On June 25th, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is scheduled to vote on the fate of thirteen 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals at George Washington High School. The murals, created in fresco by Russian-American social realist painter Victor Arnautoff, can only be removed by the irreversible act of destroying them. UPDATE: SFUSD voted to destroy the murals, though it must first undertake an environmental review expected to take up to a year. NCAC continues to advocate for a reversal of this decision.
The heightened political tensions of the moment have led to a thorough examination of our public space. We welcome that development. But political artworks like Arnautoff’s must not be confused with historical monuments such as Confederate statues, which are intended to send a clear racist message. By portraying the violence of U.S. history rather than whitewashing it, Arnautoff’s murals do exactly the opposite.
The destruction or covering up of the murals may only succeed in hiding – once again — the dark underside of the myth of Manifest Destiny and of American history in general. With the murals gone, we will also forget how contested the very telling of history has always been.
The role of the school system is to educate. While schools need to create a welcoming environment for all students, that should not mean avoiding discussions about disturbing subjects, whether historical or current. SFUSD needs to show respect for its students and their ability to understand and discuss complex historical truths, no matter how uncomfortable these truths are.
NCAC urges the district to leave the murals in place and provide additional context and programming around them, as it did in the late 1960s when it commissioned murals by Dewey Crumpler. The answer to painful historical representation is not destruction or a cover-up, it is active and critical engagement.
Want to help save the murals? Visit the GWHS Alumni Association to learn more.