Why the Mural, and History, and Art Matter
Our affairs are critical, and we must be dispassionate and wise.—POC Alexander Hamilton, getting better known these days
If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. —George Washington, whitewashed blackguard
The current controversy over the murals depicting The Life of George Washington at George Washington High School, in San Francisco’s Richmond District, has called into question yet again the role of public art in culture and politics. Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979), a Russian-born WPA muralist who worked with Diego Rivera in Mexico, and, in San Francisco supervised the creation of the Coit Tower’s murals, was asked in 1934 to paint a mural for the newly built high school celebrating its namesake. The 1600-square foot mural has come under attack recently for, to put it bluntly, political incorrectness, or a least insufficient political correctness for our enlightened, finicky times.
It’s unfair. Arnautoff carefully researched “this famous man, a committed defender of freedom” but did not shrink from depicting, albeit relatively subtly (in my opinion), ”the spirit of Washington’s time,” with its mistreatment of blacks and American Indians, abuses that customarily were glossed over by the myth-besotted patriots, and, indeed, just about everyone, eighty years ago. The current thinking holds that Washington was a slaveholder and hypocrite, and thus no liberator; a champion of Manifest Destiny (though the term did not exist until Madison’s presidency); and that this tarnished history is too damaging to high-school students of color—and maybe sensitive white kids, too? Several passionately intense protesters, clad in black, naturally, at the July 15 panel discussion on the murals at the ILWU labor hall in San Francisco even raised placards and repeatedly shouted “Genocide!” Theirs is an intemperate position, ill-suited to a general noted for his air of command and self-control; he was described by one contemporary as “no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.” Nor does it befit an artist who harbored strong leftist convictions, but politically astute, who knew how far it was possible to go when.across the continent, Nelson Rockefeller painted out Diego Rivera’s mural because of a portait of Lenin that the artist radamantly efused to remove. He had just the previous year counseled Bernard Zakheim, a prankish Coit Tower artist, not to include in his mural a sickle and hammer, in vain. “Freedom in America is understood in a special way.”Zakheim, later: “You were right, Mr. Arnautoff. I teased the bulls too much.”
Nevertheless, the San Francisco School Board decided on June 28, unanimously, on the nearly-unanimous advice of a thirteen-person advisory group, the Reflection and Action Working Group (RAWG), to have the murals “painted down,” erased, at an as-yet unknown cost, but probably requiring a $500,000 environmental-impact study, just for starters. Merely covering the mural with panels would cost an estimated $600,000 to $845,000. Another writer lists the panel cost at $825,000, with curtains costing up to $375,000; in either case, it’s way too much, and totally unnecessary. Arnautoff’s mural, says the board, “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. The mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.” “The majority of the group expressed that the main reason to keep the mural up at the school is focused on the legacy of the artist, rather than experience of the students, according to RAWG (I believe). “It’s reparations,” concluded one of the board members, perhaps as dazzled by the astronomical sum as any GOP lobbyist similarly working for a better, freer world. Those postmodernist-victim shopping lists and breathless condemnations, with the broadly inclusive, comical ‘etc.’ and poor syntax, constitute in no way a reparation; they constitute a sop to symbolic retribution, and the punitive eradication of a liberal statement irom the past is a colossal waste of money. (Can we impeach?) Columnists ranging from the San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic Charles Desmarais to —strange bedfellows in here!—art historian Brian T. Allen in National Review have weighed in for freedom of speech, the latter quite pointedly, outing by name all seven ‘brainiacs,’ ‘bohemian yahoos’ and ‘anti-art fools’ (whose identities I shall leave discreetly curtained, for now, noting that one of them proposed renaming the school, such was his scornful disregard for “the great George Washington,” to quote our ‘favorite president.’ Many of the school’s alumni and teachers along with hundreds of artists and educators oppose this artistic censorship, counseling either leaving the murals intact, and using them as educational tools (which is my position); or, if the anti-muralists insist on their pound of flesh, covering them (or the offending parts) with panels, at a much lower cost, and thus doing nothing irreversibly shameful, ignorant, and hypocritical, heaping national ignominy on the liberal, socialist shithole of San Francisco. Lope Yap. Jr., the sole RAWG dissenter, and vice president of the GWHS alumni association, as well as a progressive filmmaker and person of color, has pledged to fight to save the murals. Lawsuits and injunctions are probably in the offing. Stay tuned.
I have opposed political censorship before, as in the teapot tempest over Dana Schutz’s Emmitet Till painting (www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&aID=4029), and I try to be independent from art-world groupthink. L‘Affaire Arnautoff contains so many delicious absurdities that slipping into my Henry Fonda Man-of-Reason costume became mandatory. There are three salient points to make about this imbroglio.
First, let’s dismiss the notion that art should be judged on its politics (what it says or enjoins) instead of its aesthetics (how it looks, makes us feel). This is the old style-versus-content conundrum, which always seems to suggest that we have to make a choice between saving the world and savoring it; we don’t. Art is often enlisted in the service of power, as all good postmodernist children know: and some of the best art ever made was commissioned by plutocrats and/or scoundrels—the Medici, the Hanoverians, the Bourbons, the cardinals and popes, the dynasties, etc.—to enhance their power and prestige. Nowadays we enjoy the splendor of that art while ignoring the imperial or imperialist unpleasantnesses that paid the artists, and we absolutely should revere the art, despite the complexities of history and patronage. If you look at the Sistine Chapel and see only the massacred Indians of the New World, blood transmogrified into aesthetic gold and silver, you deprive yourself of “the greatest thing that’s ever been done,” in de Kooning’s humorously worshipful words; but if you don’t know the sordid history behind the wealth, or ignore it, you’re not a morallly sentient adult. (Michelangelo’s High Renaissance frescos, let it be noted, have survived even the Reformation addition of fig leaves by poor Daniele da Volterra, Il Braghettone, The Breeches-Maker.)
Much other art sidesteps current affairs—like Abstract Expressionism, with its focus on pure expression (and its contempt for the leftist propagandist art of the1930s: ”poor art for poor people,” in Arshile Gorky’s memorably dismissive aphorism), its cult of the heroic individual, easily co-opted to serve as propaganda for American-Way capitalism and consumerism. Rampant individualism vs creeping collectivism worked in the Cold War; expect a reprise (not a reprieve) again in 2020, bigly. Some artists manage to bestride both worlds: Philip Guston abandoned the elegant shimmering abstractions he made in the 1950s, loosely based on Monet, during the Vietnam-era 1960s and 1970s, in order to revisit the dark Klansman social commentary that he made in the 1930s. His stylistic epiphany and conversion from heavenly formalism—from “adjusting a red to a blue,” as he put it, later, wryly—to sinister/comic narratives like his excoriating drawings of scowling, scrotal Tricky Dick—evoked passionate reactions in the art congregation; he was assailed as a traitor by some, and as a visionary by others. Politically engaged art and fine art are both valid; and both produce good and bad art: propaganda on the one hand, decoration on the other.
As to actual treason, remember that, in the late 1940s, before Life magazine discovered Pollock the Cowboy, AbEx was seen not as red-blooded he-man stuff, but as the decadent, effete art of communists, eggheads, and other bearded, bereted subversives, who might be—who knows?—hiding military secrets in those blobs and squiggles. The McCarthyite Republican senator from Michigan, George Dondero, deserves exhumation:
"Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder... Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule... Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms". In 1952, Dondero went on to tell Congress that modern art was, in fact, a conspiracy by Moscow to spread communism in the United States. This speech won him the International Fine Arts Council's Gold Medal of Honor for "dedicated service to American Art." When art critic Emily Genauer (future winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism) interviewed Dondero in the mid-1950s he stated "modern art is Communistic because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, our material progress. Art which does not glorify our beautiful country in plain simple terms that everyone can understand breeds dissatisfaction. It is therefore opposed to our government and those who promote it are our enemies." When Genauer pointed out the resemblance between his views and those of the Stalinist Communists he despised, Dondero was so enraged that he arranged to have her fired from her job at the New York Herald Tribune. (Wikipedia)
Second, the mural is an excellent subject for education about art, culture, and politics. While some see Arnautoff’s “Life of George Washington” as a counter-myth or corrective to the semi-divine man-of-all-seasons status accorded Washington for two and a half centuries by ordinary Americans (as well as the Confederacy and American Bund fascists), I see it as a calculated correction by an artist who had learned to be discreet and modulated. Arnautoff was persona non grata in the USSR for decades because of his having fought on the White side of the Russian civil war; conversely, after his conversion to communism in the 1930s, during the San Francisco General Strike, he was investigated by the FBI for his links with Russia and his associations with visiting cultural figures and more ‘out’ communist artists like Diego Rivera,and other intellectuals in early 1930s Mexico City, all professed communists (as much as artists can be, anyway). Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert W. Cherny, repeatedly emphasized during his hotly disrupted ILWU slide talk that Arnautoff’s murals were in no way disrespectful to blacks and American Indians. On the Washington mural, he writes:
At a time when the popular portrayal of California Indians sometime still depicted them as ”diggers”– the most primitive and degraded of North American tribes–Arnautoff treated them with dignity, presenting the complex artistry of a woman’s basketry and the man’s fox-skin quiver. He also depicted the meeting of Indians and Spanish authorities as a meeting of equals, a sharp contrast to the depiction of that event in the citiy’s “Pioneer Monument” (1894), which shows an Indian groveling at the feet of a ranchero and priest. (p.103)
That monument was recently removed from Civic Center by the City of San Francisco, and deservedly so. Cherney continues:
Arnautoff said nothing, then or later, about his murals’ counter-narrative to that thenstandard high school treatment of the founding fathers and Western expansion. Washington dominates five of the six smaller murals but the centers of the four largest barrels are held by native Americans, working-class revolutionaries, and enslaved African Americans. In depicting Washington’s early life, Arnautoff centered the mural on native Americans in war paint, surrounded by British, colonial, and French troops and British colonists. In the facing mural, on the American Revolution, the center belongs to five men in working-class clothing raising the flagpole. VA’s portrayal of Mount Vernon puts Washington near the left margin in places enslaved African Americans at the center, More prominent the several white artisans on the right side of the mural.… Arnautoff’s’s mural makes clear that slave labor provided the plantations’ economic basis. On the facing wall Arnautoff was even more direct: the procession of spectral future pioneers moves west over the body of a dead Indian, challenging the prevailing narrative that westward expansion had been into largely vacant territory waiting for white pioneers to develop its full potential. For Arnautoff,”the spirit of Washington’s time” included not only the struggle for liberty and the founding of a new nation but also chattel slavery and the slaughter of Native Americans. (p.108)
The murals are indictments of America’s failings; they are not as dramatic or tragic as the Mexico City and Cuernavaca murals that Arnautoff helped Diego Rivera paint, full of armored, mounted conquistadores battling hand-to-hand with jaguar-costumed Aztecs wielding obsidian knives, or tortured, lashed Indians at the missions, and thus, they are more ambiguous in their sympathies to the casual viewer, unversed in art. They are on the side of the oppressed, however, while simultaneously giving Washington his due without sanctimoniously demonizing him for being of his time, not ours. As for the sentiment that Arnautoff’s rather soberly painted D.I., Dead Indian, has been traumatizing and triggering GWHS kids for eight decades, I would say that the very nickname is evidence to the contrary. (By the way, the Arnautoffs lived nearby, on 37th Avenue, and the two sons attended the school, as did a granddaughter who wanted to be near the murals.)
Thirdly and finally, the notion that adolescents are excessively delicate and need protection from reality and history in this way is deeply repugnant and patronizing. I shall not quote the anti-muralists, but even the most temperate of them seem to assume that Americans are not able to handle the inconvenient truth that people do bad things to other people in the names of God, justice and empire—or mere self-interest. Life is violent, you say? Take a look at American culture; Arnautoff’s stately mural, even with its hints of America’s dirty hands, is no rival for the breathless farrago of mass shootings and hypocritical, abusive drivel that bombards us, 24/7. Remember H.G. Wells’ bestial morlocks and elfin eloi in 802,701 AD The Time Machine? Given the challenges that we face today, we cannot afford a younger generation trained to accept virtuous passivity; we need revolutionaries with smarts and moxie, and considerable skill at critical thinking—not just being unthinkingly critical as instructed at the Two-minute Hate du jour.