The San Francisco School Board has voted to spend some $600,000 to paint over a Depression-era mural depicting the accomplishments of America’s most celebrated founder, the first President of the United States, George Washington. Activists have targeted the mural because it contains depictions of Native Americans and slaves, but now some are worried about the impact the erasure of the historic mural, which was produced under Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, might have on other New Deal-era work.
In its report on the school board’s decision to paint over a piece of American history, the Associated Press notes that the “Life of Washington” mural was “once seen as educational and innovative” but is now being condemned by some as “racist and degrading for its depiction of black and Native American people.”
The 13-panel fresco — produced by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born communist and one of the most famous of the Depression-era muralists funded by FDR’s “Federal Art Project” — depicts various key moments from Washington’s momentous life, including his role as a general and statesman. It also features images of “white pioneers standing over the body of a Native American and slaves working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia,” AP notes. It is for those “racist and degrading” depictions that the school board decided to cover over the historic work.
San Francisco School Board vice president Mark Sanchez argued that students at the predominantly minority George Washington High School have no choice about seeing the depictions he described as causing “harm” to them. In the end, he suggested, those who are hurt by a work should decide what is acceptable.
“I understand the importance of art, and it should be the last thing we do, to attempt to cover any kind of art up,” said Sanchez. “The starting point has to be from those who feel they are harmed and how that is unacceptable, especially given the history of this country. When we don’t listen, we don’t learn.” Painting over the work, he said, “represents not only a symbolic fresh start, but a real fresh start.”
But this decision has some on the Left getting nervous about the implications for FDR’s legacy and other government-funded projects. “The San Francisco School Board’s decision to paint over the 83-year-old mural is prompting some to worry that other artwork from the so-called New Deal era could face a similar fate because of changing sensitivities,” the agency reports.
AP cites University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Walker, a self-described leftist, decrying the board’s decision to erase the past, particularly because it is a work that is a product of federal funding.
“The mural is an immense public treasure during one of the few periods of American history where you had the federal government supporting public art, public spaces, public goods,” said Walker. “It’s been the right that has always attacked the New Deal with its social programs.”
“We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal,” Walker said of the mural’s acknowledgment of the racism and injustice in America’s past. Destroying the work of art, he said, is “the worst way we can deal with historic malfeasance, historic evils.”
National New Deal Preservation Association President Harvey Smith also came to the defense of the communist artist and his government-funded work. “Victor Arnautoff was far ahead of his time, and we have yet to catch up with him in terms of making school curriculum more inclusive and historically accurate,” said Smith.
The “Life of Washington” is one of a series of New Deal-era murals that have been successfully targeted by activists, AP notes; FDR-funded murals at the University of New Mexico have recently been covered up, while murals in both New York and Iowa have been vandalized.