Thirteen frescoes by 1930s Works Progress Administration artist Victor Arnautoff adorn San Francisco’s George Washington High School. The series is called “The Life of Washington,” and the paintings depict the life of our nation’s first president.
The work came under fire for depicting aspects of American history no one wants to think about. The debate pitted leftists who wanted to soothe the triggered victims against leftists who don’t want to destroy art just because it evoked feelings of victimization. In June, by unanimous vote, the Board of Education decided to whitewash them.
Despite the consistent calls from leftist activists and pundits that the public at large had better educate itself about the wrongs committed in the name of securing American freedom, the school board decided a high school is not the right place for this learning to take place.
Washington’s life was full of things that wouldn’t fly today, and the artwork does not hide those facts. In vivid color and realistic representations, it portrays Washington’s life, including aspects we find horrific today: enslaved persons, dead Native Americans, and Washington as a forceful leader of a nation that allowed these atrocities.
Despite the frescoes’ historical accuracy, students, parents, and educators found them offensive. The offense is that they show “American history from the colonizer’s perspective,” according to Native American activist Amy Anderson. Is the work a blind glorification of a great president with a controversial legacy, or is it an offensive way to teach a history that should stay in textbooks and classrooms?
Hiding the Evils of History
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, school board President Stevon Cook proposed a plan to cover the frescoes without destroying them: “Cook said that most people should agree that the 13-panel mural ‘depicts the racist history of America’ and said it’s important to acknowledge the ‘racism, discrimination, and the dehumanizing of people of color and women in American history.’”
So why not erase it? Opponents of the erasure say the work is a valuable teaching tool, and it does not glorify Washington’s difficult past, but is “critically examining the country’s oppression of people of color.”
Cook’s proposal came up for a vote at the most recent Board of Education meeting, on Aug. 13, and the board walked back its decision, sort of. It was resolved that “the Board authorizes staff to develop a project, assessing a range of alternatives, for the purposes of CEQA review that removes from public view the Arnautoff Mural at George Washington High School using solid panels or reasonably similar equivalent material, means or methods.” Arnautoff’s work won’t be destroyed, but it won’t be visible, either.
The Left Versus the Left
The fact of the matter is that history is offensive to our sensibilities. Humans are awful to one another, and always have been. Whether that awfulness stems from intentional malice or, as is so often and tragically the case, from a desire to do good, the truth is that we’re just rough.
These paintings do not exalt Washington, nor do they condemn him. Instead, they depict him according to the artist’s vision, which does seem to be conflicted. Even back in the 1930s, it was possible for a clear-headed artist to take stock of the inconsistencies and give an honest portrayal of a man who did so much good for our country, while also participating in a society that allowed the evils of slavery.
While many San Franciscans on the left wanted to destroy this work for precisely those reasons, other locals on the left wanted to retain the works for exactly those same reasons. It’s a classic left versus left scenario, with the upholders of the old, classical liberal tradition that values freedom of expression over anything else against the new guard that values the sensibilities of the offended over all.
While covering the the work without destroying it may seem like a compromise, the executive director for the Coalition to Protect Public Art, Jon Golinger, issued a statement saying that while he is in favor of not whitewashing the work, the coalition would stand in the way of a permanent “impenetrable barrier” that makes people unable to view the art.
The Truth About History Is Dark
The left has started a trend of taking down those remnants of our past that remind us of our ancestors’ unsavory views and hero worship. They have pulled down Civil War monuments, removed prayers from public memorials honoring fallen officers, and now they’re taking issue with a historically accurate representation of the nation’s first president.
Part of Cook’s idea is that the school should commission new artworks that show nonwhite people in a positive light. But taking public space and public art funds to create new works that positively depict nonwhite people should have no bearing on whether the old work is left up. Both expressions can be accurate, both expressions can exist in the same space, and no one should be offended by legitimate representations of historical reality.
That we don’t want to repeat the mistakes of our past is laudable, but it was those mistakes, as well as our successes, that got us to the place where we are today. Despite the horrors our nation experiences, and how badly mainstream media portrays our culture today, we have freedoms because of, not in spite of, a history that we would do well to publicly honor, flaws and all.