Among the many delights of San Francisco are its many historically important murals. The city boasts an impressive collection commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, including several painted by the renowned Diego Rivera.
Most of these WPA murals celebrate some aspect of the Golden State: industry, agriculture, nature, urban life. Many of the artists who created the murals also smuggled in some pointed political commentary: fields of produce and rolling hills planted with grapes symbolize California’s agricultural abundance, but so do dark skinned laborers, their backs arched in pain, their eyes, downcast. Clean cut men in lab coats and business suits stand beside productive factories, which belch smoke that fouls the air that gasping children breathe in a neighboring panel.
This tradition of mural painting became part of San Francisco’s culturally and politically progressive identity. The necessarily subtle criticism of the WPA murals yielded to more overt politics themes in murals painted throughout the 20th century. Today the city’s historically Mexican-American Mission District is famous for its many striking murals depicting scenes of local life, often with powerful countercultural, revolutionary and protest themes. Because the murals are integral parts of buildings, gentrification and insensitive redevelopment pose a constant threat to this legacy. But now some of San Francisco’s finest murals face an unlikely enemy: self-consciously—one might even say conspicuously—progressive politicians.
The George Washington High School in San Francisco is home to one of the largest collections of WPA murals on the West Coast, including 13 frescoes depicting the life of George Washington, painted as part of a WPA commission by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian immigrant and communist intellectual. True to his political commitments and to the tradition of subtly subversive WPA art, Arnautoff’s frescoes appear at first glance to celebrate Washington’s virtues and accomplishments but include subversive themes. A closer look reveals slaves working the fields outside Mount Vernon; Washington oversees the westward expansion while standing over the lifeless body of a Native-American.
One might worry that a politically conservative city would object to this less-than-flattering depiction of the father of our country. But San Francisco’s liberal politics, its reputation for cultural sophistication, and its many world class museums, should guarantee a receptive audience for the challenging, critical message the frescoes contain. Yet, the President of the San Francisco Board of Education, Stevon Cook, complains that the murals depict “violent images that are offensive to certain communities” and so wants to “remove” them from the school. He is joined by Paloma Flores, coordinator of the school’s Indian Education Program, who claims that the murals, “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people…” Anticipating the obvious rejoinder that the murals in fact do precisely the opposite, she insists that the artist’s “intent no longer matters.” Matt Haney, a former school board member and current member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors condemns the murals as “dehumanizing.” Joely Proudfit of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center insisted that the art should be destroyed if even one Native American student is “triggered” by it. The school district formed a group with the somewhat Orwellian name “The Reflections and Action Committee” to decide the fate of the murals. It voted 8-1 to do “remove” them (to be clear, this is euphemism for destroying them—the committee dissembles with the suggestion that they can be photographed and digitally archived) asserting, against all available evidence, that the art “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization . . . white supremacy, oppression . . .”
Does this willful misreading tell us anything about the current trend to rename or remove monuments associated with historical injustices? Yes and no. On the one hand, in cases of monuments to Confederate officers and the architects of imperial conquest, the contested monuments and laudatory names were in fact intended to celebrate imperialists and the defenders of slavery. They, unlike Arnautoff’s murals, arguably do glorify slavery and genocide. There may be no better way to repudiate the malignant ideology that justified these atrocities than to repudiate the symbols. Moreover, in most cases, there is no need to destroy a work of art in the process: flags can be redesigned and older versions archived, street and building names can be changed and monuments removed from places of honor and relocated to museums where they still can be viewed in the full historical context of the people they depict. There is sometimes reason to worry that in repudiating important figures of the past we ignore lost virtues as well as reject outdated prejudices. But the repudiation of malignant icons and old heroes who we now know to have been villains can be an indispensable part of the ongoing reimagination of the national community and revitalization of its shared values.
On the other hand, sometimes removing a monument or changing a street name is a cheap form of virtue signaling. Consider the frustrating dilemma of the San Francisco officials. Across the nation, the leaders of cities and colleges that are home to monuments that do indeed glorify slavery, genocide and oppression demonstrate their virtue and commitment to social justice by taking them down. But in San Francisco, where, given the political climate, such a demonstration would be irresistibly advantageous, there is no such low hanging fruit left—no monument to a Confederate General or building named after a slave trader. So our intrepid leaders must go where no one has gone before in search of less obvious opportunities for conspicuous righteous indignation. This is how a radically subversive work of art that retells the nation’s founding mythology by incorporating the cruelty of slavery and the brutality of genocide can somehow be apprehended as its opposite: a work that “glorifies slavery and genocide.” Those engaged in this misdirection must insist that the artist’s intent “no longer matters” because, ultimately, the art itself doesn’t matter either: the murals are simply an excuse for opportunistic virtue signaling by a gang of Philistines (no doubt I should expect indignant missives from San Francisco public officials on behalf of the Philistine-American community) in need of a ritual demonstration of ideological purity.
To make the destruction of challenging art appear to be virtuous, these would-be Savonarolas pose as the saviors of a class of oppressed students traumatized by the original sin their ancestors suffered. But this trauma, if that is what it is (the students themselves seem overwhelmingly to favor keeping the murals intact) is unavoidable if we are ever to reckon with our past. It is no more justifiable to destroy art and whitewash history in order to spare the feelings of black and brown children than it is to do so to spare the feelings of white children, as, to their discredit, schools have done for generations by offering a sanitized version of history, where the agricultural bounty of the American south is extolled without reference to the stolen labor of kidnapped Africans and in which the settlement of the North American continent is referred to as a bloodless “pushing back” of the indigenous population.
Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon Reed—the celebrated historian who discovered the sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings—has argued forcefully against this kind of therapeutic amnesia. When Harvard Law School discovered that its shield was modeled on the family crest of Isaac Royall, a slaveowner who helped establish the school in 1817, many demanded that the school abandon the shield—as it did in 2016. Reed was one of the few who argued that Harvard should keep the shield—not to lionize Royall but to acknowledge the people who truly helped build Harvard Law School: “the enslaved at the Royall Plantation and the graduates of Harvard Law School should always be tied together . . . [we should be] constantly reminded of from whence that money came. . .” Reed proposed a more challenging and uncomfortable approach to symbols of historical injustice; she insisted that we have a duty to confront our history rather than to repudiate it. She addressed the problem of trauma head on and with admirable moral clarity: “It is clear that, for many, there is great discomfort—disgust even—at the thought of looking at the Harvard shield and having to think of slavery . . . [but] people should have to think of slavery when they think of the Harvard shield . . . [although] being required to do that will provoke strong and unpleasant feelings . . . it is vital to learn how to govern strong and unpleasant feelings [for] purposes outside of . . . (and even more important than) one’s personal feelings.”
One can sympathize with the desire to ensure that people of color are comfortable in institutions that have not always welcomed them. And one might object that grade school children are too young for the severe discipline Professor Reed advocates, that they should be sheltered from the ugliness that the Arnautoff’s murals powerfully depict. But the San Francisco Board of Education—like Harvard Law School—should at least be honest about what they are keeping students from seeing and why. If San Francisco destroys the Arnautoff murals, it is not to protect children from work that “glorifies slavery” or that “dehumanizes” the oppressed but from art that unflinchingly confronts slavery and oppression—art that is designed to make us uncomfortable. They are hiding the unvarnished truth about how this country acquired its wealth and territory—a truth that all Americans, regardless of race, have a responsibility to reckon with; wealth and territory that all Americans now enjoy.
Avoiding this truth may help some students feel better about their school and their country and it may help some public officials feel better about themselves. But it will repudiate, not the injustices of the past, but a powerful act of resistance to those injustices. One wonders what the San Francisco officials would do if the similarly disturbing art of Diego Rivera graced the halls of one of its schools. Would they destroy it? Or does a narrowminded and regimented identity politics account for their refusal to acknowledge and celebrate the contribution of a depression era Russian immigrant to the struggle for American racial and social justice—as if only black and brown people have a stake in repudiating the evils of slavery and racist imperialism? Ironically, erasing Arnautoff’s murals—done in the name of multicultural sensitivity—will rob today’s students and future generations of a vivid example of multicultural politics at its best: an expression of collective responsibility for our shared history.