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Victor Arnautoff, The Life of George Washington, 1936, at George Washington High School in San Francisco.
Victor Arnautoff, The Life of George Washington, 1936, at George Washington High School in San Francisco.

Cultural Figures Oppose Destruction of San Francisco School Murals of George Washington

Hal Foster, David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Joyce Kozloff, Rachel Kushner, Fred Lonidier, and Barry Schwabsky are among the four hundred academics, writers, and artists that have signed an open letter condemning the San Francisco Board of Education’s unanimous vote to destroy a series of Great Depression–era murals at George Washington High School.

The thirteen-panel mural cycle at the center of the controversy depicts George Washington as a slave owner and includes images of a deceased Native American and the president’s slaves working on his Mount Vernon estate. The Life of George Washington was commissioned by the Federal Art Project (later the Works Progress Administration’s Art Program, created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal) and designed and painted by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-born artist, communist, and Stanford University instructor, in 1936. 

When Arnautoff created the murals, Washington’s history as a slave owner was a truth that was not commonly acknowledged, and the work was praised for shedding light on the United States’ violent colonialism. By the late 1960s, some were angered by the murals, including Amy Anderson, a member of the Ahkhaamaymowin band of Métis, who has been a leader in the campaign to remove them. She argued that they only represent “American history from the colonizers’ perspective,” reports the New York Times.

Stevon Cook, president of the San Francisco Board of Education, also advocated for covering or removing the artwork. He told the New York Times that while he supports teaching in the classroom, he opposes “violent images that are offensive to certain communities” and are on view for all to see.

According to the open letter, those protesting the murals are more concerned about whether viewers are uncomfortable than the work’s representation of history. The letter states that The Life of George Washington “exposes and denounces in pictorial form the US history of racism and colonialism.”

It continues: “The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists. The reasons [activists seeking the destruction of the work] give are various, but they all depend on rejecting the objective analysis of historical exploitation and colonial violence the mural offers and replacing it with activists’ valorization of their experiences of discomfort with the imagery and the authorship of the murals. . . . To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense.”

The George Washington High School Alumni Association has also opposed the destruction of the murals and released a statement reading: “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.”

Filmmaker Lope Yap Jr., the association’s vice president, had previously told the New York Times that they would file a lawsuit if the school board voted to remove the work. “Every day—in contrast to opponents—teachers, librarians use it as a teaching point,” he said. “No matter where I go, no matter who I meet, 85 percent of people are in favor of retaining the murals.”