Who are Alison Collins, Faauuga Moliga, Mark Sanchez, Stevon Cook, Jenny Lam, Rachel Norton, and Gabriela Lopez? For starters, they’re the seven members of the Board of Education in San Francisco. These people just voted unanimously to destroy important 80-year-old wall murals in a public high school because they show George Washington, a dead Indian, and slaves. The murals, some said, glorify racism, genocide, Manifest Destiny, colonization, and white supremacy.
Victor Arnautoff (1896–1979) painted the 13 panel murals — covering 1,600 square feet — in 1936 for the just-built George Washington High School. They depict the life of Washington. They’re well done. Arnautoff was one of the best muralists employed by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA hired artists during the depth of the Depression to decorate public buildings. After he worked with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, he painted murals throughout America.
The murals don’t deify Washington. No cherry trees are cut down. Arnautoff presented to young minds the nuances and contradictions, the good parts and bad parts, of America’s founding history. Some of the board members conceded this but insisted that exposing students to nuances and contradictions might scare them or, worse, hurt their feelings. Overwhelmingly, students don’t want the murals destroyed. The school’s alumni association wants them to remain, too. I suspect many people in San Francisco agree.
Arnautoff presented a counternarrative. George Washington is a hero but a selfish, blinkered one. He owned slaves, freeing them when he died but, until then, enjoying their uncompensated labor. Washington’s America moved west, conquered Indian tribes, and there’s a big, dead Native American there to prove it.
Who are these people, these brainiacs on the school board? They’re idiots. Once in a blue moon — I know, I’m being colorist, but I’m an art historian — once in a blue moon, I miss the old 1950s country-club culture. I found almost everything about it to be abhorrent. It was sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, boozy, and social-climbing, but it had its uses.
Sometimes, in the old days, it was an effective forum for judgment.
Let’s say a trustee of a board, say, a board of a museum or even a member of, say, the local school board, voted to do something truly dumb — not corrupt since corruption is sinful, and that’s between a man and God — but idiotic, vain, untoward, or inelegant. Someone, at a cocktail party, usually a rich old lady, after the first passing of the drinks tray, would grab that trustee, and loudly proclaim (it’s a rhetorical question), “Aren’t you embarrassed?” Which means, “You’re a fool.” It’s called “the Truth that dare not speak its name.” It means there’s a certain shortage of critical thinking skills. That’s a big problem for a school-board member to have.
Alas, that culture is gone, a real loss since such moments were useful correctives. No trustee, no one bearing the public trust, wanted to be considered embarrassing or stupid, or a philistine, however much he might naturally wander down these dark little lanes. There’s law enforcement, and then there’s enforcement of standards, values, decorum, and good sense. Often it took those old WASP ladies to wither the vines of doltishness.
Evidently, in San Francisco, the bohemian yahoos run free. They even put them on the school board.
Arnautoff is a fascinating artist. He was the son of a Russian Orthodox priest and trained as as an artist until the outbreak of the First World War. During that war, he served as a cavalry officer in the Russian army. He was a witness, like Dr. Zhivago. He fought, first in the Russian army, later as a White Russian, lived in China after the Bolsheviks won, and came to the United States in 1925. He taught art at Stanford for years. Richard Diebenkorn was one of his students. He did the murals decorating Coit Tower in San Francisco. He was countercultural and fit in no box. When his Russian-born wife died in 1961, he retired from Stanford and returned to the Soviet Union. He never belonged to the Communist Party but considered himself a Trotskyite.
The board voted deliberately to destroy the murals. Covering them, which is what the staff recommended, wasn’t good enough. Someone might uncover them. Board member Mark Sanchez said that destroying them was worth the cost, estimated at as much as $825,000. “This is reparations.” I call it vindictive. It’s official vandalism.
And $825,000? I know everything is expensive in San Francisco, and it’s got to be a union job, but I’m a tightfisted Vermonter. Is that a good way to spend public money? Just think of all the copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” that would buy.
There is so much more that’s wrong with this. First of all, they’ve voted to deface good art. One of the reasons it’s good is that it’s complex and layered. The murals are not one-dimensional. They speak to us in different ways over time. New generations see new things. They stay relevant. People keep looking at them, and learning from them. That’s quality. This is an assault on quality, on nuance, on sophistication.
What about historic preservation? These murals are integral parts of a fine old pile of a school building. They start in the lobby of the school and cover the walls flanking the staircases. They’re an element in very good civic architecture.
Who are these people? This isn’t only about politics. It’s about psychology. They’re the same types who put the fig leaves on nudes. They’re the prigs who banned the books in Boston and the ones who burned books they didn’t like. They’re the ones who smashed medieval stained-glass windows in almost all English churches. They’re the ones who smashed shop windows on Kristallnacht or called challenging art “degenerate.” They’re the ones who ban campus speakers or shout down ideas they don’t lik so no one else can hear them. They’re hubristic, priggish, simple-minded, take-no-prisoners types. They’re anti-art.
I would propose this. If indeed these fine works of art are to be destroyed, each school-board member should arrive at the hour the work begins and personally apply that first lick of paint or plaster to cover them. And film it. I can guarantee that moment of self-righteous pride, of actual ownership of their vote, will quickly become a badge of shame.
And what about American history? To the local students’ credit, they want the murals to stay. They’re not afraid of history. They want to learn about it. And they don’t hate their country.
Who are these people? They’re Stevon Cook, Mark Sanchez, Alison Collins, Jenny Lam, Gabriela Lopez, Faauuga Moliga, and Rachel Norton. Cook’s the chairman. Oh, he’s the one who banned the Pledge of Allegiance from board meetings. They’re now reciting a bit of sugary gunk by Maya Angelou instead.
On behalf of good art, channel that old country-club lady. I’ll send them my article. Tell them what you think.