The Politics of Art in a San Francisco High School (Bari Weiss)

This op-ed column appeared in the New York Times June 28, 2019.

Bari Weiss (@bariweiss), a staff writer and editor for the Opinion section, is the author of the forthcoming “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”


More than $8,000. That was the amount John Ashcroft’s Justice Department spent on blue curtains to cover up the busty Spirit of Justice statue and her bare-chested male equivalent, the Majesty of Law, in the department’s Great Hall in 2002. The Victorian move against the Art Deco sculptures spurred a thousand lampoons. “A blue burqa for justice,” my colleague Maureen Dowd memorably called it. In The Harvard Crimson, a young Pete Buttigieg wrote, “It seems odd that an infant is supposed to feed on them, and a grown man is expected at some point to behold them, but for a period in between we feel the need to see to it that no child ever sees a breast.”


I wonder, then, what Mr. Buttigieg, now on the presidential campaign trail, would make of the San Francisco school board’s unanimous decision on Tuesday night to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money not just to shroud a historic work of art but to destroy it.

By now stories of progressive Puritanism (or perhaps the better word is Philistinism) are so commonplace — snowflakes seek safe space! — that it can feel tedious to track the details of the latest outrage. But this case is so absurd that it’s worth reviewing the specifics.

Victor Arnautoff, the Russian immigrant who made the paintings in question, was perhaps the most important muralist in the Bay Area during the Depression. Thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, he had the opportunity to make some enduring public artworks. Among them is “City Life” in Coit Tower, in which the artist painted himself standing in front of a newspaper rack conspicuously missing the mainstream San Francisco Chronicle and packed with publications like The Daily Worker.

Arnautoff, who had assisted Diego Rivera in Mexico, was a committed Communist. “‘Art for art’s sake’ or art as perfume have never appealed to me,” he said in 1935. “The artist is a critic of society.”

This is why his freshly banned work, “Life of Washington,” does not show the clichéd image of our first president kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Instead, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural, which was painted in 1936 in the just-built George Washington High School, depicts his slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American.

“At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,” Robert W. Cherny writes in “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.”

In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.

“This is a radical and critical work of art,” the school’s alumni association argued. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.”

Such appeals to reason and history failed to sway the school board. On Tuesday, it dismissed the option to pull an Ashcroft and simply cover the murals, instead voting unanimously to paint them over.

One of the commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” Thus he wanted “the murals to be painted down.” Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, later told me that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost, he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”

These and other explanations from the board’s members reflected the logic of the Reflection and Action Working Group, a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district. Arnautoff’s work, the group concluded in February, “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” The art does not reflect “social justice,” the group said, and it “is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.”

And yet many of the school’s actual students seemed to disagree. Of 49 freshmen asked to write about the murals, according to The Times, only four supported their removal. John M. Strain, an English teacher, told The Times’s Carol Pogash that his students “feel bad about offending people but they almost universally don’t think the answer is to erase it.”

Which makes one wonder who these bureaucrats actually seek to protect. Is it the students? Or could it also be their reputations, given that those in favor of preserving the murals are being smeared as racists?

“In my entire life, no one has ever, ever accused me of being a ‘white supremacist,’” Lope Yap Jr., a filmmaker and the vice president of the alumni association, told me. But if you buy into the expansive notion of “white supremacy” put forward by Alison Collins, one of the board commissioners, that is exactly what Mr. Yap, who is Filipino, is. “One of the earmarks of white supremacy culture is valuing (white) property over (Black & Brown) ppl,” Ms. Collins recently wrote on Twitter. “I think about this when I read comments from folks arguing to ‘protect’ the ‘Life of Washington’ murals.”

Mr. Sanchez, the board vice president, told me: “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input. For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

The implications of this logic are chilling. What happens when a student suggests that looking at photographs of the My Lai massacre in history class is too traumatic? Should newspapers avoid printing upsetting images that illuminate the crisis at the border, like the unforgettable one of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, facedown, drowned in the Rio Grande?

All are fair game for censorship in a worldview that insists that words and images are to be judged based on how “safe” they make people feel.

“If K-12 schools start to provide top-down total protection from the emotional pain of confronting uncomfortable ideas — like what actually happened in real American history — we should not be at all surprised when these people go on to college campuses and then, into the work force, and demand the same sort of comforts: safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression prevention, and so on,” said Robby Soave, the author of “Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.” He added: “That’s not on them. That’s on us.”

The notion of erasing art has an American pedigree. Arnautoff was intimately familiar with it, having been interrogated in 1956 by the House Un-American Activities Committee for drawing a caricature of Vice President Richard Nixon. But I suspect he would have been surprised to learn that more than 60 years later, progressives in charge of educating San Francisco’s children are merrily following this un-American playbook.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching

13 responses to “The Politics of Art in a San Francisco High School (Bari Weiss)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    As a thought experiment, suppose that mural is left in place and the school board invites proposals for another mural from those who are the critics. Set up the invitation so there is assured funding for the work including one stipend equivalent to the current value of a WPA stipend for a muralist. Have the critics decide whether to accept the invitation (or not) but if so, figure out all of the steps required to produce a better, grander, or more “acceptable” version of history.
    I do not think this mural is great art, but it has a lot of educational value and that could be enlarged by engaging the critics in doing more than painting over the a work–a blatant (and overpriced) act of censorship. The school board is clearly teaching students that viewpoint censorship is OK, and the First Amendment is not an issue.

  2. Bari Weiss did not do due diligence in asking native and black opinions on the matter. The mural can be considered an important work of art for many, however its placement in the halls of a school is problematic. There are many works of art I would not have students walk by on a daily basis, even if they had an interesting point of view. There are famous works of art depicting rape, concentration camps, a father eating his own child, acts of domestic violence. There is a famous photograph of naked child running down the street during the Vietnam War. I imagine there are many contemporary artists working on themes stemming from the crying and caged refugee children in US detention centers. Are these works important to view, discuss, and attempt to understand? Yes. Should they be permanent fixtures in the hallways of the school that young adults attend? Absolutely not.

    To respond to Bari Weiss’ editorial, I encourage people to read a different perspective, a perspective she left out- a Native American perspective.

    • larrycuban

      Many thanks, Olga, for your comments. I had not seen Dewey Crumpler’s response or murals. Nor Nick Martin’s post on Native Americans and mural. Thank you for making both available to me and readers.

  3. Hi Larry,
    Thanks for putting this op-ed on your blog. I am in complete agreement and mourn the loss of the murals I admired for the several years So-ching and I were connected to GWHS. It’s a shame when people are so ignorant of history that they try to erase it in the name of some other set of values.

  4. Pingback: Is it Just or Patriotic to Paint Over Art That Offends Someone? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  5. Laura H. Chapman

    I also thank maestramalinche for the two additional links. There is clearly a deep reservoir of knowledge and personal experience that has been ruled out of the education of students who attend the school. They could be engaged in research about the work, the artist, the New Deal program, related works and so much more, including past and present student response to the work. There is a long history of censorship in the arts and too little attention to that, even in higher education.

    Consider one issue well beyond this mural. The Sackler family has endowed many art museums, but in the last decade or so the public has learned that the family wealth came from pushing “OxyContin on patients who didn’t need it, or gave them dosage patterns that made the drug more addictive.” Read about the number of lawsuits faced by one wing of the Sackler family, who is saying no-thanks to Sackler money, and the spillover effects well beyond this Sackler’s “philanthropy.”

    • Chester Draws

      So we’ve moved from censorship based on what the article is, to censorship based on who originally paid for it? That’s getting worse.

      If we follow the progressive trend as it is heading we will remove every art work that has:
      1) a problematic subject;
      2) a problematic creator;
      3) a problematic funder/owner.

      Soon there’ll be nothing left.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for commenting, Laura.

  6. Pingback: An Exchange About Destroying a Significant Work of Art That Some Find Offensive | Diane Ravitch's blog

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