Shades of Whitewashing…
The unique power of public art stems from its very nature: creative expression paid for by the people to be viewed not by a limited few in a sterile museum room but by anyone in a public space in the real world. Public art can beautify, decorate, or bring sunshine to a dreary day. It can also spark new ideas, generate passionate debate, and force us to consider the world from a perspective other than our own.
The insightful article “Don’t Look Now!” by Robin D.G. Kelley [Sept. 23] demonstrated this power of public art by illuminating a host of ways the 13 New Deal–funded frescoes by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School in San Francisco have brought complex conversations about representation, history, and artistic freedom to life in 2019.
On August 13, the school board reversed its previous decision to paint over and destroy the murals. But it voted instead to “remove the murals from public view” by boarding them over with “solid panels” or “equivalent material.” While not as irreversible as destroying the murals, this equally bad decision was a compromise with nobody and accepted by no one. As the actor and activist Danny Glover, an alumnus of the high school, said, “To destroy them or block them from view would be akin to book burning. We would be missing the opportunity for enhanced historic introspection this moment has provided us.”
The Coalition to Protect Public Art is pursuing a variety of political, legislative, and legal options to ensure that this valuable public art remains public.
The poet Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Rather than destroy or hide art we don’t like, let’s fund new public art and create more hammers to shape a better world.
Coalition to Protect Public Art
I appreciate Jon Golinger’s letter and his efforts to ensure that future generations might one day see Victor Arnautoff’s mural in person rather than as a virtual image. However, the final agreement clearly states that the frescoes will be covered and not destroyed. Presumably, whatever material will be used to shroud them can be removed, even if it requires great effort. I agree that the school board is intent on permanently hiding the work from view, but school boards come and go, and in light of the current political situation, this decision is far more reasonable than sandblasting or whitewashing.
The more urgent question remains, “What is the fate of schools like George Washington High in a city experiencing such aggressive gentrification and privatization?” I hope Golinger and others agree that the struggle against whitewashing history should extend to the whitewashing of the city itself. The dispossession and settlement depicted in Arnautoff’s Life of Washington is hardly ancient history; it speaks to the present and possibly the future, unless we stop it.
Robin D.G. Kelley