The works were created in the mid-1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a social realist, for the Works Progress Administration, an agency created under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided public works jobs for the unemployed during the Great Depression.
Arnautoff, who was born in Russia and taught at Stanford, was a Communist who embedded messages critical of the founding father in his murals. He depicted Washington, accurately, at a time when that was rarely acknowledged, as a slave owner and the leader of the nation that annihilated Native Americans. There are no cherry trees.
say things like this:
Virginia Marshall, president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators said Arnautoff’s paintings remind her of “my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother who were beaten and hung from trees and told they were less than human.”
Paloma Flores, a member of the Pit-River Nation and coordinator of the school’s Indian Education Program, said Arnautoff’s “intent no longer matters.” The murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive,” she said.
Nobody is saying that these images are not accurate, or that they omit minority groups, or that they ignore the human cost of Manifest Destiny or any of that. Settlers marching west over Indian bodies is, if you ask me, an entirely fair depiction of what took place. No, the problem is that they clearly show the dark side of our history. This raises the question: is it possible in America to bring that past into our public sphere? As I said about the UK mural, thinking that we need to remember slavery and what was done to the Indians does not necessarily imply that we should have a mural about it in the lunch room.
But what sort of public art can we have in America? Consider:
Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center in San Marcos, said it is not worth saving the art if one native student “is triggered by that.”What sort of monument wouldn't trigger somebody? The only way to avoid giving offense is just to ignore the whole problem. We're going to end up with hundreds of murals that show happy people of every ethnicity going about happy lives, as if we did not live on blood-soaked soil, as if we had never tried to slaughter each other. Is that the right answer?