Saturday, June 29, 2019

Here We Go Again...

Another chapter in the let's remove art for the public good saga is taking shape, this time in San Francisco. This op-ed article by Bari Weiss in the New York Times describes a plan to not only remove a work by an important 20th Century artist, but to destroy it.

The work in question is a thirteen panel mural inside George Washington High School by the Russian-American artist, Victor Arnautoff, depicting the school's namesake in rather unconventional ways. In the panel illustrated in the op-ed piece, Washington is standing at a desk with other "Founding Fathers", his right hand pointing to a map resting on a table while his left points off into the distance where a group of American settlers impassively walk past the body of a dead Native American man. Other panels in the work depict African American slaves toiling away on Washington's plantation.

A detail of Victor Arnautoff's mural "City Life"
in the lobby of Coit Tower, San Francisco.
The conspicuous absence of the conservative
San Francisco Chronicle
on the newsstand is a clear indication of the artist's
political convictions, 
In her piece, Weiss quotes Arnautoff stating his no-holds-barred philosophy of art:
Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me... The artist is a critic of society.
Arnautoff, an avowed Communist who assisted the like-minded Diego Rivera in Mexico, was according to Weiss, one of the Bay Area's most prominent Depression era artists.

Clearly the panels in the school, as is the case for all his work as well as that of his mentor Rivera are radical, provocative and subversive. From this piece I wrote back in 2013, you can read about the controversey sparked by Rivera's "Detroit Industry" which right wing groups demanded be removed during the anti-communist McCarthy era of the fifties, and the response from the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the institution that houses the murals.

An Arnautoff work I am intimately familiar with, "City Life", painted in the Social Realist style popular in the day, graces the interior of Coit Tower which stands on the top of Telegraph Hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. Created during a time of upheaval in the labor movement of the city, "City Life" and other murals inside the tower were themselves considered subversive and protests against them forced the delay of the opening of the Tower, a monument to local firefighters, for several months.

Given today's highly charged political climate, you might assume that the controverey around Arnautoff's high school piece was triggered by conservative groups who are offended by the less than flattering portrayal of the "Father of our Country." But in fact, the move to remove and destroy the artwork comes from the San Francisco School Board. Schools they feel, need to be safe spaces for students and believe that the depiction of dead Indians and black slaves in the school halls, no matter the context, historical accuracy and significance of the art, is a clear violation of what it means to be a safe space.

Weiss in her piece claims that the Board has been swayed by a group called "Reflection and Action Working Group", in her words, "a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district." According to the group, Arnautoff 's work:
glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, (and) oppression... The art does not reflect social justice... (and it) is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.

Clearly the point of Arnautoff 's work is completely lost on this group. The only ratioinale I can see in this statement is summed up by that last phrase which implies that the "legacy" of the artist, (who happens to be a dead white guy), and in fact, history itself, is not as valid as the "experience"of the students, who presumably are racially and ethnically diverse. Never mind that the vast majority of the school's students are themselves opposed to the removal of the artwork.

What's even more disturbing is the insistence of the board that the work be painted over and effectively destroyed rather than being merely covered up, lest someone in the future decide to uncover them, in defiance of the infinite wisdom of the Board's decree which, if I'm reading it correctly, should be law for the ages, so shall it be written, so shall it be done.

Even beyond that nonsense is the fact that the people objecting to the destruction of these murals, are being labeled as racists by the would-be whitewashers of art and history.

This stuff of course is not new. Thirty years ago a WPA mural was removed from a school that neighbored my elementary school in Oak Park, Illinois. In the lobby of that school was a mural depicting a map of the world containing images of people who inhabited each of the continents. The people depicted in much of the painting were wearing contemporary (for the time) clothing, while in the Africa portion, the people were depicted wearing loin cloths and other accessories many felt enforced stereotypes of the "savage native". Then just this year, two more WPA paintings were removed from schools in the same community because detractors felt they did not reflect the current diversity of the schools.

While I'm not in agreement with the all-out removal of these works, I do get it. However I believe that dated as they are, these works of art, when put into their the proper context, (just like the Confederate monuments that have been in the news recently), serve as useful windows to the past. Simply taking down and mothballing them to obfuscate the less admirable features of our history in order to avoid offending people, serves no worthwhile purpose at all, in my opinion.

But the Arnautoff work is different. That artist clearly had a "progressive" agenda and the idea that his work glorified slavery, genocide, colonization, and everything else that is bad in the world, simply could not be more wrong. A school's job is first and foremost to educate its students. It is important that students know, not only history and the evils of the past, but that even during a bygone era such as the1930s, there were many people including artists, who went against the grain and did not buy into slavery, genocide, colonialism and other evils that were very much alive in their day and continue into our own.

Erasing a work of art because we don't agree with the message it conveys is bad enough, but erasing a work of art because we don't bother to understand the message is beyond explanation. It is misguided, stupid and above all an affront to education, knowledge, and understanding.

I just wrote about the importance of learning from history and the trouble that arises when we are ignorant of it. It seems at least in this case, the San Francisco School Board is fast becoming the champion of ignorance.

This one simply boggles the mind.

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