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Censorship of Racial Art

Michael T. Hertz: Censorship of art speaking of race has arisen again, this time in San Francisco, where the School Board considered spending $600,000 to paint over a mural.
Censorship of Racial Art

One of Victor Arnautoff’s murals in the lobby at George Washington High School, San Francisco. Photo by Tom Paiva

In 2017, there was a clash over an Hispanic art mural at Union Station in Los Angeles. The mural was covered over but eventually allowed to be displayed for a short time. The mural showed events in Los Angeles history which arose from racial tendencies. “The mural pays homage to slain L.A. journalist Ruben Salazar; playwright Luis Valdez and actor Edward James Olmos; to Biddy Mason, the last freed slave in Los Angeles, who founded the city’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church; and lesser-known figures, like Juan Francisco Reyes. He was the Spanish colonial town’s first elected alcalde — L.A.’s first-ever mayor chosen by the people was black and Spanish-speaking.”

“Commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency for L.A.'s bicentennial, the mural was in progress when the agency asked that Carrasco remove more than a dozen images that dealt with the less savory aspects of L.A.'s past. When she refused, the project was scrapped.

“Here we are in 2017 and it’s still controversial, it’s still being silenced,” says Denise Sandoval, a curator and professor of Chicana/o studies at Cal State Northridge, who was not involved in the exhibit. “This reveals a Los Angeles that does not want to deal with its racist and exclusionary past, the ugly side of history.”

Censorship of art speaking of race has arisen again, this time in San Francisco, where the School Board considered spending $600,000 to paint over a mural.

Censorship of art speaking of race has arisen again, this time in San Francisco, where the School Board considered spending $600,000 to paint over a mural. “The decision of the San Francisco Board of Education is one to paint over a work of art which has courted controversy for years because of its historical depiction of slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples, which supporters of the action assert is necessary for students who are “confronted daily by images of their ancestors debased.” Of course, this has engendered cries of political correctness from the usual suspects. And some of the media organs who love to write “Democrats in disarray” stories are already wondering if it will be a wedge issue in the presidential campaign. However, others see a worrisome form of censorship and feel the behavior is “no different from the most boorish of President Trump’s supporters.” There is also a petition signed by over 500 writers, historians, and artists opposed to destroying a historical work of art that they call “a significant monument of anti-racism” as “a gross violation of logic and sense.”

The mural was unveiled at Union Station on Sept. 29.; Credit: Abelardo de la Peña Jr. / LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes

The mural was unveiled at Union Station on Sept. 29.; Credit: Abelardo de la Peña Jr. / LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes

“In the mid-1930s, Russian artist Victor Arnautoff, a Stanford professor and protege of muralist Diego Rivera, was commissioned to add art to the city’s George Washington High School through funding by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Art Project. The murals, done in a buon frescostyle, cover 1,600 square feet of the high school, including the walls and stairwell to the main entrance for the lobby of the school. Instead of celebrating George Washington’s life with myths about cherry trees and heroic posing while crossing the Delaware River, Arnautoff’s Life of Washingtonoffers a counter-narrative.”

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“In two of the murals, Arnautoff depicts the first president as a slave owner and the “father” of a country whose westward expansion was built on the deaths of indigenous peoples. A Native American is shown dead, face-down on the ground as men with rifles⁠—portrayed in grey, black and white⁠—walk past the body. African-American slaves are shown working the fields of Washington’s Mount Vernon home, as Washington discusses the work with an overseer.”

Ultimately, the Board rejected the idea of painting over the mural in favor of hiding the mural behind wooden boards.

The controversy pitted the First Amendment’s freedom of speech (not to mention the idea of preserving historical artwork) against those who argued that high school students should not be exposed to daily reminders of racism and criticism of George Washington. Some even described the paintings as promoting racism, which is quite odd.

Personally, I think that we should preserve historical artwork (this one was painted in 1936). The artist was clearly arguing that Washington supported slavery and that Americans were historically racist and killed Native Americans (as depicted in the painting). I wouldn’t try to censor Nazi-produced art, would you? Art that says that Americans have been racist and have killed Native Americans is just telling the truth, no matter how ugly it is. Censoring it has little value and covers over the truth, even if inconvenient. Instead, we should admit the past and try to make the present welcoming to all races, without the sort of tweeting used by our President.

“The board apparently wants a symbolic act of sacrifice. One of the activists opposed to the murals claimed their destruction would constitute a “public recognition of the suffering” of indigenous groups. Others have said destroying them would amount to “reparations.”

[dc]“F[/dc]eelings of pain and offense are a tremendous political force. This force can be used destructively to paint over the realities of the past — and win a dubious symbolic victory that does little to address the deeper grievances of racism and discrimination — or constructively to offer new, critical perspectives and perhaps even change the way we live. In this, art is not the problem; it is an ally.”

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Michael Hertz