Students at a San Francisco High School want to remove George Washington paintings from their hallways, claiming that they are cultural vestiges of America’s racist past. According to those in support of removing the artwork, these portraits can no longer be accepted in “Modern America” as they are “highly offensive” to minorities, especially Native Americans and African Americans.
Supporters of the purge of George Washington art claim that they are cultural remains of an era, where racism was widely accepted in American society. According to the group, George Washington’s mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” the Richmond District Blog wrote.
The History of George Washington’s Mural
The controversial artwork is over 83 years old and 13 panels long. The mural portrays America’s first ever president and founding father George Washington. Created in 1936, it was a carefully crafted work of Victor Arnautoof, a well-known progressive communist artist from the 1930s. Yet it seems that he is no longer progressive enough for the “Fog City” standards of today. At one point, the mural held the title of largest WPA-funded a project envisioned by a single-artist on the Pacific Coast.
In the 1930s, Arnautoff was a famous figure in the San Francisco Bay area known for his left-wing political stances. Many of his works feature political subjects, including the struggles of the working class and a satirical portrayal of the elites.
Why is the Mural causing so much outrage?
The outraged believe that many of the mural panels depict African Americans and Native Americans in a derogative way. This is not the first time the mural has caused so much outrage in Richmond district. During the late 1960s, the school received many public complaints demanding the destruction of these murals. Their brutally realistic depiction of how the expansion of America affected African-Americans and Native Americans was enough to stir controversy. At that time, the school was considering the idea of installing permanent plaques with information about the historical context of those images.
Then again in 1974, The mural was the cause of controversy when students protested about its content again. In response, the school attempted to sort the problem out by hiring Dewey Crumpler, a Black muralist, to craft an artwork portraying Latin, Asian, Native American and African cultures in a positive way. The result was Crumpler’s “Multi-Ethnic heritage” an artwork placing emphasis on the positive aspects of Native/Latin American, Asian and African Americans culture.
Labeled as Offensive by San Francisco Unified School District
According to Laura Dudnick, a spokeswoman for the district, Mr. Arnautoff’s work was debated by a “‘Reflection and Action Working Group’ that was comprised of members of the local Native American community, students, school representatives, district representatives, local artists, and historians.”
To decide whether or not to remove George Washington artwork from George Washington High School, four meetings were held with school representatives, students, district representatives, local artists, and historians. In the end, SFUSD decided that the artist’s historical portrayal of Washington in his artwork is highly offensive to Native Americans and African Americans. Thus, they no longer represent SFUSD.
Historical Accuracy v. Political Correctness?
“I learned a lot, to be honest, from the artist’s perspective, but how are we to talk of what one’s intent or perspective would have been if that person’s not present? It’s all interpretation, and even with the best intention, harm can be done,” said Flores, referring to students from minority backgrounds that feel uneasy about the mural.
While the majority of George Washington High School alumni association are all up for destroying the Life of Washington mural, Gray Brechin is against it. He believes that it’s not a matter of protecting our youth from racism, but of preserving historical accuracy as it is no matter how offensive some may find.
“What we’re looking at is the classic slippery slope, if the murals can be destroyed, then no work of art that anyone finds offensive is going to be safe. And that’s an awful lot of art.”
“There is no way to justify subjecting children to violent imagery because some people feel that it’s important to defend a piece that was created at a time when the mental health of children or the relevance of cultural awareness might not have been deemed as important,” said Paloma Flores.
The school administration is currently developing a social studies curriculum that respects historical accuracy but is not offensive to minority students. However, finding common ground between historical accuracy and political correctness is not an easy task.
We do have to speak the truth rather than continue to support the dominant narrative view of erasure, the romanticizing of the settlement process, and the lies that have been told, we have great examples across our schools where history is being taught at various grade levels and it’s a truer history.” – Flores
The Robert Cherny Interpretation
Robert Cherny, a historian who holds a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, believes that Victor Arnautoff crafted those murals in an effort to show the negative consequences of Westward Expansion. Cherny posits that High School textbooks of the time tried to ignite nationalist pride by ignoring the horrors of westward expansion. The textbooks ignored the slaughter of Native Americans and slavery of African Americans. Robert Cherny is currently an emeritus professor at San Francisco University who wrote a biography about Victor Arnautoff.
He put those ghastly gray pioneers literally walking over the dead body of an Indian to demonstrate that the settlement of the west was an act of conquest that involved the slaughter of Native Americans. That was a very bold effort on his part to counter the kinds of textbooks that students were seeing.” – Robert Cherney at a 2018 Board of Education Meeting
How Does the Community View the Art?
In a poll run by the Richmond School District, 75% voted in favor of keeping George Washington’s mural intact, but adding display panels explaining the historical context of the murals. The future of the George Washington murals remains uncertain until the Richmond School District and SFUSD community decide its final fate.
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