Art Decider.

Edit: Please read this first. Her work is powerful on this topic:

@ArtDecider is a sharp Twitter user who built their reputation on deciding what is art or not art on tweets. And I have yet to disagree with their decision. And wouldn’t life be simple if we could just look to one Twitter user to determine these things? Well, simple, but boring, and disengaging. Which is why I am grateful to Alison M. Collins @AliMCollins for her thoughts and bringing this to my attention:
Who’s Even Defending the George Washington High Murals At This Point?

The murals in question are the work of the Russian-born communist painter Victor Arnautoff. Arnautoff, who lived for a time in Mexico while working as an assistant to Diego Rivera, was one of the most prolific muralists of the Depression era. He is most famous for supervising the Coit Tower mural project that showed workers of all races being exploited by the capitalist class. For the George Washington High School murals, the leftist Arnautoff wanted to show Washington for who he really was; pushing back against what was then a silence on the founding father’s complicity in slavery and Native American genocide, Arnautoff painted the slaves who worked the fields at Washington’s Mt. Vernon home and one of Washington’s soldier’s standing on top of a dead Native American.
When they were unveiled in 1937, these murals were upheld by the left as radical examples of social justice through art. Concerned parties now see Arnautoff’s work as exploitative and traumatic for the school’s minority students who have to encounter these striking scenes on a daily basis.


My question is, art to whom? For what purpose and context?

Perhaps every student who walked through the doors of that high school needed a month-long study session of the history, context, and purpose of the art. Never make assumptions about what anyone knows or doesn’t know about historical context.

Important voices on culture, race, and art:

Should Blacks Collect Racist Memorabilia? by Henri Louis Gates, Jr.

When it comes to the question of whether collecting those racist images is right, I often encounter two strong and diametrically opposed reactions from African Americans. Some can’t seem to amass enough examples of these “collectibles” or “memorabilia” (as we euphemistically call these hideous images today). Others think the whole lot should be assembled into one gigantic bonfire, incinerated, and the ashes buried in an impenetrable vault, or strewn over the broadest reach of the deepest ocean never to be displayed again. It’s as if these artifacts’ complete and total obliteration could wipe the slate clean or erase the painful memory and palpably harmful effects of seeing ourselves reflected over and over through the murky mirror of the anti-black subconscious as deracinated, gluttonous, lascivious non-reflective sub-human beasts — thieves, rapists, liars — a species apart from all other human beings, dominated and ruled like other animals by our instincts and passions and not by our (sub-standard) brains.

It’s Time for the Art World to Look At Its Own Racism by Bidisha

It is not for white people to decide what is or is not racist and it is not for them to decide what we people of colour are called. I think statues, plaques and awards paying tribute to racist men should be removed, and in their place should be a little notice naming and shaming them, and naming their prejudice. I think original racist titles can be altered and an introductory essay, as so many “classic” works have, putting that original title and content in context, can be included. None of this is difficult to do or hard to swallow.

Art/art history is full of colonizers’ stories and narratives. And though my Bachelor of Fine Arts hearts seems to understand what Arnautoff attempted to portray, atrocities to his worldview as an artist, were never explained, or seen any differently by the hundreds of white students walking through this space. Washington’s slaves and the dead Indian–most likely met with a shrug, if there was any thought at all. And the indifference is no less racist than the recent news story about white men standing with shotguns besides a shot-up Emmett Till memorial. Arnautoff may have been trying to shock and paint truth, it was always about whitewashing for the white viewers.

As for the students, no surprise, they have a better grasp of things than their liberal minders. As one ninth-grader wrote, “The fresco shows us exactly how brutal colonization and genocide really were and are. The fresco is a warning and reminder of the fallibility of our hallowed leaders.’”
Note: I am adding this counter-argumentative essay if one wishes to use it as a close reading resource.

So when should art be painted over, removed, or destroyed? When does its removal cross the line from context to censorship? I don’t know except that it can never be a single decision or point, and that includes the singularity of the white community. Voices from other perspectives in the community must be given weighted consideration.

Examples, from the big public spaces to educational spaces:

  • Confederate statues of generals, military, etc. must be taken down. Its flag must not be flown.
  • School mascots should not be indigenous peoples or representative of human stereotypes/archetypes, or historical figures (I wouldn’t want to be on a football team that fights for George Washington)

Thinking about Arnautoff’s mentor, Diego Rivera, one can see the similarities of their works. But the impact is wide and deep.

My husband said, “Art is an opinion.” He also said it’s like the ice core testing in terms of testing the layers of our culture–it also shows whose in power, whose voices are heard and seen. We are getting someone’s opinion from that moment in time. Arnautoff seems to be saying American history is ugly, painful, and filled with people of color who were abused by the white colonists. And that makes it heartbreaking that we can’t at least save this artwork somewhere…but it can’t be moved. For students to say “meet you under the dead Indian” shows how his message became warped and complicit to indifference. As Ms. Collins said, ‘it normalizes violence.”

Considering other art that’s used in schools, what kinds of imagery do you bring to your classroom, and moreover, what context do you provide? This image is used by many teachers when “celebrating” Thanksgiving. I have used it as a launch point to talk about racism in art via composition. It’s not the only conversation, and plenty of context is provided. Lies in art, and mythologizing white colonialism, are addressed, as with any conversation about propaganda.

Art to look at now:

‘30 Americans’: Art Works to Confront Racism (the writer of this article no longer has a Twitter account: not sure why)

Art educators, take note:

Ultimately, it is up to the community. Something that began as ‘look at these atrocities’ ending up in a public high school warped into normalization and complicity. I’m going to have an internal dialogue about this for a long time, and any thoughts you have about this are welcome.