San Francisco must be the virtue capital of the world. (The latest: just across the bay, Berkeley’s city council voted this summer that ‘manholes’ must hereon in be called ‘maintenance holes’.) But when the lofty run out of real enemies, they often turn on their own kind. Moreover, too much success in achieving a raft of progressive purposes means a runaway train with no sensible destination careens off the tracks.
That’s the only explanation for the disconcerting San Francisco School Board spat over what to do with a series of 13 massive murals on the interior of the city’s George Washington High School. The murals’ now-esteemed creator, Victor Arnautoff, was a Russian immigrant and a committed communist. Painted under the aegis of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration during the Depression, ‘Life of Washington’ depicts a series of scenes that cast the father of the republic in a decidedly unflattering light. I grew up with sappy stories about young George Washington refusing to tell a lie and admitting to chopping down a cherry tree (a tired tale that may itself have grown controversial, by elevating the character-building of a straight white male over environmental preservation). Yet Arnautoff’s murals emphasise the dark side of America’s first president — his ownership of slaves, his complicity in Native American genocide — as well as casting a chary eye on the country’s arrogant ‘manifest destiny’ to expand westwards.
In other words, this is exactly the kind of art that left-wing Democrats would commission. But no. Earlier this summer, the school board voted to have the murals painted over — which would permanently destroy the artwork. An enormous backlash followed; among those objecting were the black literary luminary Alice Walker, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the black actor Danny Glover, who compared blocking the artwork to ‘book burning’. Under pressure, the school board backtracked somewhat this month and voted to cover the murals with obscuring panels, a laborious exercise that will cost up to $845,000 and could take two years. Even so, one dissenter on the board objected that mere panelling would enable people in future — oh, how I wish we could all pop into a time machine and zap ourselves to such a glorious age, when public authorities are largely in their right minds once more —to take the panels off. The horror.
I’ve not seen these murals in person, but my computer screen is a 15-incher with killer resolution. The one benefit of the murals being under siege is that dozens of excellent pics are now available online. If you’re interested, google ‘George Washington school murals’ and take a look, because I’ll not do them justice here. But briefly, they’re beautiful. The figures are stylised, and more artful than the clunky, angular socialist realism of the same era. The craftsmanship is top drawer. These paintings are enormous, too, covering a total of 1,600 square feet. And their message isn’t subtle. You don’t need a course in art history to discern the artist’s critical perspective on America’s traditional stories of origin. The president directs frontiersmen (painted in grey, amid an otherwise vibrant pallet) to go forth, while the corpse of an Indian lies at their feet. Slaves pick cotton at his estate in Mount Vernon. Reverent portraiture this ain’t.
So what’s the problem with these images? I fear I will bore you. ‘Don’t tell us,’ you say. ‘Pictures of slaves and dead Indians make students feel “unsafe”. The murals are “offensive” to certain “communities”. Did we get that right?’ Of course you did. But to be fair, when 49 freshmen at George Washington High were asked to write about the murals, only four wanted the works erased; the rest would preserve them intact, visible, and in place. Aside from a handful of noisy activists, this isn’t a snowflake story. It’s the grown-ups who are the idiots, and who assume that their city’s children are idiots — since if there are any kids who repeatedly pass these murals on the way to class and fail to get their message (and that’s hard to imagine), these children are already in a school where at least in theory one learns things.
It’s progressives of the sort who sit on the San Francisco School Board who are always banging on about the importance of teaching students the sordid aspects of American history. They’re the ones who would happily set aside lessons on the ingenious civic architecture of the Constitution in preference for concentrating solely on the document’s initial hypocrisy over slavery, and who denigrate George Washington as a slaveholder. They’re the ones who love nothing better than to induce a burning sense of hereditary shame in upcoming generations over how the West was won. So they’re the ones who, we presume, had they the talent, would paint the very murals they now want to obscure. ‘Bewildering’ doesn’t begin to say it.
Would that I could reassure the British that this urge to artistic vandalism is an American affliction, perhaps one specific to whackadoodle California. But campaigns to take down monuments and ban art that doesn’t pass an ever-stricter political purity test is not constrained to the US. Recall the students at Manchester University painting over ‘racist’ Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ in their student union — though mercifully the handwritten scrawl was not great art. Or the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ ruckus at Oxford that tried to bring down a statue at Oriel College. The western-wide movement to cleanse public spaces of perceived social-justice heresy inevitably reminds us of the dynamiting of ancient sandstone Buddhas by the Taleban, the wholesale destruction of relics by Isis and the destruction of ancient treasures by the Khmer Rouge. Hardly swell bedfellows.
Still, the campaign to obliterate the Arnautoff murals takes the biscuit. The work is uncannily well aligned with the American left’s disparaging view of their country’s history. So any day now I expect the San Francisco School Board to be clapping shamefaced panels over any remaining red-white-and-blue ‘Yes we can!’ posters from Obama ’08.