On June 25, the San Francisco school board voted unanimously to paint over a series of murals at George Washington High School that—accurately—depict the nation’s first president as a slaveowner and slaughterer of Native Americans. The murals, which span 13 panels and 1,600 square feet, have been controversial for decades: In the 1960s, at the height of the Black Power movement, black students protesters at the high school called for them to be taken down on the grounds that they depicted minorities as victims rather than actively engaged in self-liberation.
Those calls have taken on renewed vigor in the last few years with the country in the midst of a national debate about Confederate War monuments and the politics of public space and collective memory.
The murals in question are the work of the Russian-born communist painter Victor Arnautoff. Arnautoff, who lived for a time in Mexico while working as an assistant to Diego Rivera, was one of the most prolific muralists of the Depression era. He is most famous for supervising the Coit Tower mural project that showed workers of all races being exploited by the capitalist class. For the George Washington High School murals, the leftist Arnautoff wanted to show Washington for who he really was; pushing back against what was then a silence on the founding father’s complicity in slavery and Native American genocide, Arnautoff painted the slaves who worked the fields at Washington’s Mt. Vernon home and one of Washington’s soldier’s standing on top of a dead Native American.
When they were unveiled in 1937, these murals were upheld by the left as radical examples of social justice through art. Concerned parties now see Arnautoff’s work as exploitative and traumatic for the school’s minority students who have to encounter these striking scenes on a daily basis.
This speaks to a changing dialogue about representation, one spurred on by the democratization of cultural criticism through social media. Audiences now have more platforms to express and amplify what have been long-standing concerns about portrayals of the minority experience in America that rely almost exclusively on fetishistic displays of violence and physical trauma.
Efforts to take the murals down have been met with a forceful and well-organized backlash. In fact, part of the $600,000 earmarked to remove the murals is expected to go to covering legal challenges to the school board’s decision. One such challenge was promised by Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association. Before the decision came down, Yap said his group would sue if the murals were taken down, citing “several grounds” for litigation. John Rothmann, the president of the same association, echoed Yap’s sentiments, telling reporters, “It’s better to confront history than erase it.” Yap and Rothmann are joined by a chorus of individuals and institutional bodies including the National New Deal Preservation Association, San Francisco Heritage, and the Russian Community Council, who believe the Arnautoff murals need to be preserved for the sake of history. Some bodies have suggested covering the panels in question with curtains or using projectors to superimpose new images onto the existing ones. As the murals are frescoes, it is not possible to simply remove them and reinstall them in a museum, a fact that has no doubt intensified the stakes of this debate.
But the mural’s critics have said arguments like Rothmann’s don’t hold water. Talking to The New York Times, Stevon Cook, the president of the school board, pushed back, saying, “There’s been this whole discussion about whitewashing history as if a mural is the only way to talk about history.” Speaking at a school board meeting on June 18, Kai Anderson-Lawson, a Native American student at George Washington High, called the accusation that students would forget their history without the aid of Arnautoff’s murals offensive. “Generational trauma follows us,” Anderson-Lawson told the crowd.
Indeed, what history does the mural force these students to contend with that they aren’t already confronting in their daily lives? Black and Native American people confront the realities of history every day in the form of job discrimination, police violence, environmental racism, health-care disparity, and other injustices that have roots in our nation’s history. That is not to say a valid argument for keeping the murals doesn’t exist, but to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.
Paloma Flores, who coordinates the San Francisco school district’s Indian Education Program, has also raised the question of the murals’ s psychological impact on students: “It’s not a matter of offense, it’s a matter of the right to learn without a hostile environment,” referring to some of the especially violent images like the one of a Native American lying dead on the ground. In this way, the mural debate at George Washington also ties into a larger conversation unfolding about the proliferation of images online, shared largely by white liberals, that instrumentalize the bloodied bodies of black and brown people to illustrate political arguments.
During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, social media posts decrying racism were regularly accompanied by images of young black men shot dead by police. More recently, a photo of a father and daughter who drowned crossing the Rio Grande River in hopes of claiming asylum in the United States went viral online, spread largely by people critical of Donald Trump’s immigration policy. Likewise, supporters of the murals have been quick to argue that they are on the right side of history, in solidarity with racial justice, and have bristled when their position has been characterized as offensive to minorities. However, such a point of view relies on a tired understanding of allyship, one that prioritizes intent over effect.
In reality, the Arnautoff mural is part of a long tradition of well-intentioned white art that over-relies on images of racial violence to call for racial justice. Ironically, that may in fact be its strongest claim to historical relevance. Arnautoff was certainly not alone in his time or in ours; in the 1920s and ’30s, the “anti-racist” art of his homeland, the Soviet Union, depicted the struggles black Americans faced under capitalism exclusively through the prism of physical violence. Soviet propaganda posters showed black people being lynched, in the electric chair, and rarely ever in any scenario that did not show grotesque levels of physical pain. Unfolding at the same time was the Harlem Renaissance, a period when black artists (many of whom were leftists and communists) fought racism by depicting the full spectrum of black life—from pleasure to pain, from politics to whimsy.
More recently, pop culture has seen a wave of “trauma porn”: films, TV shows, and works of visual art that fall into the same trap. There was Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial misstep Detroit, about the 1967 Detroit riot, as well as Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket. Both works were roundly criticized for fetishizing violence against young black men—but both were also defended on the grounds of forcing audiences to confront difficult histories.
One of the most vocal critics of the Arnautoff murals has been Mark Sanchez, vice president of the school board and a third-grade teacher. Sanchez, who has called the mural removal a form of “reparations,” has said that repainting the murals would represent a “fresh start.”
A fresh start: That’s an idea that is sometimes forgotten—that black and brown people have a future, not just a past. A future that is both daunting, but bright in that it exists when so many people, George Washington included, wanted otherwise. It reminds me of a line from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when Paul D leans over to Sethe and tells her, “Me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
Tomorrow is a radical thing indeed.