Could a painting of Donald Trump go to the Supreme Court?

Could a painting of Donald Trump go to the Supreme Court?
'Unashamed and Unafraid', Julian Raven, 2015 at CPAC 2019. Courtesy NPR.

It’s huge. No really, Unafraid and Unashamed by British-born, American artist Julian Raven really is big.

The painting, which took over 600 hours to create according to Raven and is 16-feet long, weighs in at 300 pounds. ‘I paint large anyway,’ Raven told NPR in an interview. ‘It just happens that it works with Trump, as well.’ Raven’s magnus opus isn’t just large, though, it might be the centre of a lawsuit that goes all the way to the Supreme Court.

Raven began the painting in 2015 after a vision of then Republican candidate Donald Trump set against a backdrop of the eagle rescuing an American flag before it hit the ground. In a nearly 16-minute-long video on the painting’s website, Raven states ‘An eagle swoop[ed] in snatching/rescuing the flag as the words ‘Unafraid and Unashamed’ as if on a ticker-tape pass along the screen of my mind.’ That’s also where the painting’s name came from but it’s often referred to as ‘The Trump Painting.’

By September of 2015, Raven finished the symbol-ridden painting and it became a hit during Trump’s campaign for presidency and continues to be a favourite for events. Just a month ago, it was displayed at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland and made waves on Twitter. The painting, though, has not been a hit with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in DC, where Raven believes the painting should reside alongside portraits of other US presidents. Initially, the artist tried to convince the NPG to acquire the painting. When Raven had no luck, though, he turned to the courts in 2017 resulting in a lawsuit and ongoing legal battle.

In the suit, Raven states that in 2017, he tried to display the painting in the Smithsonian’s Rockwell Museum to coincide with Trump’s inauguration. When this idea was rejected by the museum, he went to the NPG. There, however, Raven was met with the same answer. According to Raven, Kim Sajet, director of the NPG, said the painting was ‘too political’ and ‘too big’ and overall not good. ‘The last thing she said to me was “it’s no good,”’ Raven told The Daily Beast. Raven’s lawsuit claimed that the rejections infringed upon the artist’s First Amendment (freedom of speech, press, religion, and to assemble) and Fifth Amendment (the right to due process) rights. Furthermore, Raven feels that the quality of his work shouldn’t determine if his artwork be admitted to the NPG’s collection. He’s compared it to a caricature of Trump that is already a part of the NPG’s stores taken from The Nation in 1990, which Raven thinks ‘looks like a guy drew it on a napkin in a restaurant.’

Unfortunately for Raven, though, his case was recently dismissed by judge Trevor N. McFadden of DC’s US District Court. In the 20-page ruling handed down by the court, McFadden stated ‘The First Amendment simply does not apply to government art selections, no matter how arbitrary,’ and that ‘Mr. Raven’s constitutional claims fail as a matter of law.’ This, however, may not be the last stop for Raven. He’s appealed the ruling of the DC District Court and if it is accepted could eventually make its way to the Supreme Court. ‘I have this incredible, unprecedented case,’ says Raven ‘that may go all the way to the Supreme Court.’