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Frisco Frescoes: What to Do About Controversial WPA Murals at George Washington High School

More on this here and here.

At its meeting tonight (occurring as I write this), the San Francisco school board was scheduled to consider a resolution “authoriz[ing] staff to develop a project…that removes from public view the [Victor] Arnautoff Mural at George Washington High School, using solid panels or reasonably similar equivalent material, means or methods.”

“This should satisfy those who were concerned about the possible destruction of art,” said Board President Stevon Cook, who announced on Friday his plan to introduce tonight’s resolution.

Stevon Cook, Board President, San Francisco Unified School District

This awkward “solution” calls to mind the Aesop’s Fable about the man who carried a donkey on his back. As you may remember, the moral of that story, was: “Please all, and you will please none.”

Below is one of the work’s 13 panels that caused the greatest uproar. As described in a FAQs page posted by the school district, it “depicts…white settlers stepping over the body of a dead Native American.” (Actually, they are not “stepping over” the Native American’s body but walking past it, as part of a westward expansion that began with the Louisiana Purchase under Thomas Jefferson (not under George Washington, who is seen pointing the way):

Victor Arnautoff, panel from “The Life of Washington,” 1935, located in the central hall of George Washington High School, San Francisco

Another panel, as described on the FAQs page, shows “enslaved Africans working in cotton fields on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate….African American and Indigenous students at Washington High have been telling SFUSD [San Francisco Unified School District] leaders for decades that seeing these images daily reinforces stereotypes and only certain narratives, causes stress and doesn’t help them learn.”

Covering the mural with solid panels, as envisioned in tonight’s resolution, would prevent future students, staff and members of the public from personally eyeballing Arnautoff’s magnum opus (although digital images will be made available). The public appetite to see them, whetted by the recent publicity, was evidenced by the crowds thronging the high school during a recent public viewing.

My own views on this contretemps are conflicted. Although I have not seen it in person, by all accounts I’ve seen by art professionals and critics, this is a powerful work, well worth contemplating, and intended by the Russian American artist to be seen as a critique of the historic cruelty suffered by African Americans and Native Americans. Denying public access to Arnautoff’s work is censorship, even if it is only hidden, not physically destroyed.

In cases like this, I give myself the Holocaust Test: How would I have felt, as an emotionally vulnerable high school student, about being confronted daily with inescapable images of the atrocities suffered by Jews in Nazi Germany? (I think you know the answer.)

While we await the School Board’s verdict, I’ll give the floor to Dewey Crumpler, associate professor of painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, who was one of several African American leaders who spoke up for saving the embattled murals. More importantly, in 1969, when he was only 19 and active in the Black Power movement, he was asked by the student chapter of the Black Panthers to create a new mural at George Washington High School, as an antidote to the anger and distress felt by some students towards Arnautoff’s demeaning depictions.

In a wide-ranging phone conversation with me on Thursday, Crumpler told me that he had first seen the Arnautoff murals as an 11th grader, when Balboa High School, which he attended, was having a football game at George Washington.

“I was shocked,” he told me. “I didn’t know why Arnautoff made those images. All I knew is they were large paintings that were sort of beautiful and ridiculous in their images of black people….The images made me angry. That dead Indian was horrible, and those black people holding George Washington’s horse.”

After traveling to Mexico to study mural-making, he painted three fiery panels celebrating the energy and achievements of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Latin Americans. Those are still on view at the school.

Here’s Crumpler just two months ago, speaking in front of the largest of those panels—the one dedicated to the creative force of African Americans:

Screenshot from a YouTube video by the George Washington High School Alumni Association (which supports keeping the Arnautoff panels on view)

And here are some other excerpts from what Dewey told me last week:

I always am concerned when students feel traumatized. I’ve been traumatized myself as a kid and I don’t think there’s a better place to be traumatized—not physically, but in intellectual terms—than in an educational institution. The role of an educational facility is to teach you how to deal intellectually with trauma, so that trauma is transformed into possibility….

That’s why I don’t believe you destroy art, which is always in service of ideas and thoughts. I thought that when I was 19 and I even feel more definite about it at 70….

There should be a curriculum which is put in place and the mural should become a framework for those history classes, to be spoken about from the origins of American history to the very present.

He also suggested that a kiosk near the murals “could digitize information in an ongoing way that would provide students with a way to interact, so they can be constantly updated to articulate the history of those murals and to help students change the history themselves.”

There’s a potential (albeit impractical) third way to deal with Arnautoff’s murals, which wouldn’t necessitate censoring them or inflicting trauma on sensitive students: Might they be moved and preserved elsewhere?

That’s the plan for (uncontroversial) New Deal murals in the main post office of my hometown—Fort Lee, NJ: The current building will be knocked down to create a new park, and the post office will be relocated to a not-yet-constructed new facility. If all goes according to plan, the murals will be reinstalled in the new building. (More on that later.)

The big difference is that Henry Schnakenberg‘s Fort Lee murals were painted on canvas, making them much easier to remove than the San Francisco frescoes, which were directly painted onto the walls while the plaster was still wet. “Moving the [Arnautoff] mural would have structural implications for the building,” the SF school district states on its FAQs page.

That said, as the Harvard Art Museums have demonstrated (with the expert help of Skanska, the construction company), moving fragile frescoes can be safely, painstakingly done. Here’s a video showing that process.

Would anyone like to plan (and bankroll) a much more monumental mural rescue during the summer of 2020, giving new life to The Life of Washington? Highly unlikely. The best we might hope for is that, in less contentious times, the murals may eventually come out of hiding, to be viewed once again on the site for which they were intended.

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