Erasing Arnautoff

The San Francisco Board of Education (BoE) voted unanimously in June to spend $600,000 to destroy thirteen murals painted by communist immigrant and artist Victor Arnautoff. The frescoes were commissioned in 1936 during the Great Depression by the Federal Arts Project (FAP) for a then-new George Washington High School. Arnautoff – in an act of defiance – eschewed the usual mythological representations of Washington, putting workers and farmers at the front of the American Revolution[1], and depicting Washington’s complicity in the slave trade and the genocide of westward expansion. Arnautoff showed working slaves and a murdered Native American man contrasted with ghost like settlers representing “Manifest Destiny.”

 

Detail of Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington, fresco/mural (~1936)

 

As the Living New Deal website observes:

Unlike all the other colorful figures in Arnautoff’s murals, he painted the westward-moving pioneers in ash-grey and armed them with rifles and a pickaxe with which to take the mineral wealth of the fallen Indian who, unlike them, he painted in full color. Arnautoff’s pioneers represent not heroes but a death march. They march to the far right of the painting toward the signing of a treaty that their armed progress will violate, just as so many treaties with Native Americans were broken. Arnautoff is saying that the U.S. was born and grew upon bad faith and over the body of a people that had lived for ages on their land until invaders violently took it from them.

Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert Cherny, is quoted arguing these murals offered a “counter-narrative” to Washington as myth.[2]

In contrast, some students, parents and community members have argued that Arnautoff’s intent is more or less irrelevant, that the murals create a hostile environment, and that the frescoes are even a celebration of white supremacy.

Hundreds of writers and artists have demanded the BoE reverse its decision. But a false narrative had already been produced pitting “aging white male art historians” against “young people of color.” This narrative is doubly false as some of the murals’ most prominent defenders are not white; and there is evidence that many students do not want the frescoes removed.[3] Moreover, this narrative creates a false choice between art and the needs and aspirations of the exploited and oppressed. The question to be examined here is (at least) twofold: why has this false narrative come to dominate and, secondly, what lessons do these dynamics hold for contemporary socialist artists.

 
 

Victor Arnautoff and the FAP

Arnautoff was born in 1896 in the Ukraine. During the Russian Civil War – in the wake of the October Revolution – he served with the anti-Bolshevik White Army. When the Red Army won the war he fled to China. From there he and his wife eventually made their way the Bay Area in 1925 – where he studied at the California School of Fine Arts. As Arnautoff hung out with left-wing artists in the Bay Area, and as he suffered the impact of the Great Depression, he moved to the left, eventually becoming a communist. He travelled to Mexico and worked as an assistant to the famous muralist and communist Diego Rivera. Arnautoff then returned to the United States to paint the revolution.[4]

The FAP, which started in 1935 and lasted, in some form, until 1943, was an emergency New Deal program meant to keep artists from starving to death during the Great Depression. Around 10,000 artists worked, at some point, for the FAP – including the sculptor Augusta Savage and the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. The program established over one hundred community arts centers – from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to the Harlem Community Art Center in New York. The FAP was the first major public investment in the arts in US history. Within its ranks hundreds of communist and socialist artists organized both for their own material needs and to express socialist ideas in their work.

Class at the Harlem Community Art Center (January 1, 1938) (Wikipedia)

Children's art class at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Wikipedia)

Jacksonville Negro Art Center, Jacksonville, Florida (Wikipedia)

Jacksonville Negro Art Center, Jacksonville, Florida (Wikipedia)

If the meaning of Arnautoff’s work is lost on some today, the reactionaries of his time saw it quite clearly. Conservatives tried to have his murals destroyed. He was criticized for a mural in the Palo Alto Medical Clinic that showed a bare breasted woman during a medical exam. And he was criticized for his Coit Tower mural depicting a newsstand with the conservative San Francisco Chronicle removed, replaced with communist and working-class newspapers. Arnautoff was even subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee for a 1955 lithograph of Richard Nixon titled DIX McSmear.

 

Victor Arnautoff, City Life, mural at Coit Tower (1934)

 

Arnautoff, Dewey Crumpler and the Fire Last Time

In the 1960s Black students at George Washington became frustrated with the limited nature of their representation in the Arnautoff murals. In 1968, after the BoE rejected calls to destroy the paintings, students voted 61 percent in favor of adding additional murals depicting positive images of Black people. Dewey Crumpler, then a young African American artist, now a professor at the San Francisco Art Institute, was hired. He is, notably, a defender of the Arnautoff paintings, arguing “Without Arnautoff’s murals, my murals are irrelevant. And without my murals, Arnautoff’s murals are irrelevant. They are one thing.”

 
 

Crumpler’s mural, Multi-Ethnic Heritage, stands nearby the original Arnautoff paintings.

Part of the difficulty, as Crumpler points out, in evaluating Arnautoff’s work is understanding that he was trying to capture the contradiction of the United States itself; a country founded in a (partial) revolution, claiming (albeit very problematically) Enlightenment ideals of liberty, freedom and equality, simultaneously steeped in colonial genocide and chattel slavery. Crumpler argues:

You can hold two thoughts at the very same moment. You have to understand and teach the complications of these extraordinary realities, so that the contradiction isn’t covered up as it has been for the 200-plus years the country has been in place. 

It was Arnautoff’s understanding of that contradiction, and his political training and his belief system that made it too glaring not to incorporate it into his work. He also studied with communists in Mexico. He had learned his craft by checking out Diego Rivera, who was absolutely not a colonialist. Arnautoff was part of that brigade of knowledge seekers and artists, Black artists and white artists, who went down to Mexico to check that out. That’s where the power center of the intellectual rigor of the creative arts was centered.

 When Arnautoff accepted the responsibility [of creating the Life of Washington mural] no one admitted the relationship of slavery to the founding father. There was a mythos around him being an honest person.

Detail of Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington, fresco/mural (~1936)

Detail of Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington, fresco/mural (~1936)

Or as Living New Deal puts it:

Some New Deal art can be interpreted as demeaning or even racist, but Victor Arnautoff’s daring murals, I believe, fall into a more problematic category. They depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny. It is a position so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public space.

The students in the 1960s were correct, however, that the Arnautoff murals were insufficient. Merely showing the barbarism of US history was not enough. The humanity of the empire’s victims had to be shown in its entirety. Under student pressure – and pressure from the Black Panther Party (BPP) – the BoE reached out to Black artists. Crumpler, at the time part of a Black artists group with Emory Douglas (BPP Minister of Culture), was chosen to paint the new murals.

Details from Dewey Crumpler's Multi-Ethnic Heritage murals (1974)

So the first thing you see when you come out of Arnautoff’s murals is my mural on Latin Americans and Native Americans. And then you turn around and look at the Black mural, then down the hallway there’s the edge of the Asian-American mural. Together they make one thing.

Part of the subterranean objection to these murals, in fact, is precisely that. They make one thing.

New Victorian Reparations

 “This is reparations” – Mark Sanchez (BoE commissioner). 

There is little evidence that the BoE represents much more than the usual real estate interests, bureaucratic risk aversion, Bay Area tech overlords, and the “New Victorian” moralism that infuses most gentrified cities. This is despite the fact that some have more radical pasts. The economic and political elite of the city is systematically cleansing the city of its working-class population; disproportionately impacting people of color. In recent decades the number of African Americans in the city has declined substantially. In April 2019 the average rent for an apartment in the city hit $3,933 a month, an almost ten percent increase over 2018.

 

Rooftop yoga in the now utterly unaffordable San Francisco

 

Mark Sanchez’s justification for censorship should be read in this light. “Reparations,” in this case, may cost $600,000 but their impact is entirely symbolic. The class and semi-racial ethnic cleaning of the city will continue. There will be little mainstream political talk about how today’s social cleansing (gentrification) is built into the DNA of the colonial-settler past. Instead, this history will be erased. The New Victorians have no wish to offend. They do, however, intend to keep cashing your rent checks and hiring more police. The BoE has apparently dropped discussion of changing the name of the school itself. In other words, commemorating a genocidal racist is okay as long as the racism and genocide goes unmentioned in mixed company.

This is the symbolic version of reparations being offered by the liberal bourgeois. The small print is this: There will only be symbolic reparations.

The Impossibility of Representation

There is a more sympathetic rationale, however, behind some calls to destroy the murals. It is rooted in a shift in the disciplinary and communicative aspects of capitalism. When Arnautoff painted this mural in the 1930s, literal exposure of the injustices of capitalism, racism and colonialism had a strategically viable purpose. An overdetermined and highly controlled capitalist press and ideological infrastructure tended to conceal the reality of those injustices. Exposure was appalling and instructive. The neoliberal turn, in tandem with the ubiquitous digital image, has changed this dynamic. Capitalism now relies on its media, or at least part of its social media industry, to reproduce images of its barbarism and injustices. The image of outrage becomes, in this dynamic, an image of further discipline.

 
Still from the 1991 Rodney King video.

Still from the 1991 Rodney King video.

 

This is a very recent change in representation -- bringing into formal structures what used to happen privately and informally. The Rodney King video – circulated at the very beginning of this media shift – broke through the official and constant cover up of police racism. It was shocking – even for those who already knew the truth. Almost thirty years later it is now commonplace to see such images of police racism, brutality and murder. The images now do what rumors used to – spread the threat of racist state terror. Before the shift, images of racist violence proved the truth of the rumors; they confirmed the “unconfirmed” narratives of Black, brown and poor people. This served both to rally the oppressed and win people over beyond the specifically oppressed group. This why Mamie Till wanted the image of her brutalized son broadcast to the world.

This strategy of exposure no longer works. Such images now often recapitulate the terror.

Today’s communist artists, therefore, must adjust their strategies of exposure. This is why those who have come of age after the shift may see these murals as representing the opposite of the artist’s intentions and their historic reception. This does not make the demand to destroy this artwork correct. Arnautoff could not have been expected to foresee this representational shift. Nor does the shift excuse the failure of the BoE to teach students about the problem of presentism: the mistake of viewing artistic and historical artifacts through the lens of the present, rather than imagining the possible subjectivities actually available in said history.

 

Black Lives Matter protest in solidarity with the Ferguson struggle in St. Louis (late 2014)

 

The above is related to what the artist Anupam Roy calls the impossibility of representation. As an example, I moved to St. Louis a few weeks before the police murder of Michael Brown and the Ferguson struggle. It was quite clear to me, as a socialist and artist, that nothing I could produce as an artist would be sufficient or even remotely comparable to the posters and memes being “organically” produced by the people of Ferguson, Missouri. Yet, at the same time, we are called on, as artists and socialists, to “connect the dots” of the capitalist nightmare. We cannot always do this directly, but can do so on the level of the dream image, or the “real image” as Roy calls it, the images of capitalism’s alterity.

 

Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads (in production) prior to its destruction in 1933 (Rockefeller Plaza)

 

It should be noted that the new visual/cultural logic contradicts, in certain ways, the nature of the mural itself. The mural was meant to 1) be public and 2) communicate a social totality. At one level this can be reductive. At another level it underlines the idea of social solidarity. As Dewey Crumpler describes the meetings leading up to the production of his 1968-1974 murals at George Washington:

We had hundreds of meetings over the years. First they said I couldn’t paint Indians, then I couldn’t paint Asians. First it was only going to be a mural about African Americans, but I and a couple Panthers said it needs to encompass all Third World people.

A proprietary approach to identity, of course, short-circuits mutually reinforcing solidarity. It is a petit-bourgeois approach to oppression. At the same time, we have the related-but-not-identical problem of the impossibility of representation.

Navigating this contradiction will be key to socialist artists in the coming century. One solution could be the creative interplay of distinctly crafted expressive gestures. But new questions quickly follow. Who is the architect of this new totality? Who frames these gestures? To what end? We already see some terrifying answers in our social media. Another possible solution may be to create a modular, contingent and evolving muralism; one in which totality is represented as irrealist.

 

Parker Bright’s Confronting My Own Possible Death (2018)

 

Regardless, understanding this dynamic can help artists avoid catastrophic mistakes like Dana Schutz’s Open Casket. But projecting our state of being backwards in time, and cleansing the world of anything that does not fit that state of being, will lead us to erasing the past – and misunderstanding the present. Moreover, such historic erasure will do capitalism’s job for it.

Losing Midnight

Last year the BoE set up an advisory committee, the Reflection and Action Group (RAG), to discuss the fate of the Arnautoff murals. Lope Yap, the vice-president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, was the lone voice on the RAG defending the murals. “There are not many people whose politics are left of me,” he said. “If they succeed, this would be book burning in Germany in the 1930s.”

Mr. Yap, despite his correct effort to save the murals, is wrong in this comparison. The people destroying this art aren’t Nazis. They are good liberals. But there is a subterranean connection in which his comparison is apt. These are good liberals who have been conditioned by neoliberalism to see human beings, and the cultural artifacts they create, as superfluous and expendable.  

Allied soldiers liberating art stolen by the Nazis at the end of the war.

Allied soldiers liberating art stolen by the Nazis at the end of the war.

Nazi book burning in 1933

Hitler inspecting modern art during one of the Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibitions of the late 1930s.

From 1940 to 1944 the Jeu de Paume in Paris was used by the Nazis to sort stolen art into four categories (more or less): stolen art to be taken back to enrich the glory of the Reich, stolen art to be taken back for the private collections of Nazi leaders, stolen art to be sold on the black market, and art to be destroyed. Joseph Goebbels himself would walk the long hall of the Jeu de Paume making decisions about the fate of the artwork hanging salon-style. On July 27, 1942, the Nazis built a bonfire of “degenerate” (and unsold) artwork – including pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Salvador Dali – outside the hall. 

The reason to recount the above is to reassert a lost principle, a lost lesson, from the midnight of the past century. This lesson connected the brutality of fascist and Stalinist regimes with their retrograde and reactionary positions toward art. Those who are willing to destroy recorded human performances (art) were, of course, more than willing to destroy actual human beings. Those willing to passively accept others’ destruction of art were willing to accept others’ destruction of human beings. They are mutually reinforcing impulses. The midnight of the century marked the venial sin of censorship with the mortal sins of fascism and dictatorship.

The memory of that connection – like the memory of the midnight more generally – is being lost. The existence of concentration camps and the willingness of public officials to destroy art are not completely unrelated phenomena. This does not mean that the BoE is fascist; it is to say a broader social dynamic is at work. Part of that broader dynamic is the mutually reinforcing feedback of neoliberal economics (literally devaluing human labor), the War on Terror (literally devaluing human life) and the reflection of each in the digital gesamktunstwerk of social media (symbolically making humans expendable).

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty #1, engraving (1751)

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty #2, engraving (1751)

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty #3, engraving (1751)

William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty #4, engraving (1751)

As Richard Seymour writes, reflecting on the virtual crowd, in “What harm did mobs ever do?”

I think the issue is the ubiquitous passions and pleasures of ‘taking down’ hated individuals, punishing ideas and thoughts that one hates (for good or bad reasons), conformism, clubbishness, and sadism-as-virtue.

The fascism-beneath-the-surface should be clear: The ease of ritualized deflection of otherwise righteous social anger (toward the ritual sacrifice, away from the social totality). George Washington’s racist empire cannot be erased (without revolution) – but Victor Arnautoff, a long dead communist immigrant and artist, can be. His anti-racist and communist bona fides are no longer relevant; they are lost to the memory holes of North American amnesia. The historical struggles that surrounded the murals in the 1960s and 1970s and their resolutions no longer matter.

“There is not a fully formed fascist movement,” Seymour writes, “paramilitary, mass party or state. But there is something bubbling away that could become the fascism of the twenty-first century. And that process of becoming must start somewhere, in the everyday, in the ordinary, that which is mainstreamed and morally mandated. It must begin with the liberation of tendencies and desires that already exist in masses of people, otherwise it has no prospect of becoming a mass movement.”

Cancellation in Digital vs. Analog Space

Part of the controversy around Arnautoff’s murals can be seen as the manifestation of the digital into the analog space; from virtual to IRL. The BoE is, in this sense, applying the rules of Facebook moderation to the “real world.” Those agitating against the murals can be seen as physically manifesting the digital call-out into analog space. The solution, of course, is always cancellation. The underlying logic of social media, as I (and others) have argued elsewhere, is shaped primarily by the needs of neoliberal capitalism – down to its very algorithms. The erasure of Victor Arnautoff is a small price to pay to keep the greater neoliberal algorithm running smoothly.

 

Still from Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952): a secret allegory against McCarthyism. Gary Cooper gets cancelled but still does the “right thing.” He then tells everyone to fuck off.

 

The primacy of “emotional safety” over pedagogical rigor reflects both corporate social media and neoliberal education “reform.” High school students are seen as a mass to protect from the truth of the world rather than as a cohort of unique subjects to prepare for adult agency. This makes sense given the limited career paths, faux democracy, and existential planetary horror that awaits them.

BoE commissioner Faauuga Moliga argued his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” As someone who was in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, I am unsure what to make of this concern in a country that cannot stop its epidemics of school (and other) mass shootings. Feeling safe is important. Being safe seems less important. More to the immediate point, for serious educators, the solution to the contradiction of the murals is patiently unpacking the aforementioned question of presentism.

Contemporary bourgeois culture, reinforced by its social media, however, decouples both present and past from context. The contemporary bourgeois, with their technologies, sees all culture and history as a, more or less equal, buffet to sample. Historical or social specificity interrupts their utopia – and reminds them of us – the majority of the human race that is still trapped by crude and material circumstance. The unpleasant reminders of that reality must be eradicated – online and IRL.

In the digital realm we are comforted by the idea that nothing is ever truly deleted, despite the cancellation of this or that person, or this or that meme, for good or bad. But this dubious reassurance does not translate to the analog. The RAG majority argued that removing the murals without destroying them would be too expensive, and, regardless, they could just be archived digitally. But the meaning of a fresco, a mural, a physical painting, is bound up with its actuality. 

 

Victor Arnautoff’s Richmond: Industrial City, mural/fresco (1941): “This is not a painting.”

 

The digital images of Arnautoff’s paintings are not Arnautoff’s paintings. Their historical-social value will be obliterated as they are turned into digital ghosts.

Note On the Toppling of Confederate Statues

As the National Coalition Against Censorship argued “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.” We should be even more clear. Art is always, at some level, about the interaction of the subjective individual (self-expression) and collective mythologies (with, against, or, most often, both). Confederate statues and monuments were largely mass produced during various waves of civil rights activity to intimidate Black activists and their allies. The first element is almost entirely missing. Secondly, these monuments created a false narrative of white unity and heritage. This got poor Southern whites to identify with the descendants of plantation owners; the same plantation class that kept their ancestors from accessing good land in the antebellum South; thereby keeping them poor. Terroristic threats and racist propaganda are not art. Of course there is racist and reactionary art; such art often focuses on the alienation of a subjective individual from a new “hard to understand” social reality of “crime,” libidinousness or moral relativism (see Cormac McCarthy and Clint Eastwood). Confederate monuments don’t even rise to that standard.

 

This is not “art,” although destroying it might be.

 

The Responsibilities of the Messianic Generation

The instances of left-liberal erasure and censorship conceal that the overall threat to free expression, generally speaking, comes from the far right. For example, according to the American Library Association, four of the top eleven banned books in the US in 2018 were banned for LGBTQ content. But left-liberal erasure also reinforces the overall logic of censorship. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, the New Victorians, and the new left, may find themselves unable to control this logic when applied to ends we find antithetical to our own.

In his “Theses on History” Walter Benjamin writes: 

[Social Democracy] contented itself with assigning the working-class the role of the savior of future generations. It thereby severed the sinews of its greatest power. Through this schooling the class forgot its hate as much as its spirit of sacrifice. For both nourish themselves on the picture of enslaved forebears, not on the ideal of the emancipated heirs.

The erasure of our history is anathema to the communist.

 

Stalin had Leon Trotsky erased from this photograph of Vladimir Lenin during an anniversary celebration of the October Revolution.

 

There is more to be discussed. There is a widespread misunderstanding of art, fostered by the contemporary art world, that art is merely entertainment. It is not. There is the history of Gustave Courbet, the destruction of the Vendome Column, and the Paris Commune. There is the question of “creative destruction.” But there is also the history of the Stalinist erasure of dissident Bolsheviks. The Stalinists erased living-breathing comrades with bullets in their heads. They erased the visual record of those comrades by editing them out of historic photographs.

These are the “magics” of censorship our sorcerer’s apprentices are loosing into the world.

Important Links

Endnotes

[1] Of course there is a good deal of social patriotism in New Deal art, a product of the Stalinist Popular Front. This downplayed the contradictions between the actual revolution that unfolded in New England (a Liberty Tree/Pole centered anti-colonial mob of artisans, workers, and small farmers) vs. merchant and plantation interests (that consolidated their power during and after the war).
[2] This does not mean there were not blind spots in Arnautoff’s counter-narrative; although to what extent this was strategic (how much criticism he could “get away with”) and how much was his own point-of-view is not clear.
[3] Lope Yap, vice-president of the Washington High School Alumni Association, and Dewey Crumpler, the artist, neither one of whom are white, are both major defenders of the mural. Barbara A. Brewer, an English teacher at Washington High had 49 of her freshman students write essays about the mural controversy. The majority did not want the murals erased. Only four wrote in favor of removing the art.
[4] In 1933 Arnautoff’s mentor was himself famously subject to the destruction of his own mural, Man at the Crossroads, sited at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. In 1933 the New York Times attacked Rivera’s mural, still in production, as communist propaganda. Rivera’s response was to add scenes of an International Workers Day (May Day) procession in Moscow and a portrait of Vladimir Lenin. Rivera hid the additions (particularly the Lenin portrait) from Nelson Rockefeller, hoping to reveal his additions along with the rest of the painting on the May 1st unveiling. Rivera’s ruse was revealed, however, when construction workers accidentally dripped paint on the mural. Rivera was ordered to remove the portrait of Lenin. He refused. While art students and communists protested the mural was destroyed. Rivera created a new version of the mural, on a smaller scale, in Mexico City.


Evicted Art is Red Wedge art and design editor Adam Turl’s blog on anti-capitalism and contemporary studio art. His website is evictedart.com.