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 W.P.A. 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.
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 W.P.A. 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 W.P.A. 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. Mr. 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Crumpler’s murals and the W.P.A. 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’s 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.