SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco will spend up to $600,000 to paint over historical artwork at a public school depicting the life of George Washington, a mural once seen as educational and innovative but now criticized as racist and degrading for its depiction of black and Native American people.
The “Life of Washington” was painted by Victor Arnautoff, one of the foremost muralists in the San Francisco area during the Depression. The San Francisco School Board’s decision to paint over the 83-year-old mural is prompting some to worry that other artwork from the so-called New Deal era could face a similar fate because of changing sensitivities.
In addition to depicting Washington as a soldier, surveyor, statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the 13-panel, 1,600-sqaure foot mural at George Washington High School contains images of white pioneers standing over the body of a Native American and slaves working at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate in Virginia.
The board’s decision last week comes at a time when the legacies of Washington and other historical figures who owned slaves are being re-examined. Some cities have changed the names of streets and buildings named after slave owners.
Richard Walker, a professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the history project, Living New Deal, said the Washington mural is meant to show the “uncomfortable facts” about America’s first president. For that, it was among many New Deal works of art considered radical when created.
“We on the left ought to welcome the honest portrayal,” Walker said, adding that destroying a piece of art “is the worst way we can deal with historic malfeasance, historic evils.”
Mark Sanchez, vice president of the school board and a third-grade teacher, said students who must walk past the mural during the school day don’t have a choice about seeing the harmful images. “Painting it over represents not only a symbolic fresh start, but a real fresh start,” he said.
Lope Yap, Jr., vice president of the Washington High School Alumni Association and a 1970 graduates, disagreed, saying when he was a student and saw the mural he was “awed by the subtle ways Arnautoff was able to critique American history.” He said the depictions are “treasures, priceless art” and painting it over is tantamount to pretending the history depicted never happened.
“I’m not into censorship,” Yap said. “I would want to deal with history so we can prevent this from ever happening again.”