Americans in Red states commonly imagine that Democrats in solid Blue states like California are all monolithic ally situated on the political margins – as in that they are in lockstep with each other. A recent decision by the San Francisco Board of Education put the lie to that notion.
The board voted unanimously in early July to paint over a mural commissioned during FDR’s administration, depicting first president George Washington. The mural, illustrated the artist’s conception of Washington as the prime mover and catalyst of a colonial westward migration that negatively impacted both indigenous peoples and African slaves.
Some individuals had submitted complaints to members of the board, asserting that the depictions of Native Americans and slaves shown in the mural located at Richmond, California’s George Washington High School, visually “traumatized” them. The board allocated an estimated $600,000 for the cost of painting over the panels.
Objection to this plan, it might surprise some to learn, is not coming primarily or exclusively from Bay Area conservatives, but most vociferously, from a wide segment of liberal Democrats, mainly on the grounds that whitewashing the mural is a wrongheaded move equal to not only burying history, but desecrating important art.
Among the chorus of notable Democrats taking strong exception to the destruction of the mural, is former Mayor of San Francisco and Assembly Leader Willie Brown, who compares the crusade to eliminate the painting to the worst and most militant of Donald Trump’s league of followers.
Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle that the advocates of eradicating the work of art accomplished the vote via a full frontal attack at the board meeting that he likened to “bullying” in which they claimed to be “traumatized by the mural.” “They’re clearly traumatized by something,’’ he wrote. “They’d be horrified by the comparison, but they’re really no different from the most boorish of President Trump’s supporters.”
Brown went on to tell the Chronicle that his own daughter, Sydney, a Washington High graduate “was never traumatized by Arnautoff’s painting — as a matter of fact, it generated conversations at home that otherwise would not have occurred. It was a learning experience for her, and for me.”
School Board member Mark Sanchez spearheaded the move to paint over the mural, stating that it’s “unfair for students to see such harmful images”. Sanchez, Mission Local.com notes, is a politician, teacher and school board member in San Francisco, who founded Teachers for Change and Teachers for Social Justice prior to running for school board.
Sanchez’ allies with the “Washington High School’s Reflection and Action Group” comprising a coalition of Native Americans, students and school employees, maintains that “the impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was.” Sanchez bizarrely describes the removal as a facet of “reparations”.
Joining Mayor Brown in objecting to the decision to censor the mural are GWHS alumni and Bay Area art critics and historians.
They point to the irony that the artist, Victor Arnautoff, who originally created the 1,600 square foot mural entitled “Life Of Washington” in 1936, was not a political reactionary – far from it. In fact, he was a self proclaimed communist and Russian immigrant who was a Professor of Art at Stanford University for two decades and a stalwart in the Bay Area artistic community for several more. Additionally ironic is the fact that Professor Arnautoff was summoned to an interrogation before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee.
One of the 13 panels of the fresco, depicts our country’s founding father among his slaves at his estate, Mount Vernon, and in another, the country’s first president directs white men with guns westward, over the body of an apparently slain Native American.
National Public Radio’s San Francisco affiliate KQED interviewed GWHS Alumni association Vice President Lope Yap Jr., a Marin filmmaker and a 1970 graduate of the school. He understands the powerful visual impact of the mural, but objects to its removal. KQED says that Yap Jr. and the alumni association instead propose installing screening over the two panels “to prevent inadvertent viewing,” placing didactic plaques to clarify the artist’s intent, and complementing Life of Washington with new, prominently installed murals positively depicting Native Americans.
In a statement, the alumni association called Life of Washington a “radical and critical” artwork. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical, and educational value.”
Aqsa Ahmed, writing in the Jacobin, argues against the eradication of historical art from the perspective of the left and admonishes progressives that acquiesce in such actions:
The mural offers a dark and haunting counter-narrative to what many high school history textbooks still teach today: it confronts the reality of the United States, with the hope that we could make a just America a reality in the future. This combination of radical critique and hope in the possibility of collective action is a hallmark of the socialist politics Arnautoff embraced. The response from today’s liberals, however? Their main concern is that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.”
And Rocco Landesman, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, sent a letter to the New York Times opposing the San Francisco School Board’s decision, telling the Times that. “A significant segment of the liberal community is turning anti-art. The San Francisco school board intends to destroy an iconic mural by the W.P.A. artist Victor Arnautoff at the city’s George Washington High School that depicts slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon and colonizers walking past a Native American corpse.”
“When important artworks of our cultural heritage are not just hidden away but destroyed, how do these desecrations differ from those of the Taliban, who blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, or the ISIS commanders who destroyed ancient monuments near Palmyra, Syria?”
California Democrats are weighing in on what they consider a foolish and misguided crusade against the work of art.
Democratic strategist Mike Semler, an associate of former Mayor and Senator Dianne Feinstein and an adjunct professor of public policy at Cal State University Sacramento launched an emergency email alert soliciting support for an effort to produce a ballot measure to save the mural. He said the effort, dubbed the “Coalition to Protect Public Art”, aims to protect this art, “and perhaps other New Deal art in San Francisco’’ which may also be targeted.
Semler assesses the decision of the school board as “saying we’re all going to jump in this ship together and paddle left”. Semler however, objects, noting that, “This is Nancy Pelosi’s district. This is where Kamala Harris is from. Clearly, this is not San Francisco values.”
Veteran Democrat strategist Bob Shrum, known to conservatives as the onetime liberal voice on Fox News’ discussion show, “The Five”, checked in forcefully on the controversy:
“I think of myself as liberal, progressive, and have been all my life — but I’m just sort of stunned by this. We have a little more important things to do — like defeating Donald Trump — than to whitewash a mural.”
It’s a positive sign that Democrats are performing a self assessment and pushing back against the hysterical political correctness attack against an historical work of art, but a couple of observations are in order here.
First – it is absurd to imagine that we can move forward as a society by pretending that history doesn’t exist just so that we don’t have to face up to the shock and anguish of it.
I never tire of repeating the timeless maxim of philosopher Georges Santayana, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We can’t pretend that mass murderers and tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot didn’t exist. We can’t pretend the Armenian Holocaust didn’t happen. Likewise, we can’t pretend that Christopher Columbus‘ exploration in the New World was not consequential in the subjugation of indigenous peoples or that colonists and later, American citizens did not forcibly displace Native Americans on this continent.
The answer is not to bury or hide history, it is rather, to illuminate it. As a liberal or progressive, you cannot, on one hand, advocate for the inclusion in school textbooks of various ugly episodes in American history and at the same time, demand that murals that do that very thing, be painted over. It’s illogical and counter-productive.
Secondly, it is especially ironic that a move is underfoot to do precisely this, in of all places, an appendage of public education! The mural, far from being a thing we should shroud, is in fact, an exquisite educational opportunity begging to be taken advantage of.
The true, positive message of Arnautoff’s colossal mural – whether he intended it so or not, is that George Washington, by giving birth to America, was, in fact the architect of a governing system that in turn, ultimately produced reforms that swept away the injustices that the mural portrays.
Washington in acting as midwife to a revolution (progressives claim to appreciate revolutions after all), ushered in a charter that provided for orderly change and advancement of democracy and Western Civilization. He should be appreciated, understood in proper historical context, and studied – not shunned, omitted, forgotten or neglected.
A final point. Be careful what you wish for. Censorship starts as a small brush fire and ends up as an uncontrollable and unquenchable blaze that takes with it not only art, but the civil society it is meant to inspire.