(A Self-Portrait by the Artist)
In 2018, San Francisco removed the 124-year-old Early Days sculpture from Civic Center Plaza because it showed a Plains Indian sitting at the feet of a Catholic missionary and a Spanish cowboy. And, just last month, the San Francisco school board unanimously voted to paint over a 1936 fresco by a Russian-American, the Soviet socialist realist artist Victor Arnautoff. The school board had second thoughts, and elected to cover the work with panels instead.
This is not the first time people have wanted to remove the work. In the 1960s, the student wing of the Black Panther Party commissioned a radical African-American painter to create a response mural with positive depictions of people of color. Because of the controversy surrounding the work, the school board has declined to put the building on the historic landmark list, which would make destruction of the mural more difficult.
So what’s so offensive about this mural? The work in question, titled “Life of George Washington,” consists of thirteen panels, some of which portray Washington himself. The central panels, however, depict the masses. We see the colonial rebellion, the Tea Party, and the Gadsden flag. It shows George Washington as a slave-owner, and westward expansion as an act of genocide: the grey figures of settlers are depicted walking over the body of a dead Indian.
Victor Arnautoff was born in in the Russian Empire in 1896. Following the Bolshevik revolution, the left-leaning young man found himself conscripted into the White Army, which was battling the Reds. As the White Army was decimated, the future muralist fled first to China, and then to the US. He studied art in San Francisco, and then, in 1929, moved to Mexico to work under Diego Rivera.
Returning to the US, Arnautoff was able to secure work under WPA, creating frescos on the landmark Coit Tower, and the epic “Life of Washington” mural on Washington High. In 1938, Arnautoff joined the Communist Party and became active in pro-Soviet circles. That same year, unknown to Victor, the Soviets executed his Orthodox priest father, who had stayed in the USSR, for “counterrevolutionary activities.”
In 1939, Arnautoff began teaching art at Stanford University, where he remained until 1963. After the death of his wife, he retired from Stanford, and moved to the USSR. By that point, he had learned from his niece that his father had been seized in the middle of the night and never heard from again. Nonetheless, Arnautoff remained in the Soviet Union, where he remarried, joined the artists’ union, was given an apartment (a privilege in the USSR), wrote a memoir and continued working on his art until his death in 1979.
When asked about the “Life of Washington” controversy, Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert Cherny, said that the artist wanted to provide “a counter narrative” to the textbook American history of the 1930s. One Washington High alumnus suggested that Arnautoff wanted to show that there were “injustices” in American history. This is a modest goal—and bad Marxism.
A doctrinaire Marxist is confident in his correct interpretation of history: it’s not “a counter narrative,” but the narrative. Arnautoff didn’t merely want to supplement contemporary textbooks with additional facts: he believed mainstream American history was a lie. On the most prominent fresco, we see a cherry tree painted next to the head of the dead Indian. In ridiculing the story that George Washington was unable to tell a lie, Arnautoff rejected the mainstream reading of history.
A communist views history through the prism of historical materialism, understands the human experience as class struggle, and believes that social classes, political structures and ideologies are derivative of economic activity. Karl Marx has identified several stages of economic development that humanity passes through on its way towards communism. In this view, the War for Independence served the purpose of a bourgeois revolution, advancing the nascent country from feudalism to capitalism. It was good in as much as it was progress, but it didn’t constitute a socialist revolution.
Our Founding Fathers weren’t heroes in Soviet eyes, and the fact that some of them owned slaves was central to the Soviet take on American history. The USSR sought to exploit racial divisions within American society—not to facilitate better understanding between ethnic groups, but to bring about a socialist revolution.
Arnautoff was not merely an artist who happened to be a card-carrying communist: he worked in the frankly propagandist socialist realist genre. This genre demands adherence to a Marxist interpretation of history, which, in socialist countries, means portrayal of the struggle of the masses on the path to the inevitable victory of communism. The leaders of the socialist revolution, and of the Soviet government, and the mythology surrounding their lives are prominent themes. There is a racial angle, too: Moscow was the capital of the Third International, and ethnic Russians were depicted as leading the peoples of the world towards the bright communist future.
“Life of George Washington” is unique, since the artist produced a communist narrative, while working with American subject matter. The masses are glorified; ethnic strife is central; Washington himself is minimized; and so are our founding principles. The fresco is no masterpiece, but Arnautoff developed a symbolic language that allowed him to translate communist dogma into a painting about the founding of America: an interesting approach.
The artist tried to advance his politics with some discretion—given that his work still had to be run by a committee. But the mural’s message should obvious to anyone familiar with The Communist Manifesto. Unfortunately for Arnautoff, few Americans have read that historical artifact, and, anyway, today’s radicalism takes a very different shape. Since the ideological foundations of his fresco have been obscured, people have started focusing on race.
“It is known the kids will say ‘meet me under the dead Indian’ for lunch or after school,” reports Washington High parent and Native American Amy Anderson. Other parents and activists are equally outraged. “Just because it’s historic doesn’t mean that it’s right and has to be here forever,” opined Kevin Boggess, political director of the non-profit group Coleman Advocates. Board commissioner Alison Collins expressed a similar sentiment: “It might be art but yes, it can also be racist.” Asked about the $600,000 price tag for the removal of the controversial mural, school board member Mark Sanchez responded, “This is reparations.”
One common theme among the mural’s detractors is that neither aesthetics nor the work’s history as a part of San Francisco’s cultural heritage matter. Only politics do. But, as the National Coalition Against Censorship has stated, “Political artworks like Arnautoff’s must not be confused with historic monuments such as Confederate statues, which are intended to send a clear racist message.” The mural was meant to solicit discomfort—and our history should make us feel uncomfortable. Arnautoff and his comrades were, if anything, too successful in getting part of their message out. Today’s high school graduates all know that George Washington owned slaves, and they don’t need any pictorials to inform them.
Yet, in other ways, American Marxist-Leninists have completely failed. Communist Party membership peaked during the Great Depression, but left-wing fundamentalism never really took off. Since America is more divided by race than class, historical materialism is not a thing today, while intersectionality is.
Intersectionality dictates its own norms of visual representation—more respectful, less triggering. At the school board meeting, attendees complained that minority students are unnerved by Arnautoff’s mural. As cities across America renew their public art, we’ll see a lot of intersectional realism, America’s own version of socialist realism, in years to come. Will intersectional art be any good? Judging by the Washington High response mural and the portraits of Oscar Grant III plastered around Oakland, it seems unlikely. But who knows. A socialist realism revival is currently happening in Russia, and some of the art—evaluated purely on aesthetic merit—is quite good. The emerging, authentically American subgenre could be equally interesting, though not for the propaganda reasons it sees itself as serving.
Maybe it was not such a good idea of Arnautoff’s to paint a dead man on the wall of a building that teenagers frequent. And maybe Arnautoff was aware of that, because when, following his return to the motherland, he created a mosaic for School Number 54 in Zhdanov (now Mariupol), he depicted sunny children with doves and airplanes—boilerplate socialist realism.
He did not paint a multipanel depiction of the city’s namesake Andrei Zhdanov to inspire discussion of the way in which Zhdanov damaged Russian science and culture. Nor did he include a likeness of Zhdanov’s boss Joseph Stalin, stepping over tens of millions dead and hundreds of millions of the enslaved. He didn’t paint any secret symbolic messages for the Soviet people to decode.
Despite Ukraine’s decommunization law, Arnautoff’s public art in Mariupol remains on display. San Francisco is not so lucky. For the world city it aspires to be, it doesn’t contain much art, so the disappearance of a mural, even a mural by a minor artist, is unfortunate.
Here is my modest proposal: close Washington High. There aren’t many children in San Francisco: the city has more IV drug users than public school students, so surely its schools can be consolidated. Transfer ownership of the building to a private entity, and turn it into a museum of political correctness filled with discarded art. Repurposing the building may be the only way to ensure the continuous display of the fresco.