Whitewashing History?

It’s easy to remove works of art when people are offended by them. But how does erasing depictions of our history help us?

  
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In the mid-1930s, Russian-born muralist Victor Arnautoff was commissioned by the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project to paint a series of frescoes at sites around the San Francisco Bay Area. One of his more ambitious undertakings covered 1,600 square feet of wall space inside the lobby and stairwells of George Washington High School, depicting scenes from Washington’s life as a military leader and statesman. Parts of the work portray a slaughtered Native American and enslaved African-Americans, which Arnautoff — a Communist whose art was an outgrowth of his activism — deliberately foregrounded.

Whatever his intentions at the time, Arnautoff is now at the center of a heated controversy among students, parents and community members, some of whom find the images traumatizing and want them “painted over” or removed. Host Amna Khalid spoke with those on both sides of the issue, equally passionate and resolute. She brings us the story.

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ALLISON COLLINS: A Native American that is dead on a wall and having people walk over him? That has cultural significance.

DR. JOELY PROUDFIT: Enough is enough. Stop with the racism, stop with the dehumanization, stop with the genocidal artwork. Not in our public schools.

COLLINS: That painful history is not something that needs to be consistently in children’s faces.

JOHN LEARNED: Hey, as hard as those things are to look at, that's what really happened. There’s Indians that want to tell their history, they want people to know what happened.

AMNA KHALID: This is a story of a painting — “Life of Washington,” by Russian artist Victor Arnautoff. It hangs on the walls of a high school in San Francisco. And I say walls because it’s actually 13 separate paintings covering 1600 square feet. It’s a series of vivid and sometimes violent vignettes from George Washington's life. The first panel is of Washington in his 20s. Later on, a scene from the French and Indian War. The Boston Tea Party. Winter at Valley Forge. Surrender at Yorktown.

There are members of the community who find some of these images disturbing. Even traumatizing. One painting shows colonists walking past a Native American, dead on the ground. Another is of enslaved African-Americans on Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon. Many students want the murals ... gone.

Of course, it’s not that simple. First, there’s a logistical problem: these are frescoes, which means they were applied directly onto the wet plaster of the walls. But the bigger problem is philosophical: Should we remove the art? Because there are just as many who want these frescoes to stay exactly where they are — where they’ve been since 1936 — forcing us to confront the atrocities of America’s founding for nearly a century. But do they really belong… in a high school?

I’m Amna Khalid, and this is Banished.

How do we reckon with painful reminders of past sins? What responsibility do we have to shield our children — or adults for that matter — from material that they find offensive? What do we do about paintings and ideas, even people, that we now find unacceptable? Do we just cancel them? What does that even mean? In the case of one high school in San Francisco, it might mean destroying art.

TRACY BROWN: The mural depicts violence and triggers emotional trauma, creating an unsafe environment which may get in the way of student learning.  This mural has had no teaching significance ...

AMY ANDERSON: The depiction of indigenous warriors attacking white soldiers, who stand with the arms raised in surrender, erases the reality that George Washingtion ordered all-out war without diplomacy against indigenous peoples.

TRONG: This mural is not teaching students about the history of slavery and indigenous genocide under George Washington or other settlers. Instead it is teaching students to normalize violence and death of our Black and indigenous communities. Paint it down.

AK: Those are the voices of parents and students pleading with the San Francisco school board to paint over the mural. On social media, the movement is called “hashtag paint it down.” One of the women you heard was Amy Anderson. She’s an indigenous mother whose son was in 10th grade at the time. Here she is, again before the school board, on the image of the dead warrior face down on the ground.

ANDERSON: The size and placement of the deceased American Indian warrior creates in me a deep sadness for the millions of indigenous people who were killed by forced assimilation or all-out war. With the signers of the U.S. Constitution, George Washington stands beside the fallen warrior, but not a single eye is diverted in his direction. There is no remorse for his death. And students and staff who are rushing to beat the bell breeze past this every day.

AK: In June, 2019, the school board voted to paint over the murals. The total cost, including a lengthy environmental impact review, would run to about three quarters of a million dollars.

PROUDFIT: My name is Dr. Joely Proudfit. I am Luiseño Payómkawichum. I am the director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State San Marcos and the chair of the American Indian Studies Department at Cal State San Marcos.

AK: Dr. Proudfit applauded the Board’s decision. She says the murals are from the perspective of European invaders, they are simply inaccurate and that they are dangerous.

PROUDFIT: These false and harmful images do a number on our self-esteem and especially the self-esteem and the aspirations of our young people, especially our children. It reinforces negative stereotypes about non-native people. It keeps us in the past as a people that has been defeated or conquered in some capacity. It internalizes biases, stereotypes, misunderstandings, ignorance, furthers this notion of manifest destiny and colonization.

AK: Interpreting art is obviously subjective. We could argue for years, and we have, over what these paintings are communicating. But perhaps a good place to start is with the artist himself. Do we have any idea of what Victor Arnautoff intended when he painted these murals?

CHERNY: Arnautoff was living at a time when people on the left were very conscious of the oppression of people of color and wanted to dramatize that.

AK: Robert Cherny is the author of Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.

CHERNY: And you see that in the four largest murals, he is centering people who were often being either ignored or actively erased. You know, the French and Indian wars mural puts a Native American in the center, the Revolutionary War puts working people in the center, Mount Vernon plantation puts enslaved Black people in the center and the settlement of the West puts a dead Native American in the center.

AK: In centering the dead Native American, Arnautoff is critiquing fellow artists of the time, who portrayed colonization as worthy, even laudable.

CHERNY: The white settlers are always painted in a fashion that makes it clear that they are being celebrated by the artist, that the artist is celebrating the settlement of the West by white men and women who are taking over empty territory. Arnautoff is breaking with that pattern to show that the white settlers were moving into territory that they had acquired by war, that they had acquired by killing the original inhabitants.

AK: If those were Arnautoff’s intentions when he painted these murals, they haven’t always been interpreted that way. They first became controversial back in the 1960s, when Black students at the school started demanding more positive representations of African-Americans on the walls.

Now what’s interesting is that the solution at that time was not to cover the murals, but to add even more art. The school commissioned a young Black artist named Dewey Crumpler to paint response murals. He would depict the historic struggles of African Americans, Native Americans and other minorities. Crumpler still lives in the Bay Area, and remembers that when he took the job he had one condition.

CRUMPLER: I would only make the mural if they left that mural in place because Arnautoff was trying to expose a history that should be told and understood, even though he knew that the imagery was not easy imagery. He wanted to tell a truth about the contradiction of a Founding Father who signed a document that said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.”

He and those other signers of the Great Document, and it is a great document, while standing on the neck, while standing on the neck of African peoples who are under his boot, laying on the ground that belongs to the millions of Native Americans who also have died, shed blood, fighting for their right to their space.

AK: There are certainly many Native Americans who agree with Dewey Crumpler that the murals are painful, but they are truthful and should remain. Robert Tamaka Bailey is a Choctaw elder who told me that these paintings are imbued with deep layers of symbolism and meaning. You just have to know where to look.

BAILEY: And that’s the first thing that I saw in this one particular mural that had the dead native in it. If you looked in the bottom right hand corner, there's a chief that's sitting there handing a peace pipe over to a settler with his tomahawk behind the back of the settler. That’s the ways of the white man. What they did is they got us to lay our weapons down, came to us, try to make treaties, and then they took. They broke the treaty. What was pointed out to me later that I didn't notice was there's a tree right behind the chief, and if you looked at it, the branch is broken. Arnautoff was conveying there the broken treaties. And when I saw the images of the settlers stepping over the dead bodies of the native in gray — it's the only pictures of all of ’em that was not colored, it was in gray — I immediately thought, here's the gray area of what we're being taught about George Washington.

AK: John Learned, of the Cheyenne Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, is another Native elder who wants these murals to stay. He sees them as a unique opportunity to remember and to address history.

LEARNED: Unfortunately, it was a dark time for American Indians and that, that mural really has an opportunity to tell the story. And I think it'd be great if they, if they added that to their curriculum there in, in California to talk about what the United States and the state of California and the eradication efforts that they took to wipe out American Indians. When you get rid of something, it's gone. It’s finished. You're not talking about it and this mural in California has an opportunity to talk about the history.

AK: I asked Dr. Proudfit, the professor at Cal State, what she would say to those Native Americans who are in favor of keeping the murals.

PROUDFIT: It's like saying, well, we talked to some African-American folks and you know what, they're OK with the N-word so we're gonna go ahead and use it. No, no, no. And let me tell you how disingenuous the people who want to keep up these murals have been. They have gone so far as to go out of state, find some Native Americans, or self-defined Native Americans that agree with keeping these murals up. But you know what they don't do? They don't listen to the very people whose lands they are on who are opposed to it. And while, yes, not all of us think exactly alike. The majority, and we have ample evidence, when our own national associations like the APA, like the ASA, like Illuminative, have done national surveys to find that these types of images are harmful to us, take our majority word for it. It is inappropriate and we would not allow for this type of racist antics and imagery for any other population.

AK: I looked at the surveys that Dr. Proudfit cited. The images that Native Americans were asked about, and that many actually found harmful, were of sports Mascots and other caricatures. They had nothing at all to do with the kind of artistic renditions in the murals.

The evidence that I did find of what some Native Americans think about Arnautoff’s murals was from February, 2021. A group of Native American leaders from across the country wrote to the school board protesting the decision to cover the murals. The paintings, they concluded, should be used as educational tools.

Of course, there is also the argument that this kind of art simply does not belong on the walls of a high school. Again, Dr. Proudfit.

PROUDFIT: This is a public school that should provide safe working and learning environments for all students, not simply just native students, but all students. And so these harmful effects, these stereotypical harmful toxic narratives hurt not only native students, but non-native students who are still learning or have yet to learn about the original nations and people of this land. We would not tolerate this for any other population. What if George Washington High School had images painted by someone who's trying to depict dead Jewish people at the hands of Nazis. Do you think that would be okay to have those images up in a public school?

AK: But hang on. Isn’t that part of being a student — contending with deplorable, even distressing, truths? That’s how Dewey Crumpler sees it.

CRUMPLER: Let me just say that the most important place for young people to confront difficulty is in high school, just before you get into the world. So a young person seeing difficult imagery, that's a perfect opportunity for teaching. Okay, you're not going to read Huckleberry Finn because of some words. They're offensive. I was offended by them. But, if it's in the world, it's for me. If it's in the world, I have a right to it. I have a right to know it. I have a right to experience it, and it's my youth that helps prepare me for it, even though it will be problematic. That's how we learn to overcome the difficulties.

CHERNY: I think we can probably assume that Arnatouff wanted them to be a bit disturbed.

AK: Robert Cherny, the author of the book about Arnautoff, says that Arnautoff was deliberate in placing the murals. He wanted them to be precisely where they are, in the lobby and stairwells of a public high school.

CHERNY: He wanted them to confront the reality that the settlement of the West had come at an enormous cost to the original inhabitants of the West. He said that it was expansion by war and peace, that he wanted the students to confront the fact that they were living in a place that had been taken from the first people by force. I think that Arnautoff wanted them to be troubled by the image that he was presenting there. He wanted them to be disturbed, I don't think he was trying to traumatize them or offend them, he was trying to get them to think.

AK: But what about the fact that now we're in different times, maybe if he was alive today, he'd be part of, you know, people on the left who are campaigning for the rights of people of color, and that's perhaps what he was doing then. But now we know the history. How would you respond to people who say: Well, this may have been all well and good and revolutionary and wonderful when he painted them, but we have moved on and we no longer need these murals.

CHERNY: Well, do we ever need art at all? I mean, there's a really big question here. If we disagree with something in the past, do we just erase it and pretend it never happened? You know, that's what Arnautoff was in fact objecting to in the way he presented his art. He was objecting to the erasure of people of color. He was objecting to the erasure of slavery and genocide. And if we say that, okay, maybe his intent was okay, but his intent is irrelevant, and therefore we have to just erase him and his art. I find that really very troubling because we, we’re not learning from it in that case. To me, the purpose of art, any art, is to make you think. And if it is purely decorative, it's not art, it's decoration. And I think that if we are going to ban art that makes you think because someone might be offended by thinking about those topics, then, you know, our culture is going to be a very sad one, I'm afraid. I hope I never see that.

AK: In 1935, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interview with Victor Arnautoff. He told the paper: “As I see it, the artist is a critic of society.” What Arnautoff could not have foreseen was that decades later, society would become a critic of the artist.

The longer I think about this issue, the more I find myself wondering, why must the solution be reduced to only two options: cover the murals OR let them stay up? Can’t we come up with a more creative solution? How about keeping the murals up and contextualizing them? Well it turns out, Dewey Crumpler suggested exactly this decades ago when he painted his response murals. He asked the school board to put up explanatory plaques alongside Arnautoff’s artwork, much the way museums do.

CRUMPLER: Every generation is different. They confront new issues, and therefore you have to give them information, otherwise they will misunderstand all the implications and symbolisms that are all over those murals. Whether it's Arnautoff or my mural in the future, unless something is done to explain them, to make them clear, this will crop up again.

AK: As it stands, these murals are devoid of any signposts that tell us where we are and what they might mean.

CRUMPLER: Those murals have to be contextualized. And when you are young, everything looks larger than it is. When I saw those murals in 1966, I was incensed by them and they looked huge. When I came back to engage them, they were much smaller. And I’d come to understand profoundly why he used those images. In fact, one of the people who had been most vociferous about taking those walls down, once he, like me, had graduated from college, he apologized to me: “Mr. Crumpler, I really appreciate what you painted. I appreciate those murals greatly, but if I understood what Arnautoff was doing, I would’ve never done what we did.”

He couldn't have come to that realization if I had joined them and said, “Yes, let's tear this shit down. And when we tear it down, I'll paint over every bit of it.” Because they would have been prepared to do that, but the foresight of the board, because they were not going to permit this painting to be destroyed. And it was very important to all those board members and people who had been trained in the notion and understanding of art. But this new cohort of people, they're not trained in the arts, they don't really have that same sense of the importance of an artistic work.

I tried to create a worthy dialogue but of course, once I had made that mural, the school board relaxed and they didn't do what I said at the dedication they should do. You have to use those murals as teaching tools and you have to put plaques next to them that explain them.

AK: To my mind, that is the smartest solution. High school, where children are becoming adults, isprecisely the place where they need to confront troubling ideas. I asked Dr. Proudfit whether contextualizing Arnautoff’s murals by putting up written explanations might be a way forward.

PROUDFIT: A public high school is not the place for that conversation, we are not at that point and we are far from that point. And the analysis or the example you just gave of the promise that was made 50 years ago, 60 years ago, and that that promise has went unmet, American Indians know about broken promises. We're very familiar with broken promises. This is a safety issue. This is a health and wellness issue. Okay, so if that means you take those walls out and you put them in storage until, I don't know, 10, 20, 30, 40, whenever people want to get around to telling the truth, and telling the truth from all sides, then maybe they can be brought out and have that discussion. But I would make a point to say that public high schools are not that place because we don't have the capacity, the information, the people, the structure to have those conversations. And so while that's a noble and nice idea, we are so far from that. And no, we don't believe that that will happen given the 50 years of lies.

AK: Mark Sanchez is a member of the San Francisco school board. He says that, sadly, Dr. Proudfit is right, that the school will likely never put up these plaques.

SANCHEZ: I don't have a lot of faith that that will happen, even if that's what the board decided to do.

AK: Why? You have faith that something that hasn't been removed for so long, has stayed on the walls, now there is faith that we can remove it. Why not have faith that we can actually use it and teach it, which is what an educational institution is about?

SANCHEZ: Given the history of that school and the trajectory of what's happening at that school, I don't believe that they would be able to do that.

AK: So, tell me, the school will actually be able to paint over these huge murals, but they won't be able to put up plaques contextualizing it.

SANCHEZ: I don't believe that they would, no.

AK: And why is that?

SANCHEZ: Well, they've had how many decades to do that?

AK: But is that a reason to destroy something then?

SANCHEZ: I don't believe that the school has the wherewithal or the gumption to move in that direction, to use that piece of art as an educational tool.

AK: It boggles the mind why the school board refuses to explain these murals, an initiative that would cost mere pennies compared to the three quarters of a million dollars needed to paint over the artwork. Why can’t these public school officials find a creative solution that simultaneously preserves the art, acknowledges hurt feelings and uses these murals as educational tools? I find myself wondering, is this controversy a symptom of something larger that plagues our society? Are our core values so fundamentally divergent that our differences can no longer be bridged?

It’s easy to remove works of art when people are offended by them. At times, it can even feel like the humane thing to do. But we must ask ourselves: How does erasing depictions of our history truly help us?

CRUMPLER: To me, to destroy Arnautoff's mural would be to destroy truth.

AK: We still don’t know how this particular controversy will ultimately play out. The alumni association has a lawsuit pending to preserve these murals. What we do know is that there are countless other works of art, many in public places, awaiting their own public outcry. Once more, Dewey Crumpler.

CRUMPLER: Censorship and cancel culture is all around us. That's why art has to be free to do its work, even though it can make individuals very upset and angry. It's a worthy subject that an inanimate object can actually do something to a human being, can make a human being think, can make a human being angry. But the point is you have to work your way through it. Working your way through it is the point of life itself.

AK: Who gets a voice in the telling of a story and who gets left out? Why do certain words, ideas and even people get canceled? What does the use of such strategies to silence tell us about our times and our society? These are the issues we’ll be exploring throughout this year on Banished.

If you’d like to see photographs of the “Life of Washington” murals and Dewey Crumpler’s response murals, visit our website BooksmartStudios.org. And if you’d like to hear more of our conversation with Dewey Crumpler and other exclusive content, please consider becoming a paying subscriber to Booksmart Studios.

I’d like to thank Lope Yap and Peta Cooper for all their help with today’s episode. Banished is produced by Matthew Schwartz and Mike Vuolo. N’Dinga Gaba and Chris Mandra mixed the audio. If you have any thoughts about today’s episode, please leave us a comment at BooksmartStudios.org.

This is Banished. I’m Amna Khalid.