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The Shame of the Mural Censors — Why Art and History Matter

Victor Arnautoff's mural about George Washington is squarely on the side of the oppressed. The notion that today's adolescents need protection from history or reality is deeply patronizing.



Arnautoff’s procession of spectral pioneers walking past the body of a dead Indian could hardly have been more clearcut in its challenge to the then-prevailing pioneer narrative.
  • Arnautoff’s procession of spectral pioneers walking past the body of a dead Indian could hardly have been more clearcut in its challenge to the then-prevailing pioneer narrative.

Our affairs are critical, and we must be dispassionate and wise. — POC Alexander Hamilton, getting better known these days.

If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. — George Washington, whitewashed blackguard.

The controversy over the 13-panel mural The Life of George Washington has called into question yet again the role of public art in culture and politics. Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born muralist who worked with Diego Rivera in Mexico and supervised creation of the Coit Tower murals in San Francisco, was asked in 1934 to paint a mural for the city's newly built George Washington High School. The 1600-square foot mural recently has come under attack for, to put it bluntly, political incorrectness — or a least insufficient political correctness for our enlightened, finicky times.

It's unfair. Arnautoff, who was employed by the federal Works Progress Administration, said he carefully researched "this famous man, a committed defender of freedom." But he also did not shrink from subtly depicting "the spirit of Washington's time," with its mistreatment of blacks and American Indians, abuses that customarily were glossed over by just about everyone 80 years ago.

Current thinking holds that Washington was a slaveholder and hypocrite, and thus no liberator; a champion of American expansion across North America; and that this tarnished history is too damaging to high-school students of color — and maybe sensitive white kids. Several passionately intense protesters — clad in black, naturally — at a July 15 panel discussion on the murals even raised placards and repeatedly shouted "Genocide!" Theirs was an intemperate position, ill-suited to a general noted for his air of command and self-control. Washington was described by one contemporary as "no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm." Nor did their outburst befit an artist who harbored strong leftist convictions but — being more politically astute than we appear capable of today — also knew how far it was possible to go when, across the continent, Nelson Rockefeller ordered a Diego Rivera mural plastered over because of a portrait of Lenin that the artist adamantly refused to remove. Just the year before, Arnautoff had vainly counseled the prankish Coit Tower muralist Bernard Zakheim not to include a hammer and sickle in his mural, noting, "Freedom in America is understood in a special way." Zakheim later conceded, "You were right, Mr. Arnautoff. I teased the bulls too much."

Nevertheless, on June 28 the San Francisco School Board voted unanimously, on the nearly unanimous advice of a thirteen-person Reflection and Action Working Group (RAWG), to have the murals "painted down."

"We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.," the group reportedly wrote. "This mural doesn't represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It's not student-centered if it's focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students."

The cost of this erasure is still unclear, but could exceed $600,000 to paint it over, mostly due to the expense of an environmental impact report. Covering the mural with panels would cost as much as $845,000, and curtains alone could cost up to $375,000. "It's reparations," concluded one of the board members, perhaps as dazzled by the astronomical cost of the solution as any GOP lobbyist similarly working for a better, freer world.

Those breathless condemnations and postmodernist-victim shopping lists, with their poor syntax and broadly inclusive, comical 'etc.,' constitute in no way a reparation. They constitute a sop to symbolic retribution. The punitive eradication of a liberal statement from the past is a colossal waste of money. (Can we impeach?)

Columnists ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle's art critic Charles Desmarais to art historian Brian T. Allen in the National Review —strange bedfellows — have weighed in for freedom of speech, the latter quite pointedly, outing by name all seven of the "anti-art fools" on the school board. Many of the school's alumni and teachers along with hundreds of artists and educators oppose this censorship, counseling either leaving the murals intact and using them as educational tools (my position); or, if the anti-muralists insist on their pound of flesh, covering them (or the offending parts) with panels, at a much lower cost, and thus doing nothing irreversibly shameful, ignorant, and hypocritical, heaping national ignominy on the socialist shithole of San Francisco. Lope Yap. Jr., vice president of the GWHS alumni association and the sole RAWG dissenter, as well as a progressive filmmaker and person of color, has pledged to fight to save the murals. Lawsuits and injunctions are probably in the offing. Stay tuned.

I have opposed political censorship before, as in the teapot tempest over Dana Schutz's Emmett Till painting, and I try to be independent from art-world groupthink. But L'Affaire Arnautoff contains so many delicious absurdities that slipping into my Henry Fonda Man-of-Reason costume became mandatory. There are three salient points to make about this imbroglio.

First, let's dismiss the notion that art should be judged on its politics (what it says or enjoins) instead of its aesthetics (how it looks, makes us feel). This is the old style-versus-content conundrum, which always seems to suggest that we have to make a choice between saving the world and savoring it. We don't. Art is often enlisted in the service of power, as all good postmodernist children know. Some of the best art ever made was commissioned to enhance the power and prestige of plutocrats and/or scoundrels — the Medici, the Hanoverians, the Bourbons, the cardinals and popes, the dynasties, etc. Nowadays we enjoy the splendor of that art while ignoring the imperial or imperialist unpleasantnesses that paid the artists. And we absolutely should revere the art, despite the complexities of history and patronage. If you look at the Sistine Chapel and see only the massacred Indians of the New World, blood transmogrified into aesthetic gold and silver, you deprive yourself of "the greatest thing that's ever been done," in de Kooning's humorously worshipful words. But if you don't know the sordid history behind the wealth, or ignore it, you're not a morallly sentient adult. Michelangelo's High Renaissance frescos, let it be noted, have survived even the Reformation addition of fig leaves by poor Daniele da Volterra, Il Braghettone, aka the Breeches-Maker.

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