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Coming in 2020: Julian Raven v. The Smithsonian Institution

Laurence Jarvik

Posted on December 30, 2019 16:56

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Artist Julian Raven is suing the Smithsonian over its rejection of his painting of President Trump titled "Unafraid and Unashamed." His case heads to the Supreme Court in 2020...

Raven in front of his painting of the White House (author photo)

Last Thanksgiving my morning paper featured a front-page story about a born-again Christian artist who was suing the Smithsonian over rejection of his portrait of President Trump.

A few clicks on the internet led to Julian Raven's website for "Unafraid & Unashamed," including links to his Supreme Court petition and an extensive profile in the Washingtonian Magazine.

I'd covered the Mapplethorpe controversy,  "Piss Christ", "NEA Four," and was familiar with the "Tilted Arc" case.

Raven's story had a similar David v. Goliath quality--but this time from the Right instead of Left.

I subsequently interviewed him in his Virginia studio, and came away impressed.

Obviously, he has had little public support--no lawyer, legal fund, amici curiae, artists committees, outraged editorials, art advocates, foundation grants or speeches...even from Republican politicians.

The Trump administration remains curiously silent.

Although Raven traveled across the country with his painting, showing it during the 2016 campaign and in art galleries such as Charles Krause's Center for Contemporary Political Art in Washington, it remains unsold and in storage.

Raven even had to write his own legal briefs, while working as a contractor.

Yet, The Washingtonian mocked him for standing alone on the Smithsonian steps as Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, walked by unconcerned.  

His case was treated as a joke. However, to me it is serious.

Raven's challenge dramatizes how national cultural institutions established to serve all the American people, such as the Smithsonian, have been hijacked by dangerously partisan factions which seek to exclude, marginalize and erase  "Others."

As his brief demonstrates, the Smithsonian had accepted campaign posters for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, in addition to huge oversized paintings of Bill Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama. It had a special exhibition for the Obama Inauguration, and maintains a sort of shrine to the Obamas to this day. 

Raven's case likewise provides evidence that decision-making at the Smithsonian is arbitrary and unfair. He was never provided a written decision on his application. Instead, he received only a phone call from the director, which from his account sounded conclusory, partisan, and unfair.

As he points out, as an American citizen--indeed a recent immigrant--Raven is entitled to due process. Yet, to this date, he has no idea as to how his work was evaluated, nor what rubric was applied to his submission...versus that used for pictures of Obamas or Clintons.

Although "Unafraid and Unashamed" may not be the most beautiful portrait ever painted, Raven's legal brief makes clear that the official criterion for display by the National Portrait Gallery is historical significance.

No reasonable person could deny that Donald Trump's election in 2016 had historical significance.

Yet, when the Smithsonian posted a picture of President Trump, it chose an old photograph instead of Raven's portrait tied to his 2016 Presidential campaign.

That's why Raven's case will be heading to the Supreme Court in 2020.

Stay tuned.






Laurence Jarvik

Posted on December 30, 2019 16:56


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