A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art

Victor Arnautoff’s “The Life of George Washington” was painted at George Washington High School in 1934 under the Works Progress Administration. Recently, the school board voted unanimously to paint over it, becoming a contentious topic on public art preservation.

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.

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