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."
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
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.
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
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Phil King, artist and editor
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
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.
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