Arnautoff Murals

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Controversial murals at George Washington High School in San Francisco have sparked debate over the nature of our history and how to talk about it. Michael Whitcomb has this Perspective.

The San Francisco School Board is deciding whether to remove and destroy large murals located at George Washington High School. They were painted during the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a major WPA artist. While the murals depict highlights of Washington’s career, they also show slaves at Mount Vernon and dead Native Americans, the victims of westward expansion. These images can be offensive and disturbing for some. But in this case, removing the murals would be misguided and counter-productive. There is a better way to handle this.

Courtesy of Ron Cherny, author, 'Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art’

But first, what is the point of these murals? Rather than regurgitate the traditional heroic images of our founders, Arnautoff took on the issues of slavery and genocide. He wanted to offer a more balanced history.

Second, nobody wants to offend members of the community with disturbing images. But sheltering students from the difficult aspects of our history does them a disservice. Instead, we need to prepare them for a world where controversy exists. They need to develop reasoned positions on complex issues, and then be able to defend those positions in the marketplace of ideas.

Courtesy of Ron Cherny, author, 'Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art’

Finally, Arnautoff represents an important fixture in art and cultural history. Just see Robert Cherny’s book on his amazing life and work. Destroying these murals would represent a painful and unjustified loss to our city.


Rather than remove the murals, the school board could seize the educational opportunity in front of them. Put up signage that highlights the issues surrounding the murals. Offer lectures that discuss the murals in the context of political, cultural and art history. Even conduct a student debate. This would help students navigate our complicated history, not avoid it.

With a Perspective, this is Michael Whitcomb.

Michael Whitcomb is a management consultant living in San Francisco.