Activists want a San Francisco high school mural removed, saying its impact today should overshadow the artist’s intentions

For nearly a century, a massive mural by painter Victor Arnautoff titled “The Life of Washington” has lined the hallways of San Francisco’s George Washington High School.

It may not be there much longer.

The mural “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy [and] oppression.” So said Washington High School’s Reflection and Action Group, an ad-hoc committee formed late last year and made up of Native Americans from the community, students, school employees, local artists and historians.

It identified two panels as especially offensive. One shows Washington pointing westward next to the body of a dead Native American. The other depicts slaves working in the fields of Mount Vernon.

Because the work “traumatizes students and community members,” the group concluded that “the impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was.” They are campaigning for its removal.

The idea that impact matters more than intention has informed debates about everything from microaggressions to cultural appropriation.

But when it comes to art, should impact matter more than intention?

As historians committed to preserving our cultural heritage – and as citizens invested in the power of art to engage the public – we see the growing chorus of voices favoring impact over intention as a dangerous trend, one that makes art more vulnerable to rejection, censorship or even destruction.

A radical work for its time

For most members of the Washington High School’s Reflection and Action Group, the only message “The Life of Washington” sends is one of crushing, dehumanizing oppression.

What happens, though, when we examine the mural in the context of the life and times of the artist?

Painter Victor Arnautoff was born in 1896 in a small village in present-day Ukraine. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1925, where he joined a leftist art collective. During the Great Depression he was a supporter of workers’ strikes and formally joined the Communist Party in 1937. He was even hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1956 for drawing a “Communist Conspiracy” cartoon that caricatured then-Vice President Nixon.

In “The Life of Washington,” Arnautoff decided to place Native Americans, African Americans and working-class revolutionaries front and center in the four largest panels, relegating Washington to the margins.

In his mural, Arnautoff strove to emphasize everyday Americans of all races. Dick Evans, CC BY
The slaves toiling in the Mount Vernon fields highlight a central paradox of America’s history: The nation was founded by men who championed liberty, freedom and equality, and yet owned slaves.

Then there’s the striking image of the fallen Native American. The mural’s detractors say that it dismisses the humanity of indigenous peoples. But why must it necessarily be read as dehumanizing to Native Americans? Could it not instead be seen as throwing into sharp relief the inhumanity of the founding fathers?

According to Arnautoff’s biographer, Robert W. Cherny, the image challenged the fallacy that “westward expansion had been into largely vacant territory waiting for white pioneers to develop its full potential.”

A 1941 self-portrait of painter Victor Arnautoff. Russian Museum
That the mural appears in a school is particularly important in this regard. For decades, the country’s educational institutions perpetuated national myths about American exceptionalism and American history as one long glorious march of forward progress. Up until the 1960s, the standard U.S. history curriculum ignored the country’s dark and terrifying history of racial violence, including enslavement and the slaughter of indigenous peoples. So drawing attention to the horrors inflicted on Native Americans and African Americans would have been a radical statement in 1930s America.