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When art offends

One of the 13 murals that make up “The Life of Washington,” at George Washington High School in San Francisco.Jim Wilson/The New York Times

George Washington is a deeply mythologized figure in US history, so you can see how a work of art depicting him as a slaveholder and architect of a genocidal expansion policy might be controversial. And indeed a mural in a San Francisco high school, painted in 1935 by a prominent Depression-era artist, has ignited a blaze of criticism.

The mural depicts scenes in the life of Washington, for whom the high school is named. Painted by the Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff and rendered in the Social Realist style of the era, the mural includes one panel showing Washington at Mount Vernon being attended by his slaves, and another, titled “Westward Vision,” that depicts Washington directing a group of frontiersmen stepping over the body of a dead Native American. Howard Zinn himself couldn’t have found better material to illustrate his leftist critique of American history.


A motion to dismantle the entire 13-panel mural is being considered by the San Francisco United School District, which could vote as early as next month. Several public officials, including the school board’s president, want the work destroyed or, at minimum, covered over. But opposition to the mural is not coming from self-styled patriots offended that it besmirches Washington’s reputation. Rather, the challenge is mostly from residents and some students who find the work’s iconography demeaning to oppressed minorities, and perhaps triggering trauma in students who confront it. “We’ve heard again and again from people who feel offended by it, hurt by it, and who feel less safe and supported in our schools as a result of it,” testified Matt Haney, a district city supervisor and former school board member.

The feelings of students and others who are disturbed by the mural are real and should be respected. But you don’t have to read too deeply into Arnautoff’s work to see it was meant as a subversive counter-narrative to the whitewashed history that prevails in most high schools even today. Arnautoff was a committed leftist who was hounded during the McCarthy era, interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and nearly fired from his teaching post at Stanford for his views. To have his work expunged because it now offends the very groups whose painful stories he wanted kept alive is beyond ironic.


The controversy over the mural is part of the current cultural reckoning that is reconsidering everything from Confederate statues to school mascots. But it also highlights a tension between intent and effect that complicates these discussions. It’s clear Arnautoff didn’t mean to offend contemporary Native American or African-Americans with his murals. But often today intent is immaterial; effect is all. In February, a special “Reflection and Action Group” the school committee appointed to consider the controversy said the mural had to go, simpy declaring that it “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.”

No, it doesn’t. Depicting something is not the same as exalting it; see Picasso’s “Guernica” for just one example.

Arnautoff used a fresco technique that mixes pigments right into the plaster; it likely cannot be moved — say, to a museum — without destroying it. So why not seize the teachable moment? Have assemblies to discuss shifting interpretations of American history through different perspectives. Add educational panels that explain and amplify the context. Offer alternative visions, as indeed the school did in 1974 when it commissioned African-American artist Dewey Crumpler to paint a series of responding murals, showing the achievements of black, Asian, Latino, and Native Americans. (Not incidentally, Crumpler opposes removing the Arnautoff work.)


Earlier this year the Museum of Natural History in New York City received complaints that a 1930s-era diorama depicting a meeting between New York’s Colonial governor, Peter Stuyvesant, and the Lenape Indians was inaccurate and clichéd. Rather than remove or bowdlerize the exhibit, curators added 10 labels correcting the record and explaining why the original images were demeaning. “We could have just covered it over,” the museum’s vice president for exhibition, Lauri Halderman, told The New York Times. “What was actually more interesting was not to make it go away but to acknowledge that it was problematic.”

Precisely. The impulse to deny or deflect uncomfortable truths — especially among educators — should worry everyone, regardless of ideology. Destroying part of our cultural legacy because it is painful to look at is just another kind of whitewash.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.