Controversy Over New Deal Art

By Valerie Andrews

New Deal mural queationing our national mythology by Leftist painter Victor Arnautoff.

Who gets to say what parts of the American narrative are acceptable and what parts are to be excised or erased? This is the heart of a heated conversation about the role of public art today.

The spotlight has been on New Deal muralists known for their radical views of American history. Consider the Communist painter Victor Arnautoff.  He studied with Diego Rivera, was a target of the House Un-American Activities Commission, and his lithograph (“DIX McSmear”) linking Vice President Richard Nixon with McCarthyism ended up on the cover of The Nation but nearly cost him his teaching post at Stanford.

Arnautoff served in the Tsar’s cavalry in World War I, then fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution.  He died in 1979 after a staunchly left-wing career.  Then, in 2019, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to paint over his 1600 square-foot mural at George Washington High School, labeling his work offensive and politically incorrect. 

Here’s the back story. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration commissioned Arnautoff to depict the life of our first president.  But the artist turned the tale of Washington as the “boy unable to tell a lie” on its head and proceeded to dismantle our national mythology.   In this sprawling and subversive fresco, Washington’s cherry tree appears next to the body of a dead Native American—refuting “the lie” that settlers simply moved West into a land of promise when in fact, they stole it from the nation’s first inhabitants. 

Arnautoff also made it clear that Washington profited from slave labor.  Instead of focusing on the Founder,  he put the neglected, the downtrodden, the persecuted at the center of his frame.

“As I see it, “ Arnautoff wrote in 1935, “the artist is a critic of society.”

Until then, Washington had received the full heroic treatment:  Emanuel Leutz shows him fording the Delaware before the Battle of Trenton.  In Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished portrait, our Founding Father seems to be  looking down on us from a bank of clouds.

Yet times change and so does our national mythology.   

In 1967-68, Black students protested the depiction of slaves in Arnautoff’s mural. And so, with the blessing of the Black Panthers, San Francisco artist Dewey Crumpler was hired to paint a companion piece.  His Multi-Ethnic Heritage: Black, Asian, Native/Latin American, completed in 1974,  is a bold celebration of diversity and inclusion.  There’s a palpable energy bouncing back and forth between Arnautoff’s  and Crumpler’s vision—a kind of call and response that has all the kinetic energy of a gospel service.   This is the synergy every museum curator hopes for, since it shows that art is an ongoing conversation, and reveals how our iconography changes from one era to the next.

In 2017, the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission recommended that Arnautoff’s fresco be granted landmark status.

Yet on June 25, 2019, the Board of Education voted to paint over the mural, in response to  two First Nation activists who said their teenagers had been emotionally traumatized by the mural’s depiction of Blacks and Native Americans.

 As Michele Bogart reports in Art in America, “Arnautoff’s murals were provocative in his own time, for reasons with which the #paintitdown contingent might perhaps have identified,” adding that “For a Communist artist to get away with critiquing, as part of a federal cultural program, the ‘Father of our Country’ for whom the high school had been named, was out of the ordinary.” 

A large contingent of  the community wanted to keep the Arnautoff mural, among them Dewey Crumpler, the NAACP, actor Danny Glover, and a host of George Washington high school students and alumni.  They joined the preservationists, noting that the two narratives—Arnautoff’s and Crumpler’s—were complementary, showing how our view of history evolves. 

Images are difficult, but that’s what education is about, says Crumpler, an Associate Professor of painting at San Francisco Art Institute.  Crumpler examines issues of globalization and cultural modification through the integration of digital imagery, video and conventional painting techniques.  His work shows us how to navigate the future, while holding on to the traditions of the past.

In his thoughtful and reasoned support of the New Deal mural, Crumpler says we need to look squarely at all aspects of our history, and of human nature.  The purpose of education, it has been said,  is to enable us to tolerate ambiguity.  The same is true for art.  It’s not here to make us feel good, or to whitewash our nation’s past.  At its best, art prepares us to deal with a world that’s often unkind and full of contradictions and complexity.  

That said, how do we deal with the sense of oppression expressed by some American citizens? How can these murals become the basis for a public dialogue? 

Barbara Bernstein, Public Art Specialist for The Living New Deal, and founder of  The New Deal Art Registry, addresses our need to consider the emotional response that art work evokes as well as the artist’s intent.  

“I’m sympathetic toward people who think public art can be derogatory,” she says. “And sometimes it is.  To me the most notorious example is a New Deal mural called The Dangers of the Mail. It’s in an old post office in Washington, DC, that is now the Willian Clinton Federal Building.  The painting shows Indians attacking settlers, raping women, hauling people by the hair.  It’s artistically accomplished but the contents are horrifying.”  For years, the mural was hidden by a blackboard.  This arena is no longer open to the public.

Yet Bernstein feels that we shouldn’t apply a “one size fits all” judgement.  Works like Arnautoff’s were progressive for their time, and  may be better understood in the decades ahead.

“Our country is so divided that we get this kind of binary response to these murals,” she says.  “I’m hoping we can simply cover Arnautoff’s mural for a few years and then revisit it. History is long, opinions change. But once we destroy a work of art, it’s gone forever.”  

It’s worth remembering, she adds, that the New Deal muralists set out to correct history, by portraying the contributions of Blacks and Native Americans. 

One artist was sent to Georgia to capture the heart of the region and chose to paint Black people working in the fields. “Their labor is shown with respect and dignity,” says Bernstein,  “This may not be a scene you want to look at every time you buy stamps, but it’s not meant to be offensive. It was painted to  honor people who, until that time, had never received any recognition at all.” 

New Deal Art was also known for its focus on the American worker. Adds Bernstein, this genre “represents all the currents in our culture in the 1930s. Many of the artists were foreign born—Italians, Russians, Poles, French, Asians.  Some Mexican painters came to work with Diego Rivera.  And a good percentage of them were women. This is the art of the Left and it was remarkably progressive and forward looking.”

Bernstein and a committee at The Living New Deal have done a thoughtful and thorough job of defining the criteria for preserving New Deal Art.  Their position is that we need to look at each piece and consider its contribution to the story of democracy.

Last August, the San Francisco School Board reversed its decision to erase the Arnautoff mural,  and held a viewing for the general public.  Arnautoff’s grandson also came to pay his respects.

“I fully understand the sensitivity of seeing people in that (degraded) state,” Peter Arnautoff said. “That is precisely why my grandfather tried to portray this. Because history was being glossed over. He needed to have a counter-narrative.”  For students and their teachers, he added, the mural should offer “a teachable moment.”                              

Learn more about endangered New Deal art here

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