Sunday, June 30, 2019

In which I agree with Bari Weiss

Photo by Robert Cherny for The Frisc.

Sort of. "From the left," as you might say, with Weiss's views ("San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History") on
the San Francisco school board’s unanimous decision on Tuesday night to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money not just to shroud a historic work of art but to destroy it.
By now stories of progressive Puritanism (or perhaps the better word is Philistinism) are so commonplace — snowflakes seek safe space! — that it can feel tedious to track the details of the latest outrage. But this case is so absurd that it’s worth reviewing the specifics.
It's about the 13 fresco murals painted in 1936 inside George Washington High School in San Francisco by Victor Arnautoff, a Communist student of Diego Rivera, under the auspices of the WPA, depicting a less sanitized version of the life of George Washington in which the Father of Our Country is shown managing the enslaved workers on his tobacco plantation at Mount Vernon (not cotton, as too many reports including Weiss's claim), and as a land speculator pushing the colonization of the frontier literally over the dead body of a murdered Native.

I'm not sure Weiss realizes just how Communist these paintings are. Both of the mentioned panels, for instance, make a point of contrasting Washington's brutality with the solidarity of a white proletariat: on the plantation, white manufacturing workers toil side by side with black agricultural workers; in the wilderness, one white man enjoys a peaceable pipe with an Indian comrade (in the shade of a tree with a broken branch symbolizing a broken treaty), while trappers working for Washington are grayed out as if to suggest they've surrendered their souls.

But it has to go, it seems, because some members of the school community say it depicts a history that shouldn't have taken place.
According to KTVU, during the school board meeting, Virginia Marshall, with the Alliance of Black School Educators, said, "It is a racist mural. My history should not be racist but it is. I came from slaves."
"It's not inside a museum. It's inside a school. Our students, all of them, deserve better," said Amy Anderson, a parent of a student at the high school. (Yahoo News)
I don't understand the first part of that, obviously; it sounds like a David Brooks argument to me, complaining that the history we have is too ugly and can't we please have a prettier one? It sounds reactionary, and Straussian. How is it combating racism to hide an indictment of racism?

The murals are important relics of the WPA era anyway, just as much as the reliefs of heroic proletarians in Rockefeller Center, and destroying them seems crazy. I can understand not wanting high school students to have to walk through scenes of such violence and pain on a daily basis, and one more curatorial approach recognized that with a proposal to curtain them off, covering them perhaps with a more benign imagery with the dark side remaining beneath to be unveiled on special occasions—budgeted, incidentally, at just $375,000 of what is, as Weiss noted, taxpayer money.

In fact some such curating was done 50 years ago, in response to protest against the murals, when a very young San Francisco–born artist, Dewey Crumpler, was commissioned to add an alternative view of "Multi-Ethnic Heritage", to satisfy the Black Panther students' demand that the chosen artist should be a member of the community.

Detail from Dewey Crumpler's triptych at George Washington High School, photo by Amanda Law.
Crumpler, still teaching at the Art Institute in San Francisco where he was a student in those days, and interviewed by The Frisc, thinks the Arnautoff murals should stay, for the representation not of the wickedness of the founders but of their deep, insoluble internal conflict:
Human liberty is a real revolutionary act that says human beings, by virtue of having been born to occupy space, should be free. That is extraordinary, a radical notion.
They wouldn’t have gotten there without Newton destabilizing the heavens. But they got there through the French. They were Francophiles and Anglophiles and brought those cultures with them and what they considered “the best” ideas, and they tried to elaborate on them. Problem was, they were also connected to a kind of psychotic expression. A tremendous dichotomy—on one hand expressing revolutionary ideas, and on the other responding to a psychosis which had been developed over hundreds of years....
But that mural should remain, and [the school district's] role is to deal with the students’ concerns. It might take a 21st-century kiosk or a screen that tells the story, to help that mural become a tool for teaching.
Students today have different readings of metaphors than did we in the previous century. Freedom of speech and art were linked as markers of progress and enlightenment. I think the lack of arts education in the schools has contributed to this lack of understanding. If you whitewash that mural, it will only bleed in history more powerfully than it bleeds right now.
Literally whitewashing. That seems just right to me.

It seems likely that there will be a legal challenge to the board's decision (mounted by the only member of the Reflection and Action Working Group to vote against it, Lope Yap, Jr., who was a student at Wash when Crumpler was painting his response, now vice president of the Alumni Association). If I hear anything I'll let you know. 

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