Victor Arnautoff’s “The Life of George Washington” (1934) at George Washington High School in San Francisco (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

There’s a clever little rhyme that art misanthropes will often rehearse when public art gets put on the chopping block: “Art by committee is always shitty.” As someone who has researched and reported on government-commissioned work as an art historian and journalist, I would tend to agree. Seldom do iconoclastic works of art make it through the municipal vetting process alive because commissioners often place a premium on legibility and pleasingness.

The San Francisco mural painted by Victor Arnautoff was an exception to the rule, born during the creative blitz of the Depression era. “The Life of George Washington” (1934) was one of countless artworks created by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration to visualize a new roadmap toward national excellence under the adage, “Search for a usable American past.”

Now, 85 years after its creation, administrators at the school where the painting resides have decided that there is nothing “usable” in Arnautoff’s images. George Washington High School has decided to paint over the 1,600-square-foot mural, which will cost an estimated $600,000.

“The Life of George Washington” (1934) (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

Last week, the city’s school board voted unanimously to approve the repaint. Why? Because of its blunt retelling of history. Across 13 frescos, the painter renders an unvarnished portrait of Washington as a slaveowner who incentivized settlers and troops to destroy Native American populations and land. One landscape includes a pack of soldiers painted in greyscale walking by the fallen corpse of an Indigenous person.

Reactions to this gruesome scene have been mixed. Opponents of the mural have described it as a symbol of racial animus. In voting for its destruction, the school described their decision as a form of reparations for historic racial injustices against African Americans and Native Americans. While they recognize the need to keep history complicated, the anti-muralists also see the Arnautoff painting as a decontextualized daily problem for students and staff. For decades, students at the school have made the frescoes a popular meeting spot, saying, “Let’s meet at the dead Indian.” One Native American student told reporters that he walks by the mural every day at school with his head down to avoid the image.

“The Life of George Washington” (1934) (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

But according to a report by the New York Times, many other students favor the fresco. Out of 49 freshmen asked to write essays about the mural, only four favored its removal. One student wrote, “The fresco shows us exactly how brutal colonization and genocide really were and are. The fresco is a warning and reminder of the fallibility of our hallowed leaders.” Art historians and alumni have also come to the painting’s defense, saying that it must be preserved as an example of WPA art and a frank representation of how cruel early America’s leading figures could be.

The Reflection and Action Working Group, a committee of activists, students, artists, and others put together last year by the district, concluded in February that Arnautoff’s work “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” Black people and Native Americans in the school district have asked for the mural’s removal as a way to address continuing racial inequality, which is not altogether dissimilar from the nationwide call to remove Confederate monuments. Yet media reports have predominantly sided with preservationists, depicting the anti-muralists as “destroyers of art,” in the words of Alison Collins, one of the board commissioners. This is a bad faith argument and incongruous to the social realities people of color face in this country; it also disregards their ability to rationally approach the painting and decide against it.

Although I agree that Arnautoff’s work should be preserved for art historical reasons — and I find it altogether ridiculous that any form of construction effort around the frescoes should cost upwards of $600,000 in taxpayer dollars — there’s no reason not to also accommodate the opposing viewpoint. There comes a point in time where we must ask what caricatures of the past are worth preserving. Arnautoff’s painting does well to remember early America’s violence, but it also preserves Depression-era stereotypes of how to visualize people of color.

Another set of murals at the school by Dewey Crumpler, painted in 1974 (© Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association)

So when should public artworks be removed from public view? Certainly, author intent matters in these conversations. Part of the reason why Confederate monuments were removed from their pedestals was because they were installed decades after the Civil War during the Jim Crow era as beacons of white supremacy. A committed Communist who had once assisted Diego Rivera in Mexico, Arnautoff had a more aspirational politic in mind. “‘Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me,” he said in 1935. “The artist is a critic of society.” Accordingly, his mural is pedagogical by design; it corrects our tendency to worship the founding fathers as saints. Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle viewers with his work, lifting darker perspectives into the frame. The best memorials know how to productively represent histories of violence and grief for emotional catharsis, telling hard truths without preserving their legacies of violence. His reasoning behind the mural is something that the school it exists in should be teaching: We must render our past with open eyes.

But what I think this debate is missing is an open heart. Those who oppose the mural’s removal fail to see the pain it inflicts on people whose ancestors have actually experienced the suffering it depicts. Those who seek the mural’s destruction fail to see anything salvageable in the painting. A solution would be to accommodate both sides of the argument by making it an educational exercise for students. Turning Arnautoff’s mural into a memorial would honor the artist’s original intentions while allowing students to evolve its purpose. Good contemporary monuments honor the names of the dead when able or otherwise note the absence of records through visual or textual cues. (Rachel Whiteread’s “Nameless Library” (2000) Holocaust memorial in Vienna’s Judenplatz is a good example of the latter.) The names of many Native Americans killed in the late 18th century are regrettably lost from history, but slave records for the founding fathers are public access through the National Archives. And that includes dated lists from presidents including Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

With all this information available, and so much history left to be uncovered, is there not ample opportunity for students to use research to counteract some of the mural’s missteps? And if we can find a path forward together, can we not preserve the mural as both an art historical tool and a critical lesson on the politics of representation?

Update 8/14/19 1:10pm: | The San Francisco Board of Education voted on Tuesday night to conceal, but not destroy, “The Life of George Washington” mural at George Washington High School. The 4-to-3 vote came after more than a month of intense debating between students, parents, faculty, alumni, city officials, and the public. Some had complained that an earlier vote to paint over the murals qualified as extreme censorship; others said that the murals posed an undue burden on Native American and African American students attending the school who went out of their way to avoid the paintings. Neither side of the argument was completely satisfied with the close vote.

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.

12 replies on “A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art”

  1. This piece positively depicts genocide in a school. Document it, take detailed photos of it, archive it, and then paint it over and let the students decide what to put in THEIR space.

    1. What happens when everything historical is erased and painted over? If this was a liberal mural would the sentiment be the same? Should all rainbows be painted over too — not everyone is for that way of thinking/being?

  2. I certainly agree with the desire to pull this mural down. It is insensitive, historically calloused, and seeks to “educate” the viewer in a mode that is of its time and not ours (ie. not in line with contemporary sensibilities and ever-advancing historical developments). But it’s unfortunate that this artifact of the 1930s is being destroyed rather than taken off-site to a more suitable context.

    When Soviet powers were deposed throughout Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, the local publics decided to mothball statues of political revolutionaries and dictators. They took these statues out of their original public contexts and stowed them away in special repositories. Citizens and municipal officials figured that although these statues celebrated political movements and cults of personality that terrorized them and their ancestors, that historical artifacts should be preserved as a way to tell their countries’ troublesome history to future generations. I wonder why the school board hasn’t considered a similar move.

    I agree that the mural forcefully presents an unsettling theme that may be best dealt with in the history classroom and not in the hallway on the way to lunch or band practice. Why not dismount and move it?

    I also agree with Small’s appeal for a more nuanced approach to this issue. This whole issue poses a really interesting question that we are sure to encounter again: what do we do with culturally insensitive imagery and narratives that no longer have a place in American daily life or polite society? Also, does destroying this only satisfy us in the moment or is its erasure a reasoned investment in the future? Everyone has a stake in this. We should probably sort this out now because this will happen again.

  3. America, founded on genocide, built on slavery. Apparently that’s too much to cope with for semi-literates.

  4. Welcome to San Francisco – Home of the homeless – den of the druggies – toilet for tramps – pot of pathetic politicians – and a.. holes for arts preservationists. What a glorious solution from this school board: paint over a controversial and historic painting that’s so dangerous that even a school needing metal detectors at the entrance can not deal with it. Shall Guernica be painted over?

    Seems like it would be wiser to sweep up the needles, teach folks how and where to relieve themselves, round up the rats and contain cholera. And quit worrying about who is speaking at your local universities.

    These are hypodermic hypocrites are hoping you will put on the same blinders they use and to see only what they allow you to see. Painting over history does not really erase it or change it. This is simply stupid and a poor lesson for students at GWH.

    Good luck ostriches!!

  5. Leave it for classroom discussion and use the moolah to bring in practicing artists to work with student artists on pieces that respond to the mural or discussion of aspects of the mural. Maybe there could be awards? Isn’t everything dated in some way at some point, except maybe Breughel and Goya?

  6. I entered high school in 9th grade at age 12 going on 13, not sure i would have wanted to spend 4 years walking to a holocaust mural to “meet by the slaughtered jew.”
    I don’t think the students could erase history if they even wanted to.
    this is not the slippery slope white liberals envision. take the “loss” and move on.

  7. I went to GWHS. Although this was a few years ago, I can report that this article is a poorly researched rehash of other articles that were similarly lazily written. For example no one meets at the “dead Indian” as has been recycled in almost every article about the subject. It is on a dark side stairwell. And no one calls it that.
    A student was trolling some hapless reporter about this and it has been repeated over and over again.

    Who are the nameless offended students? The author never visited the site or talked to anybody. He read other think pieces written thousands of miles away and regurgitated them.
    Again, lazy and unprofessional.
    If he had, he would have found out that the people most hurt by the idea that the US is a genocidal slave based county are whites.

    White people want their George Washington to be the clean cherry chopping man. People of color know who he was.

    This is the only honest public depiction of who the first president was and what our country comes from.

    Sorry for your white tears. Students deserve better.

    And anyway, you can’t just paint over a landmark status WPA mural.

  8. Since the fate of the mural was not based on a referendum, it might be helpful to hear details about each committee member and his or her rationale for such a decision. The critique should be focused on the decision makers. The more we talk about it here on social media, the more it sounds like a would-be referendum and not a critique of the uses (or lack) of knowledge in public service. No one seemed to unpack the issue of taste when discussing the mural, or most murals in general. My take is that this one should go, but not simply for any of the reasons voiced in the article.

  9. Empty, vengeful nihilism will not solve the problem of racism in America.

    As for those who say the “mural” should be taken somewhere else, it’s not a “mural.” It’s a fresco. It’s an integral part of the actual plaster wall. It can’t be moved. And painting it over would destroy it. If the school district would rather not teach its students the history of the artwork and how it was originally meant, covering it up with a drape or paneling — as intellectually lazy as such an act would be — is preferable.

    The reactions of any specific individuals to this artwork are not the end point of history. To be blunt, it isn’t your artwork to destroy. It belongs to posterity, as a part of our shared artistic and cultural heritage. And both morally and legally, you don’t have the right to destroy it.

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