If These San Franciscan Walls Could Talk

by Tash Moore

What parts of art can we do away with? The question has often been posed: the artist or the art? Not often has this concern hit home the way it did at George Washington High School recently, a public school in San Francisco, California. A mural on the school’s campus has not been without its share of criticism throughout its 80-plus year history, however, never has the debate between balancing context and political correctness been so intense.

The mural in question was originally commissioned through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts program during the Great Depression. An immigrant and Communist named Victor Arnautoff allegedly sought to tell both sides of the story in his piece: depicting both Washington’s accomplishments as well as his less honorable exploits (at least from a modern perspective) including the enslavement of Africans and the slaughter of indigenous people. Every day, it’s said that students often implore one another to meet under the dead Indian as shorthand for linking up. This is understandably upsetting in an era of modern sensitivities.

The mural has come under fire in another tense period: the Civil Rights era saw a challenge to the imagery and a compromise was struck; rather than remove the artwork, a more progressive mural was commissioned elsewhere on school grounds.

Now, the community is being asked to weigh history against current idealism and sensibilities. How do we focus on one aspect of storytelling while ignoring or, depending on who you ask, celebrating complexities or atrocities? After all, no one to our knowledge is proposing that the school itself be renamed (yet). How do we as a community decide what stays or goes? Is a statue unacceptable but a social club or sports team with offensive imagery grounded in historical significance fair game? Pun not intended. Do we pretend atrocities never happened or invite the sort of debate we’re seeing in San Francisco? And if the mural survives, for how long? Are we washing away reality or tending to the needs of everyone present?

After all, George Washington has been dead quite a long time, and while greatly impacted by the policies of the colonial era, indigenous people are still there very much alive. So who won in the long run? What do you think? Share your thoughts with us!

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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.

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