting after the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision.”
…Aldermen Edward Jones (20th) and William C. Henry (24th) were the first aldermen to arrive from the City Council session. According to the federal lawsuit, Henry showed he had a gun, and then with Jones removed the now-hung painting from the wall and placed it on the floor, facing the wall. After they left, another student rehung the painting. Three other aldermen, Allan Streeter (17th), Dorothy Tillman (3rd) and Rush, arrived later. They took down the painting and attempted to remove it from the school, but were stopped by a school official. The aldermen then took the painting to the office of the school president Anthony Jones (no relation to Edward Jones). The painting had a 5 in (13 cm) gash, and it had been wrapped in brown paper.
Alderman Tillman threatened to burn the painting in President Jones’ office, but a Chicago Police Department (CPD) lieutenant present with the aldermen, Lt. Raymond Patterson, advised against this. Instead, another unnamed alderman called CPD superintendent Leroy Martin. Martin telephoned Patterson in Jones’ office and ordered Patterson to take the painting into police custody, telling Jones that the painting amounted to “incitement to riot”. Patterson overrode this direct order, citing his own powers as the lieutenant on the scene and hung up on Martin. A CPD sergeant accompanied Rush, Streeter and Tillman to a waiting police car with the wrapped painting in hand. Parts of the incident were later broadcast on television.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago published a retrospective on the painting controversy and included a photo of the painting being taken away by Black Democrats and Chicago police.
“Chicago aldermen Allan Streeter and Ernest Jones, flanked by Chicago police officers, “arrest” SAIC student David K. Nelson, Jr.’s painting Mirth & Girth, 1988,” image via SAIC
In her essay for The File Room, titled “Private Fantasies Shape Public Events: and Public Events Invade and Shape Our Dreams,” Carol Becker, former SAIC Dean of Faculty, describes the day’s events: “[SAIC President] Tony Jones convened a small group of faculty, administration, and staff as an ad hoc advisory group to help him determine what actions, if any, should be taken. This group crammed into the Provost’s office. As they deliberated, phones rang off the hook condemning the painting, and the press continued to gather in the administrative offices demanding a statement. Then suddenly the opportunity to make an academic decision was taken away as nine black aldermen, who had just marched over from City Hall, stormed the School.”
Miscommunication and rumors only added to the growing turbulence between the School and city officials. Three of the aldermen, Allan Streeter, Dorothy Tillman, and Bobby Rush, took the painting down and attempted to remove it from the School. After much commotion in President Jones’s office, the painting was seized and “arrested” by the Chicago Police Department.”
The Chicago Tribune interviewed Nelson at the time of the controversy.
David Nelson, 23, in the views of his friends and teachers, is a prankster. An irreverent young man who has a predilection for parody and loves attention. This time it apparently got out of hand.
The show where he had intended to display the Washington painting, titled “Mirth and Girth,“ was a three-day student fellowship exhibition, a finale to his art education. Nelson was to receive his degree in painting a few days later.
Five of Nelson`s other works were hung alongside the Washington painting. One was a self-portrait, “I`m Sensitive, and I Love All Humanity.“ It depicts Nelson holding little people, apparently of many nationalities, in his arms.
“This kind of irreverence and iconoclasm runs through all my artwork,“
he explained in the interview. “That self-portrait . . . I was questioning the motives and values of the whole `We are the World syndrome.` This Harold Washington thing wasn`t an isolated thing.“
…The controversy over the painting fanned an already inflamed debate over the firing the previous week of a black mayoral aide for making anti-Semitic statements. After the removal of the painting, a black alderman told reporters he believed the offensive painting was the work of a Jewish artist.
Nelson said he is “not Jewish.“ He also denied news reports saying he would apologize for the painting.
“No, I`m not apologizing,“ he said. “I think that Harold Washington and his memory and what he`s done for the city are so great that one little painting shouldn`t tarnish his image.“