More Mural Fever in San Francisco: Arnautoff Controversy Goes Viral

Diego Rivera mural at the San Francisco Art Institute. Photo: Jomo.

Students and faculty members gathered in the auditorium at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) recently to hear a panel discussion about “public art.” They were joined by citizens concerned about the controversial murals at George Washington High School, which were painted in the 1930s, by WPA artist and Communist Party member Victor Arnautoff who was born in Russia and who died in the Soviet Union. Before the panel began, Robin Ballinger, one of the organizers for the event, and a faculty member at SFAI, expressed the hope that the panel might get beyond theArnautoff murals and the controversies they have sparked. That was understandable. Articles about the murals have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere. In cafes and restaurants and on the streets of San Francisco, the murals are a topic of conversation. They have been for months.

For about 90 minutes, Ballinger who was once in a punk rock band, tried valiantly to steer the conversation away from Arnautoff and George Washington, the school and the president. She had ample help from fellow penialists: Jeanne Przyblyski, an academic and a San Francisco Arts Commissioner from 2004-2009; Refa One, an African-American artist from Oakland; and Cristóbal Martínez who belongs to the artist’s collective, “Postcommodity,” and who also teaches at SFAI.

Collectively and individually, the panel members shed light on the subject of public art, but ultimately they could not prevent the audience from hijacking the forum and taking it back to the murals, which depict the life and times of George Washington, and that include graphic images of African-American slaves who look docile and obedient, along with an image of a dead Indian lying on the ground facedown.

Some viewers look at the images and see racism and imperialism and insist that they are “traumatized” by them. Others look and see an accurate portrayal of U.S. history, which they say includes slavery and genocide. Like beauty, art seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Part of the problem with the panel at SFAI was the academic setting, and the academic language of the presenters that went, mostly, under, over and around the intelligence of the audience.

Ballinger’s talk was titled “Public Art in the Era of Neoliberal Privatization.” Unfortunately, she never defined what she meant by that problematic word “neoliberal,” which to some means the expansion of capital in the developing world and the hegemony of the imperial powers, including the U.S. It didn’t help to quote Jürgen Habermas, who just turned 90, though he has made important contributions to the understanding of capitalism and Western style democracy. In the auditorium at the SFAI, Habermas felt like overkill.

Professor Przyblyski noted that if Arnautoff had painted George Washington crossing the Delaware “we think it boring and not worth talking about.” Possibly but not guaranteed. Art is almost always controversial, even when it seems innocuous. Przyblyski added that, “artists need to stand up for the unpopular, and the controversial.” She might have been talking about Refa One, his life and his work, including a mural of Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, which has stirred up controversy in Oakland.

Refa talked about “police terrorism”in his hometown and explained that he made art under the gun of “white power.” Refa One’s mural of Oscar Grant III— a 22-year-old African-American shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009 by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle — took ten years to complete, he said. The city of Oakland and the police department fought it the whole way. Only community support made it possible. Refa One explained that while Dakar in west Africa has its share of problems, he had more freedom to make art there then in Oakland, which he described as a colony of white America.

Cristóbal Martínez echoed some of Refa One’s sentiments, though he also offered his own unique perspective. He aimed to “hack and dismantle institutions that didn’t have the capacity for compassion,” he said. Some of his own art was made in prison, where he said, he felt like he was “behind enemy lines.”

Once Martínez had his say the audience took over. Mary Travis, an American Indian, explained that “our people are marginalized” and that “historical trauma is real for us.” She added, approps the Arnautoff mural, “it’s about the pain and the injury that continues.” Up next was boisterous Jack Heyman, a retired longshore activist, and a friend in the 1960s of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who sang the praises of the labor movement, trade unions and Arnautoff. In a flyer that he handed out Heyman wrote, “To stop the mural-destroying liberals, there needs to be an outpouring of opposition, particularly from students and teachers and transport unions.

Opposition to the censorship of the murals came from Kevin Baker in the pages of Harper’s in the November 2019 issue. Baker added little that was new to the subject, except his own opinions. His overarching observations sounded like showing off, especially when he noted that, “in our endless, self-lacerating culture wars, nothing is ever over.” Really? Culture wars have been around for as long as there’s been culture. They’re what we do. They give meaning to our lives.

Baker took exception to a comment by Kai Anderson-Lawson who told the San Francisco school board. “The mural is very hard to look at due to the fact that it paints my people as victims.” Baker added, “here is, I think, the key to this whole war of misunderstood words: victim. It has become the very worst thing to be in our popular discourse, the one thing that none of us wants to be. And yet we all are.” Speak for yourself, sir. Many of us, including African-Americans, Indians, and people of all shades, think of themselves as “survivors” not as victims. It’s an important distinction.

Baker might have learned something by attending the panel and listening to Refa One and to Cristóbal Martínez who explained that “self-determined indigenous people” didn’t make the George Washington High School murals and that, in his view, made all the difference in the world.                                                                   Art, Martínez seemed to be saying wasn’t only in the eye of the beholder. It was also in the eyes of the creator, his or her roots and the culture in which the art gestated and was born. A reception with food and drink followed the panel in a room with a huge mural painted by Diego Rivera in the 1930s, and that depicts workers and capitalists, and that shows artists making the very mural that covers one wall from floor to ceiling. That’s pure genius. That’s Diego Rivera who made murals from Mexico City to San Francisco and New York and who ran afoul of figures like Nelson Rockefeller who ordered the destruction of the Rockefeller Center mural and later ordered New York State Troopers to storm Attica Prison, which resulted in the death of 43 people. Now, there’s a bloody culture war.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.