San Francisco school is removing a ‘traumatizing’ George Washington mural.

The public mural features slaves and dead Native Americans.

One of the objectionable panels depicts a dead Native American. Dick Evans, CC BY

For nearly a century, a massive mural by painter Victor Arnautoff titled “The Life of Washington” has lined the hallways of San Francisco’s George Washington High School.

It may not be there much longer.

The mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy [and] oppression.” So said Washington High School’s Reflection and Action Group, an ad-hoc committee formed late last year and made up of Native Americans from the community, students, school employees, local artists and historians.

It identified two panels as especially offensive. One shows Washington pointing westward next to the body of a dead Native American. The other depicts slaves working in the fields of Mount Vernon.

Because the work “traumatizes students and community members,” the group concluded that “the impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was.” They are campaigning for its removal.

The idea that impact matters more than intention has informed debates about everything from microaggressions to cultural appropriation.

But when it comes to art, should impact matter more than intention?

As historians committed to preserving our cultural heritage – and as citizens invested in the power of art to engage the public – we see the growing chorus of voices favoring impact over intention as a dangerous trend, one that makes art more vulnerable to rejection, censorship or even destruction.

A radical work for its time

For most members of the Washington High School’s Reflection and Action Group, the only message “The Life of Washington” sends is one of crushing, dehumanizing oppression.

What happens, though, when we examine the mural in the context of the life and times of the artist?

Painter Victor Arnautoff was born in 1896 in a small village in present-day Ukraine. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1925, where he joined a leftist art collective. During the Great Depression he was a supporter of workers’ strikes and formally joined the Communist Party in 1937. He was even hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 for drawing a “Communist Conspiracy” cartoon that caricatured then-Vice President Nixon.

In “The Life of Washington,” Arnautoff decided to place Native Americans, African Americans and working-class revolutionaries front and center in the four largest panels, relegating Washington to the margins.

The slaves toiling in the Mount Vernon fields highlight a central paradox of America’s history: The nation was founded by men who championed liberty, freedom and equality, and yet owned slaves.

Then there’s the striking image of the fallen Native American. The mural’s detractors say that it dismisses the humanity of indigenous peoples. But why must it necessarily be read as dehumanizing to Native Americans? Could it not instead be seen as throwing into sharp relief the inhumanity of the founding fathers?

According to Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert W. Cherny, the image challenged the fallacy that “westward expansion had been into largely vacant territory waiting for white pioneers to develop its full potential.”

That the mural appears in a school is particularly important in this regard. For decades, the country’s educational institutions perpetuated national myths about American exceptionalism and American history as one long glorious march of forward progress. Up until the 1960s, the standard U.S. history curriculum ignored the country’s dark and terrifying history of racial violence, including enslavement and the slaughter of indigenous peoples. So drawing attention to the horrors inflicted on Native Americans and African Americans would have been a radical statement in 1930s America.

Many of those in favor of scrapping the murals seem to believe that merely depicting past atrocities justifies them. In fact, the Action and Reflection Group concluded that the mural contravened the San Francisco Unified School District’s commitment to “social justice.”

Quite to the contrary. In our view, the “Life of Washington” provides an invaluable opportunity for students to engage in a serious and sustained way with social justice issues. There’s a strong case to be made that Arnautoff is exposing – rather than celebrating – slavery and genocide. Moreover, those arguing for the mural’s removal are overlooking the fact that African Americans are not only portrayed as picking cotton and that Native Americans are not only depicted as victims of genocide. Rather Arnautoff is insisting that African Americans and indigeneous peoples were key historical actors in the making of the United States.

Only the latest controversy

The controversy over this mural is sadly not an isolated exception.

Over the past several years, there have been dozens of cases where plays, poems, books, prints, paintings, sculptures, installations and other creative works have been shut down, canceled, removed or otherwise censored based on snap judgments, social media swarms, ideologically motivated reasoning and obtuse interpretations of the art in question.

In all of these cases, there has been little to no regard for the aspirations, aims and ambitions of the artists themselves. Their intentions have been treated along a spectrum that runs from indifference to contempt.

To be clear, we are not saying that an artist’s intent is all that matters. How people interpret and respond to a work of art is inseparable from its raison d'etre.

But disregarding the intentions of artists would place every significant creative work with a whiff of controversy in jeopardy because of its “problematic” or “offensive” content. In a world where intentionality and context are irrelevant, satire and irony would not only be incomprehensible but forbidden.

Artist Kara Walker’s searing paper cuts depicting the horrific violence of slavery in the United States? Nothing more than a celebration of the white domination of black bodies. The pungent, explosive litany of racial slurs in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”? Just a vicious rehearsal of profoundly damaging ethnic stereotypes. Keegan-Michael Key’s brilliant sketch character Luther who serves as Obama’s “anger translator”? Simply a racist caricature of the “angry black man.”

What else becomes vulnerable to censorship?

Calls to censor “offensive” art by committees, petitions or the Twitterverse are especially dangerous. For every case of “righteous” censorship that removes works of art that are allegedly racist, sexist, homophobic and so on, there will be scores more censored on the grounds that they are anti-American or offensive to Christians.

As the American Library Association reports, the most frequently challenged and banned books are those that contain “diverse content” and include characters of color or address themes of sexuality, racism, religion, disability and mental illness.

Four out of the top 11 most challenged or banned books in 2018 were objected to on the basis of their LGBT content. “Two Boys Kissing” – a 2013 novel centered around the lives of seven gay teenagers – has made the American Library Association list for several years running, even though The Guardian described it as a “complex,” “intricate” novel “so extremely powerful [it] leaves you thinking long, long after you have finished reading it.”

Thinking long and hard, alas, is in short supply for members of the “we are not interested in the artist’s intentions” when the art offends us brigade. Ripping art from its context degrades our critical faculties and imprisons us in the present. It smacks of a literal-minded authoritarianism that assumes and indeed insists that a creative work can and must only be read in one way.

When people refuse to see the contradictions, tensions and ambiguities of art, it becomes disposable. Arnautoff’s detractors bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s warning that any time a spectator of art tries to “exercise authority over it and the artist,” he “becomes the avowed enemy of Art and of himself.”

It took Arnautoff almost a year to complete the mural, painstaking labor that could be erased with a single coat of paint. Not only would this outcome whitewash history, it would also deal a severe blow to our own capacity for creativity and critical thought.

is Associate Professor of History, Carleton College. is Associate Professor of Educational Studies, Carleton College.

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.
Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less