Skip to main content

140 Scholars Implores SF School Board Not to Destroy Historic Mural

"Let's stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation, and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present."

printer friendly  
The San Francisco Board of Education voted to paint over the mural, located in George Washington High School in San Francisco., Tammy Aramian/George Washington High School Alumni Association

After the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously voted to paint over a Depression-era mural cycle depicting George Washington as a slaveholder and perpetrator of genocide against Native Americans, 139 academics, artists, and activists signed an open letter this week decrying the board's decision as a "display of contempt for history" and urging it to reverse course.

"In a recent vote, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to destroy the murals," reads the letter, which is expected to be delivered Friday to the San Francisco school board. "To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense."

Located in San Francisco's George Washington High School, the 1,600-square foot mural was painted by Russian-born immigrant and communist Victor Arnautoff in 1937 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

As the Associated Press described the mural, "The first president's rise to power is shown across 13 frescoes, including one that depicts slaves working on Washington's property and white men stepping past the body of a slain Native American."

The work has been a source of heated controversy for decades, with some students and activists characterizing it as an offensive and racist portrayal of Native and African Americans. Others have said the mural has historical value and should be preserved, but is not appropriate for a public high school.

The San Francisco school board said it plans to archive the mural in digital form.

"No one has the right to tell us as native people—or our young people who walk those halls everyday—how they feel," Paloma Flores, the San Francisco school district's Native American education program coordinator, said during a hearing on the mural last month. "You're not in those shoes."

But the George Washington High School Alumni Association expressed opposition to destruction of the paintings in a statement earlier this year, saying the murals "should be preserved for their artistic, historical, and educational value."

"There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide," the association said. "Whitewashing them will simply result in another 'whitewash' of the full truth about American history."

Speaking to the AP on the controversy, Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography and director of the "Living New Deal" project at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that Arnautoff's mural was specifically conceived and painted to show the "uncomfortable facts" about Washington's life and legacy.

Though not a signatory to the open letter, Walker also opposes the mural's destruction.

"We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal," he told AP, adding that destroying a piece of art "is the worst way we can deal with historic malfeasance, historic evils."

In their open letter, the scholars and activists deploring the school board's decision argue that the "meaning and commitments" of Arnautoff's work "are not in dispute."

"It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the U.S. history of racism and colonialism," the letter reads. "The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists."

"Let's set aside the question of the voices calling for the murals' destruction and their authority to speak for the communities they claim as their own," the letter continues. "What remains is a mistake in the way we react to historical works of art—ignoring their meaning in favor of our feelings about them—and a mistake in the way we treat historical works of art—using them as tools for managing feelings, rather than as objects of interpretation."

"Let's stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation," the letter adds, "and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present."

Read the full open letter, originally posted to Nonsite.org, below:

Open Letter on the Proposed Destruction of a Mural Cycle

A Federal Art Project mural cycle of thirteen panels devised and painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936 in a San Francisco high school portrays George Washington as a slave owner and as the author of Native-American genocide. It is an important work of art, produced for all Americans under the auspices of a federal government seeking to ensure the survival of art during the Great Depression. Its meaning and commitments are not in dispute. It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the U.S. history of racism and colonialism. The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists.

Now, however, activists including a number of students are seeking the destruction—not the concealment or contextualization—of the mural. The reasons they give—in public comment, in interviews, in the board's statements—are various, but they all depend on rejecting the objective analysis of historical exploitation and colonial violence the mural offers and replacing it with activists’ valorization of their experiences of discomfort with the imagery and the authorship of the murals. On this account, a Russian immigrant cannot denounce historical wrongs by depicting them critically. On this account, only members of the affected communities can speak to such issues and only representations of history that affirm values they approve are suitable for their communities. On this account, representing historical misdeeds is degrading to some members of today's student body. In a recent vote, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to destroy the murals. To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense.

Let's set aside the question of the voices calling for the murals' destruction and their authority to speak for the communities they claim as their own. What remains is a mistake in the way we react to historical works of art—ignoring their meaning in favor of our feelings about them—and a mistake in the way we treat historical works of art—using them as tools for managing feelings, rather than as objects of interpretation. Let’s stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation, and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present.

The undersigned oppose the school board's decision and the wrong-headed approach to art and to history that lie behind that decision. We urge the school board to reverse its decision and take all reasonable steps to preserve the mural and to teach it as a work of art and as a representation of our history. We oppose this display of contempt for history.

To hear public comment preceding the board's vote, follow this link.  (Discussion of the mural begins about ten minutes into the recording.)

At the end of the week, we will send this letter and list of signatories to the board members of the SFUSD. To add your signature, e-mail your name and institutional affiliation (if desired) to SanFranciscoMuralOutrage@yahoo.com

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.