In a decision that has inflamed passions around art censorship — even among liberals — the San Francisco School Board has voted to paint over the 83-year-old mural ‘The Life of Washington’, painted by Victor Arnautoff, a New Deal muralist celebrated for his accurate telling of American history.
In addition to depicting Washington as a storied soldier, surveyor, statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural at George Washington High School features disruptive images of white men standing over the body of a Native American as well as slaves working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
Arnautoff’s refusal to omit the more controversial aspects of Washington’s history were designed to call attention to “uncomfortable facts” about America’s first president.
“We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal,” Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the history project, Living New Deal said, adding that destroying a piece of art “is the worst way we can deal with historic malfeasance, historic evils.”
Mark Sanchez, vice president of the school board and a third-grade teacher, said students who must walk past the mural during the school day don’t have a choice about seeing the harmful images. “Painting it over represents not only a symbolic fresh start, but a real fresh start,” writes TIME
Lope Yap, Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association and a 1970 graduates, disagreed, saying when he was a student and saw the mural he was “awed by the subtle ways Arnautoff was able to critique American history.” He said the depictions are “treasures, priceless art” and painting it over is tantamount to pretending the history depicted never happened.
AOC covered the controversy in-depth in May. One assumes that a lawsuit will be filed, especially over concerns about a growing trend to destroy art deemed racist or offensive by groups of America’s diverse population. Calling such a factually correct, and revolutionary at the time artwork “racist” sends chills up and down the spines of Americans clamoring for historical honesty in public spaces.
The New York Times has a program inviting students to critique and engage in dialogue around controversial issues like this one. The edited commentary equally represents both sides, but as the NYTimes writes, what’s most encouraging is the dialogue among students with diverse viewpoints. Inspiring — even if the controversy is not. ~ Anne