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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.



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Much other art sidesteps current affairs — like Abstract Expressionism, with its focus on pure expression (and its contempt for the leftist propagandist art of the 1930s: "poor art for poor people," in Arshile Gorky's memorably dismissive aphorism). None other than the U.S. government later promoted its cult of the heroic individual, easily co-opted to serve as propaganda for American-Way capitalism and consumerism. Rampant individualism vs. creeping collectivism worked in the Cold War; expect a reprise (not a reprieve) again in 2020, bigly. Some artists manage to bestride both worlds: During the Vietnam-era 1960s and 1970s, Philip Guston abandoned the elegant shimmering abstractions he made in the 1950s, loosely based on Monet, in order to revisit the dark Klansman social commentary that he made in the 1930s. His stylistic epiphany and conversion from heavenly formalism — "adjusting a red to a blue," as he later put it, wryly, to sinister and comic narratives like his excoriating drawings of scowling, scrotal Tricky Dick — evoked passionate reactions in the art congregation; he was assailed as a traitor by some, and as a visionary by others. Politically engaged art and fine art are both valid; and both produce good and bad art: propaganda on the one hand, decoration on the other.

As to actual treason, remember that in the late 1940s, before Life magazine discovered Pollock the Cowboy, Abstract Expressionism was seen not as red-blooded he-man stuff, but as the decadent, effete art of communists, eggheads, and other bearded, bereted subversives, who might be hiding military secrets in those blobs and squiggles. The McCarthyite Republican senator from Michigan, George Dondero, deserves exhumation:

"Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. ... Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. ... Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms." In 1952, Dondero went on to tell Congress that modern art was, in fact, a conspiracy by Moscow to spread communism in the United States. This speech won him the International Fine Arts Council's Gold Medal of Honor for "dedicated service to American Art." When art critic Emily Genauer (future winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) interviewed Dondero in the mid-1950s, he stated "modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, our material progress. Art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government and those who promote it are our enemies." When Genauer pointed out the resemblance between his views and those of the Stalinist Communists he despised, Dondero was so enraged that he reportedly arranged to have her fired from her job at the New York Herald Tribune.

Second, The Life of George Washington is an excellent subject for education about art, culture, and politics. While some see Arnautoff's mural as a counter-myth or corrective to the semi-divine man-of-all-seasons status accorded our first president for two and a half centuries, I see it as a calculated correction by an artist who had learned to be discreet and modulated. Arnautoff was persona non grata in the USSR for decades because of his having fought against the communists during the Russian Civil War. Conversely, after his conversion to communism in the 1930s, during the San Francisco General Strike, he was investigated by the FBI for his links with Russia and his associations with visiting cultural figures and artists like Diego Rivera and other communist intellectuals in early 1930s Mexico City. Arnautoff's biographer, Robert W. Cherny, repeatedly emphasized during his hotly disrupted July 15 presentation that Arnautoff's murals were in no way disrespectful to blacks and American Indians.

Of the Washington mural, Cherny wrote that even as the popular portrayal of California Indians still depicted them as primitive and degraded, "Arnautoff treated them with dignity, presenting the complex artistry of a woman's basketry and the man's fox-skin quiver. He also depicted the meeting of Indians and Spanish authorities as a meeting of equals, a sharp contrast to the depiction of that event in the city's "Pioneer Monument" (1894), which shows an Indian groveling at the feet of a ranchero and priest." That monument was removed from Civic Center by the City of San Francisco in September of last year, and deservedly so.

"Arnautoff said nothing, then or later, about his murals' counter-narrative to that then-standard high school treatment of the founding fathers and Western expansion," Cherny wrote. "Washington dominates five of the six smaller murals but the centers of the four largest barrels are held by native Americans, working-class revolutionaries, and enslaved African Americans. In depicting Washington's early life, Arnautoff centered the mural on native Americans in war paint, surrounded by British, colonial, and French troops and British colonists. In the facing mural, on the American Revolution, the center belongs to five men in working-class clothing raising the flagpole. VA's portrayal of Mount Vernon puts Washington near the left margin and places enslaved African Americans at the center, more prominent than several white artisans on the right side of the mural. ... Arnautoff's's mural makes clear that slave labor provided the plantations' economic basis. On the facing wall Arnautoff was even more direct: the procession of spectral future pioneers moves west over the body of a dead Indian, challenging the prevailing narrative that westward expansion had been into largely vacant territory waiting for white pioneers to develop its full potential. For Arnautoff, 'the spirit of Washington's time' included not only the struggle for liberty and the founding of a new nation but also chattel slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans."

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