“The artist is a critic of society”

The San Francisco City School Board recently voted to scrape down a mural (one panel of which is shown above) from a wall of the city’s George Washington High School. The 13-panel mural, which depicts the life of our first president (the school’s namesake), was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-Jewish immigrant and committed Communist. At a time when the founders of our nation were uniformly portrayed as morally upright men, Arnautoff made the provocative choice not to shy away from the brutality of our nation’s founding: he painted paint Washington’s slaves picking cotton on his Virginia estate, as well as the corpse of a Native American victim of European expansion. Arnautoff intended his mural to shine a bright light on America’s difficult history. You can see more panels from the mural and read explanations of their iconography here.

Why does the San Francisco school board want to destroy this important work of art? Because its members believe the depiction of enslaved Africans and dead Indians will make students feel unsafe.

One of the [school board] commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools” . . . Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, [said] that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost [estimated to be $600,000], he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”

How is the destruction of a work of art that is critical of the injustices in American history “reparations”?

Dewey Crumpler, an African-American artist and professor of art history at the San Francisco Art Institute, disagrees. Crumpler himself painted a series of “response murals” at George Washington High School, inspired by Arnautoff’s murals, in 1974. Watch as he explains Arnautoff’s disturbing imagery and why it is so important.

Professor Crumpler refers to the legend, passed down from generation to generation of schoolchildren, that Washington could not tell a lie. Is it possible that Arnautoff’s murals are, likewise, an attempt to tell the truth about our history as a nation?

Do you think students need to be protected from painful imagery? Would destroying a work of art that contains such images protect them?

In 2001, the Taliban destroyed precious centuries-old statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan because the statues offended the sensibilities of their new Islamist republic. Do you think this act of destruction was different from, or similar to, the proposed destruction of the Arnautoff murals?

The Nazis also destroyed works of art that they believed were “degenerate,” because they were by Jewish or gay artists, or because they depicted “unpatriotic” scenes, like the painting above, “War Cripples” (1920), by Otto Dix, which shows a parade of grotesque-looking wounded German World War I veterans.

Do you think the impetus behind the pending destruction of the Arnautoff murals is different from, or similar to, the impetus behind the destruction of so-called degenerate art by the Nazis? 

The author of a new book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, suggests that censorship of disturbing images could have a damaging effect on the ability of students to contend with the inevitable challenges of adult life:

If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when [students] go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on.

A commenter on the New York Times piece makes an important distinction when it comes to the interpretation of images, or any kind of historiography:

One problem common among those who seek to censor works of art, books, movies, etc. is that they cannot critically discern between the depiction of a thing and the endorsement of a thing. To look at this imagery and to conclude that it “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” is an example of how zealotry creates ignorance.

The commenter then adds: “This article makes me feel sick.”

Do you think that art should make us feel safe?

What about music?

What about education?

And a related question: Does avoiding exposure to painful topics actually make one safe? What is safety in the context of learning?