David and Art - "High School Mural"

May 13, 2019

When it’s embroiled in controversy, art can’t speak as loudly as the people who speak against it. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to it.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” tried to lower the unemployment rate through a vast and varied program of public works.  Along with construction jobs, the WPA also paid artists to decorate new public buildings. (more)

At George Washington High School in San Francisco, a Russian born artist named Victor Arnautoff was commissioned by the WPA to paint a historic mural at the school depicting the life of George Washington.  It was one of the largest and most significant WPA murals in the city.  And it’s there still.  For now.

Before he wound up in San Francisco as a New Deal painter, Arnautoff spent time in Mexico working as an assistant to renowned muralist Diego Rivera and joined the Communist Party.  Later in the 1950s he was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee because of his political ties. “As I see it,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle, “an artist is a critic of society.”  Consequently, he intended to his mural at the school to show clearly that the first President had a decidedly mixed legacy.

Students at the high school today aren’t interested in seeing a mixed legacy.  They want the mural gone because 2 of the 12 panels depict either Washington’s slaves working in the fields or a dead Native American, a casualty representing the westward expansion of the colonists. These were radical elements for an American history painter to include in 1936.  But that was then; This is now.  The President of the School Board says that while the decision is difficult, the whole mural needs to be either removed or painted over.  He described the images themselves as, in his words, “harmful,” and said students shouldn’t have to confront them at school.

Those opposed to the destruction of the work point out that A) it’s not a monument like a confederate statue; and B)  in line with the artist’s original intention, it’s hardly a one-sided celebration of Washington.

In the 1970s there was also controversy around the murals, but then the school responded by hiring an artist to paint a complementary piece, a large colorful mural called “multi-ethnic heritage.”  The artist was an African American named Dewey Crumpler and he’s still alive, still working, and is against the Washington Mural coming down.  “Human beings are complicated,” he says. “you can be genius and sick at the same time. You can hold two thoughts at the very same moment. You have to understand and teach the complications of these extraordinary realities, so that the contradiction isn’t covered up…”. No one has put it better.

But as is the case with so much else in our society, we don’t listen to artists too much about what they think should happen.  As for the future of the mural, stay tuned.