Accountability Art California San Francisco

Is it Just or Patriotic to Paint Over Art That Offends Someone?

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Larry Cuban posts here an opinion piece that appeared originally in the New York Times about a decision by the San Francisco School Board to paint over (and thus destroy) a Depression-Era mural that is highly critical of the U.S.

The artist Victor Arnautoff was a Russian immigrant and a Communist. His mural “Life of Washington” depicted George Washington and other Founding Fathers in a very negative light.

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.

The School Board decided that the mural was offensive to Native American and African-American students. And they voted not to cover the mural but to paint over it so that it would be utterly destroyed and never seen again.

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.”

So the school committee voted to condemn a work of art that acknowledged and by doing so condemned “slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.”

This action by the School Board is nuts.

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