The Case of the San Francisco Mural
Should we censor art when it offends our sensibilities?
The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati made headlines in 1990 when it displayed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe: images of human nudes and acts of sadomasochism.
The images proved a flashpoint for opinions on obscenity, homosexuality, erotica, pornography and—of course—art.
The Museum was sued on obscenity charges, and won the case, despite enthusiastic pressure from a citizen protest group led by a conservative North Carolina Senator: Jesse Helms.
Today’s New York Times carries an opinion piece about an artwork that derides settler expansion of the Indigenous United States.
A mural painted with funds from the WPA—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration—shows George Washington, along with a trio of Founding Fathers, pointing toward a lush landscape where armed settlers are headed—and who step over the body of an Indian.
Painted in 1935 by Victor Arnautoff, a Russian-American with an impressive portfolio, the mural expresses the artist’s duty as a “critic of society,” “according to the artist.
This week the San Francisco Board of Education voted to paint over the mural at a high school in the Richmond District named, appropriately, George Washington High.
From my perspective, painting over the mural turns a blind eye on the history of settlers who considered native peoples hindrances in their pursuit of uninhibited freedoms.
In his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond says that 90 percent of Native Americans perished once settlers arrived.
While the mural may offend someone’s sensibilities, it reminds us that the pages in history when American Indians suffered at the hands of folks in authority remains today.
The best contemporary evidence is the choice of vocal citizens, a government, and an energy corporation to divert an oil pipeline away from the settler city of Bismarck, North Dakota, and reroute it a half-mile from an Indian reservation and under its water supply.
Yes: we need a reminder that American Indians continue to live in dreadful conditions ignored by mainstream America.
And the problems won’t be solved by a coat of paint.
29 June 2019
Mural by Victor Arnautoff (1935) from a photo downloaded from KQED and credited to the George Washington High School Alumni Association