Published on

'Gross Violation of Logic and Sense': Open Letter From Nearly 140 Scholars Implores SF School Board Not to Destroy Historic Mural

"Let's stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation, and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present."

The San Francisco Board of Education voted to paint over the mural, located in George Washington High School in San Francisco. (Photo: Tammy Aramian/George Washington High School Alumni Association)

After the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously voted to paint over a Depression-era mural cycle depicting George Washington as a slaveholder and perpetrator of genocide against Native Americans, 139 academics, artists, and activists signed an open letter this week decrying the board's decision as a "display of contempt for history" and urging it to reverse course.

"In a recent vote, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to destroy the murals," reads the letter, which is expected to be delivered Friday to the San Francisco school board. "To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense."

"The undersigned oppose the school board's decision and the wrong-headed approach to art and to history that lie behind that decision. We urge the school board to reverse its decision and take all reasonable steps to preserve the mural and to teach it as a work of art and as a representation of our history."
—open letter

Located in San Francisco's George Washington High School, the 1,600-square foot mural was painted by Russian-born immigrant and communist Victor Arnautoff in 1937 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

As the Associated Press described the mural, "The first president's rise to power is shown across 13 frescoes, including one that depicts slaves working on Washington's property and white men stepping past the body of a slain Native American."

The work has been a source of heated controversy for decades, with some students and activists characterizing it as an offensive and racist portrayal of Native and African Americans. Others have said the mural has historical value and should be preserved, but is not appropriate for a public high school.

The San Francisco school board said it plans to archive the mural in digital form.

"No one has the right to tell us as native people—or our young people who walk those halls everyday—how they feel," Paloma Flores, the San Francisco school district's Native American education program coordinator, said during a hearing on the mural last month. "You're not in those shoes."

But the George Washington High School Alumni Association expressed opposition to destruction of the paintings in a statement earlier this year, saying the murals "should be preserved for their artistic, historical, and educational value."

"There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide," the association said. "Whitewashing them will simply result in another 'whitewash' of the full truth about American history."

Speaking to the AP on the controversy, Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography and director of the "Living New Deal" project at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that Arnautoff's mural was specifically conceived and painted to show the "uncomfortable facts" about Washington's life and legacy.

Though not a signatory to the open letter, Walker also opposes the mural's destruction.

"We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal," he told AP, adding that destroying a piece of art "is the worst way we can deal with historic malfeasance, historic evils."

In their open letter, the scholars and activists deploring the school board's decision argue that the "meaning and commitments" of Arnautoff's work "are not in dispute."

"It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the U.S. history of racism and colonialism," the letter reads. "The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists."

"Let's set aside the question of the voices calling for the murals' destruction and their authority to speak for the communities they claim as their own," the letter continues. "What remains is a mistake in the way we react to historical works of art—ignoring their meaning in favor of our feelings about them—and a mistake in the way we treat historical works of art—using them as tools for managing feelings, rather than as objects of interpretation."

"Let's stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation," the letter adds, "and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present."

Read the full open letter, originally posted to Nonsite.org, below:

Open Letter on the Proposed Destruction of a Mural Cycle

A Federal Art Project mural cycle of thirteen panels devised and painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936 in a San Francisco high school portrays George Washington as a slave owner and as the author of Native-American genocide. It is an important work of art, produced for all Americans under the auspices of a federal government seeking to ensure the survival of art during the Great Depression. Its meaning and commitments are not in dispute. It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the U.S. history of racism and colonialism. The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists.

Now, however, activists including a number of students are seeking the destruction—not the concealment or contextualization—of the mural. The reasons they give—in public comment, in interviews, in the board's statements—are various, but they all depend on rejecting the objective analysis of historical exploitation and colonial violence the mural offers and replacing it with activists’ valorization of their experiences of discomfort with the imagery and the authorship of the murals. On this account, a Russian immigrant cannot denounce historical wrongs by depicting them critically. On this account, only members of the affected communities can speak to such issues and only representations of history that affirm values they approve are suitable for their communities. On this account, representing historical misdeeds is degrading to some members of today's student body. In a recent vote, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to destroy the murals. To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense.

Let's set aside the question of the voices calling for the murals' destruction and their authority to speak for the communities they claim as their own. What remains is a mistake in the way we react to historical works of art—ignoring their meaning in favor of our feelings about them—and a mistake in the way we treat historical works of art—using them as tools for managing feelings, rather than as objects of interpretation. Let’s stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation, and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present.

The undersigned oppose the school board's decision and the wrong-headed approach to art and to history that lie behind that decision. We urge the school board to reverse its decision and take all reasonable steps to preserve the mural and to teach it as a work of art and as a representation of our history. We oppose this display of contempt for history.

To hear public comment preceding the board's vote, follow this link.  (Discussion of the mural begins about ten minutes into the recording.)

At the end of the week, we will send this letter and list of signatories to the board members of the SFUSD. To add your signature, e-mail your name and institutional affiliation (if desired) to SanFranciscoMuralOutrage@yahoo.com

Signed,

Thomas J. Adams, University of Sydney

Bridget Alsdorf, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University

Jennifer Ashton, English Department, University of Illinois at Chicago

Jerry August, Los Angeles Unified School District

Leslie Bary, University of Louisiana

Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry

Jennifer Bethke, Department of Art and Art History, Sonoma State University

Elizabeth Bishop, Université d’Oran 2 Mohamed Ben Ahmed

Michele Bogart, Stony Brook University

Cale Brooks, NYC Democratic Socialists of America Medicare for All campaign

Nicholas Brown, Departments of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

Joanna Bujes, SIG Docs, San Francisco

Stephen Campbell, Department of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University

Michael Cavadias, actor, writer, NYC-DSA Citywide Leadership Committee

Sarah Cate, Department of Political Science, Saint Louis University

Bi-Ling Chen, University of Central Arkansas

Robert W. Cherny, emeritus, San Francisco State University

Merlin Chowkwanyun, Columbia University

Kevin Chua, Texas Tech University

Nicholas Copeland, Virginia Polytechnic Institute

Todd Cronan, Art History Department, Emory University

Michael Davis, emeritus, University of California, Riverside

Bindu Desai, M.D., Albany, Calif.

Martha Louise Deutscher

Eugenio Di Stefano, Foreign Languages & Literature, University of Nebraska, Omaha

Geert Dhondt, Department of Economics, John Jay College, CUNY

Jed Dodd, Vice President, BMWED-Teamsters

Madhu Dubey, Departments of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago

Jacob Edwards, Tulane University

Robert Eshelman-Håkansson, Columbia Journalism School

Sarah Evans, School of Art and Design, Northern Illinois University

Liza Featherstone, The Nation and Jacobin, New York University and Columbia University

Michael Fiday, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati

Carlos Figueroa, Ithaca College

Anne-Lise François, University of California, Berkeley

Amy Freund, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University

Michael Fried, emeritus, Johns Hopkins University

Amber A’Lee Frost, writer and journalist

Judith K. Gardener, Chicago, Ill.

Joy Garnett

Sarah Gleeson-White, Department of English, University of Sydney

Hon. Ruth Y. Goldway, ret. chair and commissioner, U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, former mayor, Santa Monica, Calif.

Marie Gottschalk, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Steven Hahn, New York University

John Halle, composer and pianist

Theodore Hamm, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jonathan Harwitz, Low Income Investment Fund

David Harvey, Graduate Center, CUNY

Charles Hatfield, University of Texas at Dallas

Andrew Hemingway, emeritus, Department of the History of Art, University College London

Andrew Hsiao, Verso Books

Forrest Hylton, Ciencia Política, Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Sede Medellín

William Issel, San Francisco State University

Anton Jäger, Cambridge University

Cedric G. Johnson, University of Illinois at Chicago

Robert Flynn Johnson, emeritus, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Ramsey Kanaan, publisher, PM Press

Cindi Katz, Graduate Center, CUNY

Christina Kiaer, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT

Never Miss a Beat.

Get our best delivered to your inbox.

Phil King, artist and editor

Joel Kohen

Anna Kornbluh, University of Illinois at Chicago

Steven Kovacs, School of Cinema, San Francisco State University and George Washington High School alumnus

Brandon Kreitler, CUNY

Benjamin Kunkel, author

Gordon Lafer, University of Oregon

Roger N. Lancaster, George Mason University

Denis Lavinski, artist, Los Angeles

Virginia Leavell, University of California, Santa Barbara

Anthony W. Lee, Mount Holyoke College

Robert Lehman, English Department, Boston College

Robert D. Leighninger Jr.

Yasha Levine, author, investigative journalist, Washington High School alumnus

Howard Levy

Ruth Leys, emeritus, Johns Hopkins University

Siv B. Lie, School of Music, University of Maryland, College Park

Sasha Lilley, KPFA Radio

Leslie Lopez, LaborFest Hawai’i

Kilynn Lunsford, Philadelphia DSA, Unite Here local 274

Seth Kahn, Professor of English, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Carl G. Martin, Norwich University

Anna McKittrick, Emory University

Christopher Mead, University of Utah

Elizabeth Mead, Department of Art and Art History, College of William & Mary

William J. Mello, Indiana University

Walter Benn Michaels, English Department, University of Illinois at Chicago

Mark Crispin Miller, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

Daniel Moak, African American Studies, Ohio University

Balaji Narasimhan, Los Altos, Calif.

Zoika Naskova

Deborah Nelson, University of Chicago

Anne Norton, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

James Oakes, Graduate Center, CUNY

Charles Palermo, Department of Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies Program, College of William & Mary

Christian Parenti, Department of Economics, John Jay College, CUNY

Michael Pierce, Department of History, University of Arkansas

Lawrence N. Powell, Tulane University

Paul Prescod, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

Adam Proctor, Dead Pundits Society

Joseph G. Ramsey, Departments of English and American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Courtney Rawlings, Emory University

Orlando Reade, English Department, Princeton University

Adolph Reed, Jr., emeritus, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Touré Reed, Department of History, Illinois State University

Laurie Jo Reynolds, Art Department, University of Illinois at Chicago

Mark Rosen, University of Texas at Dallas

James H. Rubin, Department of Art, Stony Brook University

David Schaafsma, Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago

Jesse Schaefer, former George Washington High School student

Michael Schreyach, Department of Art and Art History, Trinity University

Julie Seville, History Department, University of Chicago

Joseph Shieber, Lafayette College

Korey Simeone, Los Angeles

Lisa Siraganian, Southern Methodist University

Jedidiah Sloboda, Philadelphia School District

John Curtis Smith, Wake Technical Community College

Preston H. Smith II, Mount Holyoke College

Rogers M. Smith, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Davis Smith-Brecheisen, University of Illinois at Chicago

Daniel Spaulding, Getty Research Institute

Michael Spear, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Joni Spigler, artist and art historian

Amy Dru Stanley, Department of History and the Law School, University of Chicago

Timothy Stewart-Winter, Department of History, Rutgers University—Newark

Steve Striffler, Anthropology Department, University of Massachusetts, Boston

Ted Swedenburg, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas

Rei Terada, University of California, Irvine

Lisa Thompson, The Living New Deal

Joe Tompkins, Department of Communication Arts and Theatre, Allegheny College

James A. van Dyke, University of Missouri

Robert Vitalis, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

Christian Viveros-Fauné, Contemporary Art Museum, University of South Florida

Kenneth Warren, Department of English, Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, University of Chicago

Shilyh Warren, University of Texas at Dallas

Mark W. Wolfe, Emory University

George Wright, emeritus, California State University, Chico

Joanna Wuest, Princeton University

Marnin Young, Art History Department, Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University

Daniel Zamora, Université Libre de Bruxelles

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Won't Exist.

Please select a donation method:



Share This Article