This past spring and summer, political correctness—perhaps inevitably—took a full turn and became a campaign to erase the worst things that dead white men have done in our history. This latest twist in our culture wars was set off not by Republicans or Proud Boys but by the San Francisco school board, social-justice warriors all, who managed to convince themselves that the past was so terrible we dare not even look at it.
The cause of the brouhaha was Victor Arnautoff’s 1936 Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School. Arnautoff was just the sort of artist you’d expect a San Francisco school board to love, an immigrant White Russian turned Red. A cavalryman in the tsar’s army, he made a remarkable hegira to California and a new life via Siberia, China, and Mexico, where he worked with the great Communist artist Diego Rivera on some of Rivera’s most magnificent murals.
A confirmed Communist himself, Arnautoff painted murals all over the Bay Area in the 1930s: in post offices and on the wall of a medical clinic, in the chapel of the Presidio army base, in the library of the California School of Fine Arts, and in San Francisco’s Coit Tower. Everywhere he worked, Arnautoff included scenes of struggle, of the fights of working people to form unions, win power, and build a decent life for themselves.
Arnautoff was not content to paint the sort of triumphalist, manifest-destiny form of public art then prevalent all over the United States. He was not going to tell the story of the Father of Our Country without including the enchained human misery that served as the main source of our first president’s wealth or the dead First Peoples who were a legacy of the way West that Washington had pointed. Arnautoff included both in his murals: enslaved African Americans working at Mount Vernon and a dead Native American, killed by a menacing, gray phalanx of well-armed frontiersmen, off to conquer the rest of the continent.
Yet, contrary to what critics of the murals have claimed, neither African Americans nor American Indians are portrayed only in passive or victimized roles. A man of color is one of a group shown pulling up a liberty pole, while Native Americans, in full battle regalia, fight with and against Washington and, above all, for themselves. This was, in other words, the real, gloriously ambiguous beginning of the United States, which included bitter conflict and exploitation.
Somehow, Arnautoff’s impertinence was overlooked at the time. But when he dared to make a lithograph linking Vice President Richard Nixon with Joseph McCarthy, he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and subjected to a campaign to have him fired from Stanford, where he was then teaching. Stanford stood firm, and Arnautoff remained on the faculty until he retired and moved back to the Soviet Union, where he died in 1979.
His Washington High murals didn’t draw much outside notice, though, until the 1960s, when the Black Panther–inspired Black Student Union demanded that the enslaved African Americans depicted be painted over because the depiction allegedly denigrated black people.
Yet even in the crucible that was 1968, cooler heads prevailed. Local artists defended the murals, pointing out what a radical statement the acknowledgment of enslaved peoples at Mount Vernon was in the 1930s. When the students at Washington High were polled, nearly two thirds of them responded that the mural should be supplemented but not destroyed.
The school board hired a young African-American artist named Dewey Crumpler, who had grown up poor in the city, to paint what became known as the “Response” murals. Working for years for what he would later call “a pittance,” and talking over the work with students as he went along, Crumpler created a triptych entitled Multi-Ethnic Heritage. Big, bold, and beautiful, his murals are filled with vivid images of rebirth, renewal, and broken chains, as well as leading African-, Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native American figures from over the centuries. As such, his works are a perfect complement to Arnautoff’s, as emblematic of the 1960s as Arnautoff’s were of the Great Depression. George Washington High was left with yet another outstanding piece of public art, as well as a great teaching device with which students could, every day, learn more about the real history of their country.
But in our endless, self-lacerating culture wars, nothing is ever over. In 2016, a Native American activist named Amy Anderson protested that her son, Kai—one of four American Indian students then at Washington High—felt obliged to walk into the school every day with his eyes averted from Arnautoff’s murals. The Native American students “actually see themselves and their ancestors up there on those walls, and they feel pain,” Anderson claimed. “Every child,” she told the school board, “deserves to walk by something that is empowering, and this is not empowering.”
Which seems to me to be the censors’ best point. Vital as it is to, say, remember the Holocaust, a school with Jewish (or gentile) children might still prefer not to have them greeted every day with images of bodies from Nazi death camps. But why, then, were the murals not to be granted even the courtesies afforded statues of the moldiest old Confederate generals and moved or covered, as many advocates of preserving Arnautoff’s work suggested?
The Washington High murals are buon fresco, which means they were painted on wet plaster, and hence could be perilously difficult to remove. Placing panels over them was estimated to cost only a little more than the price of painting them over. But the censors decreed that this entire work of art must be destroyed, including eleven of Arnautoff’s thirteen panels that no one found offensive. “We all decided those are ideas we do not want to go through with because we didn’t want anybody to see or retraumatize or get P.T.S.D. again,” Mariposa Villaluna, an indigenous activist and adviser to the board insisted.
Contrary to what happened in 1968, however, those critics calling to “paint it down” never polled the Washington High students, who seemed decidedly untraumatized by the murals. A reporter for the New York Times found that of forty-nine freshmen assigned to write an essay on the frescoes, “only four favored removal.”
“The fresco shows us exactly how brutal colonization and genocide really were and are. The fresco is a warning and reminder of the fallibility of our hallowed leaders,” one student wrote. “It’s not really racist,” another told reporters. “It’s showing the actual history of George Washington when [Europeans] first came here and colonized America—the Native Americans were getting killed so that we had more lands and he did have slaves on his farm.”
Those in favor of leaving Arnautoff’s work as is or even covering it up with wooden panels were repeatedly smeared by school board members, their advisers, and parents in favor of destroying the murals as “white nationalists” and defenders of “white supremacy culture” who favored “protecting property over people” and were willing to “traumatize under the guise of educating,” all in support of a mural that “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression.”
In reality, those who dared object to painting over the murals appeared to be overwhelmingly liberals or leftists making reasonable arguments and talking in terms of compromise. For their pains, they were dismissed as being mostly white or old, and treated with open contempt, both in hearings and in emails, the likes of which no citizen should have to endure.
The censors tended to gyrate between the fainting couch and the battlefield. Board members found it “emotionally draining” and “exhausting” to even contemplate the fact of the murals or the very idea that someone might disagree with them over what constituted an intolerable display of white supremacy. Destroying the murals—even paying out the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to do so—constituted “reparations,” according to both Villaluna and school board vice president Mark Sanchez.
“Today is a good day to take down a racist mural! Especially because today is my birthday, and my birthday wish is to whitewash Washington,” reasoned Amy Anderson. “Today is a good day, as hopeful as I am, to end white supremacy!”
Most bombastic of all was the victory lap school board president Stevon Cook took on the op-ed page of the San Francisco Examiner after the board voted unanimously to destroy the murals. Again dismissing defenders of the murals as “older whites,” Cook noted that the defenders of the murals “would not consider themselves racist,” but then “neither do defenders of the confederate flag or those who fought to keep up the prominent statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans.”
“YOU KEEP THOSE SLAVES ON THAT WALL!! That’s how you sound trying to push this falsehood about how this mural is the truth about ‘our’ history,” Cook insisted, grossly distorting everything that those who wanted the murals preserved had said. “They somehow believe that this one mural, in this one high school hallway is the only, or premier, opportunity to teach about the complexities of American history.”
The campaign to destroy the murals attracted newspaper and TV reporters from around the world. Editorials in papers from the Guardian to the Wall Street Journal denounced the idea, and a poll of San Francisco voters showed that 76 percent opposed destroying the murals, while only 12 percent favored doing so.
While most state and local politicians ran for the hills on this issue, a tsunami of opposition to destroying the murals poured forth from the George Washington High School Alumni Association as well as from local community, arts, civil liberties, and preservation organizations.
Most of the leaders of these groups were as liberal as those advocates for the murals who had been so scorned by the school board in the first place. Even worse, many of them were not white. They included Washington High alumnus Danny Glover, who asked, “Why board it up? Why can’t we tell the truth?” and called the proposed boarding up or destruction of the murals “absurd” and a “tragedy.”
“I’m the father of a Washington High graduate. My daughter was never traumatized by Arnautoff’s painting—as a matter of fact, it generated conversations at home that otherwise would not have occurred,” concurred former San Francisco mayor, speaker of the California State Assembly, and local political legend Willie Brown in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was a learning experience for her, and for me.”
“Am I offended by these murals? My answer is NO,” insisted Robert Tamaka Bailey, a Choctaw language instructor, in a statement from the alumni association, “but I would be offended if you took them down, because then I would see you as those who say, ‘It didn’t happen and there are no Indians left to offend.’”
Bailey had taken part in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, half a century before, in 1969. Another veteran of those years spoke up as well: Dewey Crumpler, still making art and teaching it now too, at the San Francisco Art Institute.
“People are not taught how to read art and artistic imagery. So they don’t understand how it operates, they are trying to look at images literally, not euphemistically, not symbolically,” Crumpler explained in an interview with artnet.com. “Your confrontation with difficulty is the very thing you need as a child, particularly in an educational environment, so you can learn how to deal with those difficulties that you are going to run into throughout your life.”
Crumpler was adamant that “if you run away from history, you’ll never change history. You have to confront history. . . . My mural is part of the Arnautoff mural, part of its meaning, and its meaning is part of mine. If you destroy his work of art, you are destroying mine as well.” Which it seems to me is the heart of the matter, in history as in art.
The activists and the censors of the San Francisco school board want to tell a story of struggle and empowerment—as well they should. But without depicting oppression, how to portray struggle? Without the whole truth, how does this story shine? What was it that all those remarkable people of color on Dewey Crumpler’s walls had to fight against? What was it that they overcame?
Just over a month after his celebration in the Examiner, a more restrained Stevon Cook announced that after hearing “much more input from the public,” he had decided “that the mural depicts a history of the country that’s hard to see.” Cook proposed a new plan to cover the Arnautoff panels for the time being with acoustic panels—a proposal that would waste an estimated $875,000 of the school system’s money, but would at least keep the paintings intact for another day. His motion passed by only a single vote, with three school board members still holding out for destruction of the artwork to ensure that the “students feel safe.”
“We have come to a place where art, unless it’s absolutely didactic, is without agency and without significance,” Dewey Crumpler told the artnet reporter. “And that becomes really a slippery slope that leads to a very dark place. I thought fifty years ago that [the Arnautoff mural] should not be destroyed—because there are elements that are just waiting in the wings to take down other art, and they will use this argument to do exactly that.”
These sound to me like bedrock principles, but I doubt they will pierce the cartoon Leninism of the mural’s critics, with their willingness to use any tactics, no matter how undemocratic or unfair, to get what they want. Somehow, it seems to have become standard procedure for the identity-politics left in America to smear, to insult, to vilify all who disagree with them, in any way, on any issue.
I’m dismayed by the rush to reduce most things to personal feelings and an exaggerated psychology. I don’t like the way in which serious words such as “trauma” are tossed around. Victor Arnautoff’s murdered Native American—lying on his side, head turned away, unmarked by wounds—is more elegiac than shocking. Honestly, I find it hard to believe it would traumatize anyone in younger generations, raised on entertainment in which graphic violence is pervasive. But I may be wrong. I will not make the reciprocal mistake of disrespecting anyone else’s motives, especially in such a dire time.
“I remember not having the emotional capacity in me to look up at the Life of Washington mural in my freshman year,” Kai Anderson-Lawson told the school board. “The mural is very hard to look at due to the fact that it paints my people as victims.”
And here is, I think, the key to this whole war of misunderstood words: victim. It has become the very worst thing to be in our popular discourse, the one thing that none of us wants be. And yet we all are. As nations, not necessarily as any reflection on our culture or valor, we are victims to lost battles, valiantly fought, to superior force, and technology better honed to a killing edge, and deceit and ignorance and betrayal and brutality, and all the other terrible attributes of the human condition. But, inevitably, too, we are victimized as individuals, by illness and age and all the other human frailties. What matters is not that we endure this but how we meet it—and thanks to both Victor Arnautoff and Dewey Crumpler, the students of George Washington High School have a great opportunity to learn that every day.