In late June the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to destroy or cover up a series of murals painted in 1936 by artist George Arnautoff on the walls of the then-new George Washington High School. The seven-member board seems to believe that the mural, called “The Life of George Washington,” is offensive because it includes images of Washington’s slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American. The painting was financed by the Works Progress Administration, the massive New Deal program that helped put Americans — including artists and writers — back to work during the Depression.
As an article in the New York Times explained: “Arnautoff, who was born in Russia and taught at Stanford, was a Communist who embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals. He depicted Washington, accurately, at a time when that was rarely acknowledged, as a slave owner and the leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans. There are no cherry trees.” Arnautoff believed — like many other painters, poets, playwrights, novelists, singers, and actors during the Depression — that “the artist is a critic of society.”
But the school board’s effort to destroy or hide the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural is not some kind of right-wing witch hunt against left-wing art. Instead, the board members seem to believe that what they are doing is somehow progressive by shielding students from art the depicts slaves and Native Americans as victims of oppression and genocide.
The school board members appear to think that students can’t handle the truth. Or that showing slaves and Native Americans in this way depicts them as helpless victims. The Times quoted Stevon Cook, the school board president, saying that the mural was not an “accurate depiction of the full experiences of people of that time” and did not show “all the contributions African slaves made to the country, that indigenous Americans gave to settlers.” Cook complained that the murals include “violent images that are offensive to certain communities.”
The Times and other papers also quoted several activists who want the murals removed. Amy Anderson, a member of the Ahkaamaymowin band of Métis, believes that the murals represent “American history from the colonizers’ perspective.” Virginia Marshall, president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators, said that Arnautoff’s paintings remind her of “my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother who were beaten and hung from trees and told they were less than human.” Paloma Flores, a member of the Pit-River Nation and coordinator of the school’s Indian Education Program, said that the murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive.”
Matt Haney, a member of the San Francisco board of supervisors (its city council) and a former board of education member, said, “If you’re a Native American student and you walk into the lobby and see your ancestors being murdered in art, that feels dehumanizing.” Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center and chairwoman of the American Indian Studies department at California State University at San Marcos, said that the murals are not worth saving if one native American student “is triggered by that.”
Objections to the paintings have been around for many years. Last year the school district created a group called the Reflections and Action Committee to consider what to do about the Arnautoff murals. The group issued a statement concluding that the artwork “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” and does not represent the San Francisco school’s “values of social justice.”
These arguments may be sincere but they are also absurd. The murals are a critique of what today we’d call white supremacy and the oppression of African American slaves and native Americans. The paintings do not glorify George Washington; they attack him for his views and his actions.
The Arnautoff murals are a remarkable teaching tool, providing educators with opportunities to help students consider how the country was founded on the backs of slaves and native Americans. They give students — and the general public — a different view of George Washington than the one typically portrayed in textbooks. Shielding students from these images is stupid. It reflects the school board’s political cowardice and a failure of imagination.
This controversy is not the moral equivalent of debates over dismantling statues of Confederate generals or slave owners. Those statues were erected to, literally and figuratively, put pro-slavery figures on a pedestal. In contrast, the Arnautoff paintings condemn racism.
Professor Proudfit from Cal State-San Marcos, who supports removing the paintings, told the Washington Post: “It is important that our public schools are a place for all students to learn and be educated in a safe environment.”
Safe from what? The reality of America’s history of racism, genocide, and oppression? It is certainly possible that some students at George Washington High School are disturbed by the images of black slaves and dead native Americans in the Arnautoff murals. That is the point. They should be disturbed. The issue, however, is how the school helps (or doesn’t help) students deal with those feelings. Removing the paintings so students don’t have to confront those feelings is not the answer.
We cannot learn about our nation’s history of cruelty and oppression if we destroy depictions of it. Displaying these murals doesn’t mean that we can’t also teach students about revolts and resistance by slaves and native Americans against their subjugation. But we can’t teach students about the history of slavery, genocide, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and other horrors if we can’t show them paintings and photos of lynchings, massacres, concentration camps, Southern sheriffs heating and fire-hosing civil rights activists, homophobic graffiti, Nazi and KKK cross-burnings on the lawns of African Americans who moved into white neighborhoods, New York City police choking Eric Garner to death, and other awful acts that reveal the reality of bigotry, hate, and oppression. It was the photos of the migrant children living in miserable, inhumane conditions at Border Patrol facilities that has triggered the public outrage against the Trump administration’s policies. Cruelty and oppression won’t disappear if turn our eyes away from it.
The news reports don’t really explain why the San Francisco school board is caving in to the ridiculous arguments of those who want the Arnautoff murals removed or covered up, which, according to the Times, would cost between $600,000 and $845,000 and take about two years to complete.
Surely there are many better ways to spend that money in order to enhance the education provided to the students whom the school board members were elected to serve. Like most urban school districts, funds for the arts are being cut as part of austerity measures. So spending tax dollars to destroy or cover up an existing piece of art — one by a prominent, if controversial, artist — is really short-sighted.
The school board should keep its hands off the mural. If they want to spend tax dollars to deal with the paintings, they should hire an arts educator to write a teachers’ and students’ guide to the Arnautoff murals in order to inform the students, and the general public, about that specific work of art and provoke a discussion of the role of art in our society.
San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most progressive cities. But the school board members are embarrassing the city, and themselves, with their vote to dismantle or cover up Arnautoff paintings. They are, in fact, denying students the opportunity to learn about the nation’s controversial and contested past.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame ( Nation Books, 2012).