Another example of keeping the real truth from school children. Thanks again for the submission Mr. Howe.

The case for keeping San Francisco’s disputed George Washington murals




The mural “Westward Vision,” by Victor Arnautoff, which depicts George Washington directing gun-carrying colonists westward, and an apparently slain Native American, is seen at George Washington High School in San Francisco on April 9.



The mural “Westward Vision,” by Victor Arnautoff, which depicts George Washington directing gun-carrying colonists westward, and an apparently slain Native American, is seen at George Washington High School in San Francisco on April 9. After half a century of intermittent debate and protest, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously in June to whitewash the 13 murals depicting the life of Washington that line the halls of the high school named for the first president. “In a democracy, destroying a work of art is never a solution to any offense it may give. Once art has been made and released into the often choppy flow of life, it should stay there,” writes the co-chief art critic Roberta Smith.

After half a century of intermittent debate and protest, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously in June to whitewash the 13 murals depicting the life of George Washington that line the halls of a high school named for the first president. The murals’ offense is that they depict some ugly truths about the history of the United States, namely two of its original sins: slavery and the Native American genocide.

Scenes of slaves at work in the fields and barns of Washington’s Mount Vernon and a dead Native American that appear in three of the murals have understandably upset some minority students at the high school, and some parents. They find the images degrading, and their feelings should be taken into account. But there are other, more creative alternatives to overpainting that might be more beneficial for all concerned.

The murals were painted in 1935 and 1936 under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, which created jobs for the unemployed suffering through the Great Depression. They were the work of a Russian émigré and Communist named Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979). I’ve not seen them in person – and may not get the chance – but the eight or so I found online struck me as among the most honest and possibly the most subversive of the WPA era.

Arnautoff signaled the country’s underlying crimes by taking a more critical view of Washington’s life, portraying his ownership of slaves and his support of the genocidal Western expansion. The goal was to place him in context, against a dense panorama of history. They don’t tell the whole story – Washington changed his views on slavery dramatically over his lifetime – but for their time, the murals were daringly frank.

In a democracy, destroying a work of art is never a solution to any offense it may give. Once art has been made and released into the often choppy flow of life, it should stay there. It will live on anyway. To dictate its elimination is an implicitly autocratic move, similar in spirit, if not scale, to the deliberate demolition of ancient art and artifacts by the Taliban and the Islamic State group.

The offended parties in and around the high school assume that their feelings about the murals are permanent and paramount. Those favoring destruction think that they know what the art is about, and that they have the right to decide for everyone, now and in the future, what will be accessible, what will be known. But reactions to art are in constant flux, and the best art should contain multitudes of interpretations.

Does the Board of Education really want the destruction of an 83-year-old mural cycle on its hands? It recalls the shameful eradication of “Man at the Crossroads,” the Diego Rivera mural that was plastered over at Rockefeller Center in 1934 by the Rockefellers.

Now, like then, it raises the question: Who owns a work of art? As the angry Rivera wrote in a letter, “If someone buys the Sistine Chapel, does he have the authority to destroy it?” Art, especially effective art, is never really owned by anyone.

Working during the interwar period, when prejudice was rampant and Jim Crow prevailed, and not just in Southern states, Arnautoff did not just paint your grandfather’s WPA murals. His Communist faith evidently made him determined to avoid the typical patriotic gloss of Washington’s life and also to teach some larger lessons, and he did so with great care. After all, his designs had to pass committee approval.

Which they did, enabling him to discreetly – even gently – insert slavery and the Indian genocide into his murals without sensationalizing them. These are among the scars on this country that every American – schoolchild or adult, of any race – should learn about in detail, keep learning about and never forget.

The murals are amazing feats of storytelling, full of visual subtleties, quiet messages and jolts. The main actors in each scene are physically substantial and dignified regardless of race. The slaves wear white, signaling goodness and innocence. All the figures have different degrees of autonomy.

In “Washington and Western Expansion” the Indian lies on his chest almost as if asleep, his body free of signs of struggle. Washington extends his arm, sending a group of pioneers westward. Walking past the fallen figure, they are rendered in grays: Ghostly, deathly, they tread on hallowed ground, personifying the coming threat of Manifest Destiny. In another mural, two Native Americans are armed with rifles, while others, backed by French soldiers, attack colonial soldiers; three surrender, one lies dead on the ground.

Elsewhere, Washington confers with his white slave overseer, while a black groom – handsome, alert, handsomely dressed – holds the reins of his horse.

George Washington High School contains major works by three other WPA artists, including two 27-foot murals in the school’s library, “Contemporary Education” by Ralph Stackpole and “Advancement of Learning Through the Printing Press” by Lucien Labaudt. And at one end of the football field, there is an astounding sculptural relief initiated by Beniamino Bufano and completed by Sargent Johnson; its overlapping figures fuse elements of Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek art and art deco.

None of these more decorous works have caused the protests that have plagued Arnautoff’s government-approved realism. There have been calls for the removal of the Arnautoff murals since the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers and many students urged that they be covered up.

Instead three “response murals” were commissioned from Dewey Crumpler, an African American artist just beginning his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, and now a professor of painting there. Crumpler understood the need for the Arnautoff narrative to be balanced, but he took the commission only after the students agreed that the Russian’s murals would not be touched.

After a trip to Mexico to study its vaunted murals, and repeated consultations with the students and the Panthers, Crumpler painted his frescoes on three adjoining walls just beyond Arnautoff’s. Far more metaphorical and imposing in scale, these startlingly dynamic panoramas pay tribute to the achievements and cultures of black, Native American, Hispanic and Asian people. Their fiery images show immense chains being broken and historic figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Crumpler told me on the phone that “art’s responsibility is to tell the truth.” He added that to destroy Arnautoff’s murals would destroy his own work, too.

With Crumpler’s murals and the WPA art, George Washington High School is a national treasure, one that may not remain a high school forever. One can imagine it becoming a center for the study of art, history and politics, and their sometimes painful but necessary intersection.

In the meantime, what can be done? There certainly need to be detailed plaques or text panels that aid in understanding the murals as history and seeing them as art.

More response murals could be commissioned, if space allows. A possible subject – raised by the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, and, more recently, by Stevon Cook, president of the San Francisco Board of Education – is the history of the 5,000 enslaved and free African Americans who fought in the American Revolutionary War. The art world is teeming with talented African American painters who would be eager to submit plans.

An alternative would be to cover Arnautoff’s murals with felt or some other opaque fabric, which would shroud them but is reversible, which is crucial. This was the solution for the much more fictive frescoes at the University of Notre Dame that depict Columbus discovering America, and it was amenable to the Native American students and others who protested that Columbus’ arrival had a much darker side for native peoples.

People change, and because they do, so does art. Even Washington evolved, according to the Mount Vernon website, ultimately lamenting owning slaves and freeing his slaves at his death in 1799. There’s a good chance that future generations will find the opposition to Arnautoff’s murals actions quaint, presumptuous or infuriating, similar to the way we view the storms ignited by D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” or James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

Future generations of students at Notre Dame, including Native Americans, could well demand that the murals be uncovered. They will want to see for themselves what all the fuss was about, and dissect and analyze them all over again. Human curiosity works that way.

  1. On July 28, 2019 at 5:32 pm,
    cfs says:

    I have met many school teachers over the years.
    I am less and less impressed by their knowledge.
    Yes, Many are dedicated teachers. They probably almost all are when they start their careers, but many should clearly not be teachers in their latter years.
    I am distressed at the changes in the gender of teachers over the years, as fewer men, not engaged in sports, seem almost absent even among upper classes now.
    One almost expects only women teachers in kindergarten, which is fine, since many children do need mothering at younger ages. (Sorry, if that sounds sexist, but it is true.)

    Perhaps, the absence of good male role models in society and the teaching profession is the reason why mass crowds seem to act solely on feelings as opposed to logic nowadays.

    As regards the school curricula, I understand it also seems lacking in teaching basic skills in reasoning and deduction, and rather than teach broad outlines in history, for which individual sections can be later studied in depth, school boards have chosen to adopt merely simple sections while the broad outline is often completely neglected.
    Is that the fault of standardization for qualifications to pass from grade to grade or from school to university? I don’t know.
    I do know, or at least “feel” that political correctness has really no good role to play in a high quality educational system.

    • On July 29, 2019 at 9:16 am,
      b says:

      We agree on something CFS, I have found school teachers/instructors to be very limited in their knowledge of issues as well.
      Especially concerning history.

      Except for math and basic science.
      But that was a long time ago for me so maybe things have changed for those too.

      • On July 29, 2019 at 3:46 pm,
        Al B Korelin says:

        B, I agree with your comments. I personally find that many women choose not to be informed simply because they do not have the time or inclination.

    • On July 29, 2019 at 3:44 pm,
      Al B Korelin says:

      I have never thought about your comment on the gender of most school teachers. Now that I am thinking about it, I believe that you are making sense. I AM NOT SUGGESTING THAT FEMALES NO NOT MAKE GREAT TEACHER AS I REMEMBER MANY GREAT ONES IN MY PAST, BUT I DO REMEMBER MORE MALES THAT COULD HAVE MADE A HUGE DIFFERENCE IN MY LIFE HAD THAT BEEN POSSIBLE.

    • On July 29, 2019 at 7:30 am,
      OOTB Jerry says:

      Six years after Bill Clinton initiated Plan Colombia, however, even US drug czar John Walters was forced to quietly admit in a letter to the Senate that the price of cocaine in the US had declined, the flow of the drug into the US had risen, and its purity had increased.

      Meanwhile, a UN Office of Drugs and Crime report found that coca cultivation reached record levels in Colombia in 2018. In other words, billions of dollars have been squandered, and a society already in turmoil has been laid to waste.

      • On July 29, 2019 at 7:32 am,
        OOTB Jerry says:

        Biden was part of the Crime ring……Clinton, Biden, Obama, Bush…….all guilty…

        • On July 29, 2019 at 3:50 pm,
          Al B Korelin says:

          I find it interesting that you include Bush in this ring as I, personally, do not by a long shot.

          • On July 30, 2019 at 5:05 am,
            OOTB Jerry says:

            We must be reading different story books…… 🙂
            The entire family has a checkered past…..

    • On July 29, 2019 at 3:48 pm,
      Al B Korelin says:

      Thanks for this particular post, Professor. Have any of our listeners ever read this in the daily press?

  2. On July 28, 2019 at 9:30 pm,
    cfs says:

    It mat not pay to bet the racism card:

    He’s Cumming to get you.

  3. On July 29, 2019 at 7:23 am,
    OOTB Jerry says:
    • On July 29, 2019 at 7:24 am,
      OOTB Jerry says:

      I have known Al for 25 years. Went to fights with him & Don King, always got along well. He “loved Trump!” He would ask me for favors often. Al is a con man, a troublemaker, always looking for a score. Just doing his thing. Must have intimidated Comcast/NBC. Hates Whites & Cops!

      • On July 29, 2019 at 7:33 am,
        OOTB Jerry says:

        All part of the crime ring……..Biden, Clinton, Bush, Obama……..all guilty

  4. On July 29, 2019 at 7:39 am,
    OOTB Jerry says:

    Cummings………and Baltimore Stink…….say Mayor…
    I can confirm………..I was in Baltimore a few months ago……..I would not go back…

    • On July 29, 2019 at 7:41 am,
      OOTB Jerry says:

      Democrat Baltimore Mayor Confirms Trump’s Comments: “Oh My God, You Can Smell The Rats, Dead Animals”

      • On July 29, 2019 at 7:42 am,
        OOTB Jerry says:

        Freaking elites are stealing all the money…….

      • On July 29, 2019 at 7:44 am,
        OOTB Jerry says:

        They ever find the last Mayor , …. she scammed the John Hopkins Hosp. on the book deal….bribe for political favor………

      • On July 29, 2019 at 10:49 am,
        cfs says:
    • On July 29, 2019 at 3:53 pm,
      Al B Korelin says:

      Many thanks for this link, Jerry.

      Not doubting you, but can you verify it’s authenticity. i will also try, by the way.

      • On July 29, 2019 at 3:58 pm,
        Al B Korelin says:

        U just did verify her words. Why did she resign from office recently?

        • On July 30, 2019 at 5:02 am,
          OOTB Jerry says:

          The Old Mayor, was caught , promoting a story book, which she had John Hopkins Hosp. purchase…..kind of like a kick back scheme……..I posted the article several weeks ago, when we were taking about the subject, when taking about Pelosi, and her crime family that ran Baltimore.