By Felipe Vera
On Tuesday June 25, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) held a meeting and voted to remove the murals of Victor Arnautoff from George Washington High School, a decision that will cost over six hundred thousand dollars.
The mural, entitled “The Life of George Washington,” was completed during the New Deal Era in the 1930s and depicts the enslavement of Africans and genocide of Native Americans, a sharp contrast with the textbook whitewashing of United States history that still exists today.
Arnautoff was born in Russia and fought on the side of the anti-communist White Serbian Army against the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution. In the early 1920s he fled to the United States and lived in San Francisco. It was there that he attended the Californian School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and after his studies went to Mexico to work with the Trotskyist Diego Rivera.
In the 1930s, he abandoned his former anti-communist stance and became a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). In the 1950s, he and others were investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Critics of the mural have said this image upholds racism and white supremacy due to its depictions of genocide and slavery. Paloma Flores, the school district’s Native American education program coordinator said, “No one has the right to tell us as native people—or our young people who walk those halls everyday—how they feel. You’re not in those shoes.”
The postmodern opposition to the mural, which centers discourse and subjective “lived-experience,” only serves to further sanitize the history of American settler-colonialism and completely fails to take into account the class position and political message of the mural. The horrors of the past must be discarded into the dustbin of history, but this cannot be done by simply painting over what happened. History is the outcome of class struggle, and in order to advance the class struggle of today, the class struggle of the yesterday must be understood.
While some claim that it should not be taken down because it violates freedom of speech, this is not of primary concern. What is far more important is the class position and perspective of any art piece.
The “controversy” over this mural is not new, but a reaction to the movement to take down Confederate statues and symbols. Whereas those monuments were erected to glorify slaveowners and their allies, Arnautoff’s mural was painted to condemn US imperialism and its bloody and sordid past.