Open Letter on the Proposed Destruction of a Mural Cycle

A Federal Art Project mural cycle of thirteen panels devised and painted by Victor Arnautoff in 1936 in a San Francisco high school portrays George Washington as a slave owner and as the author of Native-American genocide. It is an important work of art, produced for all Americans under the auspices of a federal government seeking to ensure the survival of art during the Great Depression. Its meaning and commitments are not in dispute. It exposes and denounces in pictorial form the U.S. history of racism and colonialism. The only viewers who should feel unsafe before this mural are racists.

Now, however, activists including a number of students are seeking the destruction—not the concealment or contextualization—of the mural. The reasons they give—in public comment, in interviews, in the board’s statements—are various, but they all depend on rejecting the objective analysis of historical exploitation and colonial violence the mural offers and replacing it with activists’ valorization of their experiences of discomfort with the imagery and the authorship of the murals. On this account, a Russian immigrant cannot denounce historical wrongs by depicting them critically. On this account, only members of the affected communities can speak to such issues and only representations of history that affirm values they approve are suitable for their communities. On this account, representing historical misdeeds is degrading to some members of today’s student body. In a recent vote, the board of the San Francisco Unified School District voted unanimously to destroy the murals. To repeat: they voted to destroy a significant monument of anti-racism. This is a gross violation of logic and sense.
Let’s set aside the question of the voices calling for the murals’ destruction and their authority to speak for the communities they claim as their own. What remains is a mistake in the way we react to historical works of art—ignoring their meaning in favor of our feelings about them—and a mistake in the way we treat historical works of art—using them as tools for managing feelings, rather than as objects of interpretation. Let’s stand up for the integrity of art as well as for historical interpretation, and for a shared analysis of the political reality of the United States in the past and the present.
The undersigned oppose the school board’s decision and the wrong-headed approach to art and to history that lie behind that decision. We urge the school board to reverse its decision and take all reasonable steps to preserve the mural and to teach it as a work of art and as a representation of our history. We oppose this display of contempt for history.
To hear public comment preceding the board’s vote, follow this link. (Discussion of the mural begins about ten minutes into the recording.)
At the end of the week, we will send this letter and list of signatories to the board members of the SFUSD. To add your signature, e-mail your name and institutional affiliation (if desired) to


Thomas J. Adams, University of Sydney
Aijaz Ahmad, Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine
Mike Alewitz, emeritus, Art Department/Mural Program, Central Connecticut State University
Bridget Alsdorf, Department of Art & Archaeology, Princeton University
Frank Thomas Armstrong, Portland, Ore.
Jennifer Ashton, English Department, University of Illinois at Chicago
Jerry August, Los Angeles Unified School District
Dario Azzellini, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University
Joan Baldwin, Special Collections, The Hotchkiss School
Leslie Bary, University of Louisiana
Paul L. Bash
Barbara Bernstein, New Deal Art Registry
Jennifer Bethke, Department of Art and Art History, Sonoma State University
Elizabeth Bishop, Université d’Oran 2 Mohamed Ben Ahmed
Michele Bogart, Stony Brook University
William N. Bonds, emeritus, San Francisco State University
Cale Brooks, NYC Democratic Socialists of America Medicare for All campaign
Nicholas Brown, Departments of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
Joanna Bujes, SIG Docs, San Francisco
Charles T. Butler, emeritus, Columbus Museum
C. Jean Campbell, Art History Department, Emory University
Stephen Campbell, Department of the History of Art, Johns Hopkins University
Michael Cavadias, actor, writer, NYC-DSA Citywide Leadership Committee
Sarah Cate, Department of Political Science, Saint Louis University
Enrique Chagoya, Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University
Bi-Ling Chen, University of Central Arkansas
Robert W. Cherny, emeritus, San Francisco State University
Merlin Chowkwanyun, Columbia University
Kevin Chua, Texas Tech University
Hollis Clayson, Department of Art History, Northwestern University
Nicholas Copeland, Virginia Polytechnic Institute
Todd Cronan, Art History Department, Emory University
Malcolm Daniel, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Michael Davis, emeritus, University of California, Riverside
Bindu Desai, M.D., Albany, Calif.
Martha Louise Deutscher
Eugenio Di Stefano, Foreign Languages & Literature, University of Nebraska, Omaha
Geert Dhondt, Department of Economics, John Jay College, CUNY
Jed Dodd, Vice President, BMWED-Teamsters
Madhu Dubey, Departments of English and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago
Jacob Edwards, Tulane University
William Elliot
Robert Eshelman-Håkansson, Columbia Journalism School
Sarah Evans, School of Art and Design, Northern Illinois University
David Featherstone
Liza Featherstone, The Nation and Jacobin, New York University and Columbia University
Michael Fiday, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati
Carlos Figueroa, Ithaca College
Anne-Lise François, University of California, Berkeley
Amy Freund, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University
Michael Fried, emeritus, Johns Hopkins University
Amber A’Lee Frost, writer and journalist
Sal Garcia, artist and curator, San Francisco
Judith K. Gardener, Chicago, Ill.
Joy Garnett
Judy Gittelsohn, Art for Well Beings
Sarah Gleeson-White, Department of English, University of Sydney
Hon. Ruth Y. Goldway, ret. chair and commissioner, U.S. Postal Regulatory Commission, former mayor, Santa Monica, Calif.
Marie Gottschalk, Political Science Department, University of Pennsylvania
Scott Griffith
Anthony Gronowicz, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
Brian Gross, Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco
Steven Hahn, New York University
Beverly L. Hall
John Halle, composer and pianist
Theodore Hamm, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Joseph F. Hancock, editor, Labor Today/El Trabajo Diario on behalf of Labor United for Class Struggle
Jonathan Harwitz, Low Income Investment Fund
David Harvey, Graduate Center, CUNY
Charles Hatfield, University of Texas at Dallas
Andrew Hemingway, emeritus, Department of the History of Art, University College London
Stephen Hitchcock, Prague, Czech Republic
Andrew Hsiao, Verso Books
Arthur Hughes, artist
Forrest Hylton, Ciencia Política, Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Sede Medellín
Joel Isaacson, emeritus, University of Michigan
William Issel, San Francisco State University
Anton Jäger, Cambridge University
Cedric G. Johnson, University of Illinois at Chicago
Richard A. Johnson, The Sports Museum, Boston, Mass.
Robert Flynn Johnson, emeritus, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Alastair Johnston, retired, University of California, Berkeley
Peyton Lee Jones, University of South Florida, St. Petersburg
Ramsey Kanaan, publisher, PM Pre