New Deal Murals Spur Controversy

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Victor Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Hot on the heels of widespread demands to remove Confederate monuments come calls to remove or destroy New Deal works of art believed by some to be racist.

WPA murals in the lobby of San Francisco’s George Washington High School have recently come under fire. Painted by renowned Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff in 1935, one of the mural panels shows Washington with his slaves at Mount Vernon; another depicts Washington pointing pioneers westward over the body of a dead Indian. African Americans and Native Americans have complained to the school district, which has appointed a special committee to decide what to do about the offending art works. Destruction is one serious option.

“Life of Washington”

“Life of Washington”
The murals are painted on 12 panels, measuring 1600 square feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Some New Deal art can be interpreted as demeaning or even racist, but Victor Arnautoff’s daring murals, I believe, fall into a more problematic category. They depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny. It is a position so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public space.

Even Arnautoff’s friend and fellow left-winger, Russian artist Anton Refregier, said that he knew what had happened to the California Indians but could only go so far in his great New Deal mural cycle of California history, which he completed in 1947 for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office. Nonetheless, during the McCarthy era conservative Congressmen nearly destroyed Refregier’s murals for showing uncomfortable aspects of American history and for their implicit criticism.

Entrance to George Washington High School

Entrance to George Washington High School
The school was completed by the WPA in 1936
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

That is precisely what Arnautoff was doing in his murals at George Washington High, but his criticism went where Refregier feared to tread. Unlike all the other colorful figures in Arnautoff’s murals, he painted the westward-moving pioneers in ash-grey and armed them with rifles and a pickaxe with which to take the mineral wealth of the fallen Indian who, unlike them, he painted in full color. Arnautoff’s pioneers represent not heroes but a death march. They march to the far right of the painting toward the signing of a treaty that their armed progress will violate, just as so many treaties with Native Americans were broken. Arnautoff is saying that the U.S. was born and grew upon bad faith and over the body of a people that had lived for ages on their land until invaders violently took it from them.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier
This panel depicts the Sir Francis Drake arriving in California. Notice the blood in the tip of Drakes’ sword

Refregier’s Rincon Annex murals were so controversial at the time he painted them that then-Representative Richard Nixon wrote to a constituent in 1949 that “I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.” On May 1, 1953, with Nixon as vice president, that committee met in Washington, D.C. to put on trial not only Refregier’s art but then-popular versions of history as well.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"
This controversial mural depicts the longshoremen’s strike in 1934, when two strikers were killed.  Source

It is because San Franciscans of both parties rose up in defense of the murals, that Refregier’s works narrowly escaped destruction. Today they are regarded as masterpieces of New Deal art. San Francisco schools use them to teach about history and racial diversity, as well as conflict—themes that were hardly popular when Refregier painted them.

Victor Arnautoff, Self-portrait

Victor Arnautoff

Arnautoff’s murals, like Refregier’s, offer such an opportunity to teach the power of art to encourage critical thinking and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Shortly after completing his paintings, Refregier wrote of his fear that “some night, perhaps, men will come with buckets of white paint and it will take very little time to destroy that which took me so long to make. And in the morning it will be just like it was three years ago. White walls without colors, without ideas, ideas that make people so mad and so afraid.”

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

15 comments on “New Deal Murals Spur Controversy

  1. Danise Chandler

    An extraordinary article and so intelligent and useful too. I hope we can learn from the wise people who saved Refregiers great work.

  2. Timothy Heater

    The murals appear anti-racist to me. Perhaps the Living New Deal staff could give a “teach in” at the High School.

  3. David Payne

    I second Timothy Heater’s motion

  4. ChristineU

    I hadn’t heard of this controversy, but I see now that it’s been going on for a few years. A councilwoman is quoted in a news article basically saying it’s offensive to defend the mural, because it’s like telling Native Americans who have complained about it that they don’t have a right to their feelings. But art can have more than one interpretation, and sometimes knowing the history behind something can change the way you see it. Students should learn this. If the mural still bothers students, after learning the history, then I can see an argument for screening it, but it should not be destroyed.

  5. Robert Cherny

    If you are concerned about this situation, I suggest that you write to the school district to argue that there are two equally legitimate perspectives on the murals and that any decision about the murals needs to respect both perspectives, i.e., the mural(s) should not be destroyed. It is important that any response to the school district be respectful of the position of the parents who find the mural to be traumatic. But if this issue concerns you, please please write to the school district to advocate for any solution that does not destroy the art work.

  6. sheila goldmacher

    how can we help to save the entire collection for future generations? thanx so much for giving us all this info Gray.

  7. Kati Newsom

    I am so glad to have happened onto this article. Originally I thought the murals should be removed, but on further consideration I think they should stay as painful and truthful reminders of the birth of our nation. We have so glorified our first president, as we learned in school, that the real story should be told and displayed. When the truth is in such short supply we MUST preserve it. It is so easy to rewrite history; it is done every day. We hear lies, distorted facts, even as we see with our own eyes, we are told not believe what we see, to where the public does not know reality. These murals MUST be displayed and why not at its original place? Let us not erase our history!

  8. Rex Lewis Field

    This is fabulous! New Deal art is so identifiable and tied to the moment. I am delighted to have stumbled upon this (trying to bone up on the New Deal for teacher purposes) and plan to borrow heavily in the class room.

  9. susie coit williams

    I attended George Washington High in 1967-1968. I understand the controversy of the murals but they are an important part of history and the times in which they were done. They need to be preserved.
    As a descendent of Lillie H. Coit and a supporter of Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill and several other entities it is paramount to save these murals.
    Having met Dr. Gray Brechin several years ago I applaud his work, efforts and support of these works. He is tireless and unwavering in his support!

  10. Brandee Marckmann

    With regards to the Artaunoff murals at the high school: There are families with children – babies, toddlers, and preschoolers – who have to walk past graphic painting which feature about a dozen or so guns, slaves, the scalp of a dead man, and the corpse of a Native American.

    The murals are a wildly inappropriate wall decoration to have at the entrance of a school. They belong at a museum. Not at a school.

    To say that Native children should have to walk by a gruesome painting of the corpse of a Native American on a daily basis is cruel. One of the things that students who attend this school often say to their classmates is “I’ll met you at the dead Indian.” Imagine having to hear that phrase if you are a Native American student.

    You cannot put art above humanity. It is intellectually lazy and willfully ignorant to turn a blind eye to the neuroscience behind childhood trauma. As educators, it is unethical for us to subject students to violent images on a daily basis and to use a form of pedagogy that does not respect the mental health needs of our students.

    There is a conflict of interest between art aficionados and the needs of our students. Our school district has a moral obligation to focus on the latter. We need more art classes, materials, musical instruments, and art and music teachers and therapists in our schools. We do not need these murals.

    There is no documentation showing that Arnautoff consulting with Native Americans before or while painting this mural. The removal of this mural – which contains stereotypes of Native Americans – is well overdue, and Native American students and artists have the right to tell their own stories.
    Additionally, the school also serves children with learning differences and anxiety disorders who do not have the cognitive ability to understand what the artist’s “good intention” was. When the artist was alive, public schools were not legally mandated to serve children with learning disabilities.
    One of the reasons why the Reflection and Action Working group (comprised of SFUSD staff, students, and parents) has recommended the digital archiving of this mural is so that students at the school, and students all over the world could study it in classrooms. This is not about wanting to ignore history.

    Check out this report, “Hate at School” to see how many of our students are feeling increasingly unsafe in our schools.

    Due to the rise in white supremacy in the U.S., hate speech at our schools is on the rise, as is the teen suicide rate. And you want to force children to see the painting of a massacred Native American on a daily basis (180 school days times 4?) Because, “art”?

    Let me assure you that that those murals are not art to everyone. And children whom society has marginalized deserve to see images that feel empowering. The only black people in the murals are slaves. Is that what children should be subjected to every time they walk into the school?

    Systems and symbols of oppression are often invisible to those who benefit from them. “You shouldn’t be offended” is one of the most preposterous phrases in the English language. It is, essentially, a form of paternalistic gaslighting of Native American and other people who are unfairly depicted in this mural. The truly resilient ones in this debate are the youth who are speaking out against the murals. I know, because I have met them. And they have brass backbones.

    Believe Native Americans and black students when they say that these images are hurtful and damaging. And when these students and their families are telling the group of people whose ancestors are not unfairly depicted in this mural that they are hurting them, those people need stop hurting them. Please step back and let these families and their children decide what is best for them.

    There are many white supremacist websites such as Breitbart coming out in favor of keeping these murals. A second article from Breitbart appeared today (May 13) touted the support of this school’s alumni association, with vile words from readers in the comments section. Visual images that traumatize students on a daily basis at a school (not a museum) have extremely serious consequences that should not be ignored or written off.

    • Andrew Laverdiere

      Much as the Afghanistan Taliban committed historical rape in the destruction of offensive 4th century Buddhist statues in order to erase all historical references that don’t jive with their extremist religious viewpoints, today’s cultural Taliban in San Francisco wage Jihad against uncomfortable historical facts and ignore the horror of the mass Hooverville right in their own backyard. The views of Marckmann remind me of the theme of the book “Fahrenheight 451” by Bradbury; eliminate all images and ideas that make people think. Do you think about the fact that the city of San Francisco has become a virtual cesspool of feces and used syringes due to the overwhelming number of homeless? Isn’t that more of a concern rather than an 80 year old painting with an image that frankly pales in comparison with the daily mass murder that our youth commit virtually on their PC’s? You can’t turn on TV or watch a movie in general that doesn’t include violent sadomasochistic scenes. Hell, a former Facebook executive bemoans the fact that social media is scrambling kids brains. I hate to use the term Social Justice Warrior, today overused as a pejorative for busybodies who just want to bully society over what is socially acceptable, much as the Communist witchhunts did before in our parents time. The Washington Post got one thing correct at least, unlike your slander about Arnautoff not doing his research, not one of you can produce a traumatized child.

      • Brandee Marckmann

        Extreme? Well, Breitbart has published two articles in favor of keeping these murals. . . .

        From a Facebook page about these murals:

        “Today’s people of color don’t need Arnautoff’s message. Today’s white middle aged and older people could still benefit from it since white adults are still officially denying the American genocide. But white middle aged and old people don’t attend WHS. They go to museums. So that’s where the mural belongs.

        What belongs in WHS hallway walls are empowering messages of POC directing their own lives. This mural’s time has passed. . . . To honestly embrace that people of color are key historical actors in U.S. history is to honestly embrace what people of color are saying NOW. Because the people demanding that this come down are making history NOW by demanding that YOU hear them.”

  11. Gray Brechin

    I have to agree with Andrew Laverdiere here: a painting which depicts violence allegorically rather than literally is a pretty weak reed in the hurricane of violence-as-entertainment to which young people are accustomed by the time they reach high school. If they want their art and history to be forever untroubling and uplifting, then perhaps they should go to Disneyland rather than a high school which was once intended as a transition to adulthood with all of its complexities and pain.

    • Brandee Marckmann

      We have preschoolers and toddlers of high school students, as well with students with cognitive learning disabilities, refugee children with PTSD, and students with diagnosed anxiety disorders who have to walk by those Rated R murals on a daily basis, since they are located in the lobby of the school. Saying that the mural for their good is ableist and patronizing, and it shows a breathtaking lack of empathy for those students – not to mention the Black and Native students who are well aware that they have been oppressed throughout history and are still oppressed by white people every day.

      Those murals are for the white gaze. White people telling the Black and Indigenous people who are depicted in those pictures that they shouldn’t be offended or raise their voices to lobby for their removal is gaslighting, and it is the textbook definition of white fragility.

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