Dangerous Art

Remember the Buddhas of Bamyan? After saying they would leave them alone, the Taliban changed course in 2001 and destroyed the statues carved into sandstone on a remote part of the ancient silk road west of Kandahar. The area had been under Muslim control for 1500 years and these ancient Buddhas seem not to have prevented people from adhering to Islamic law. Yet in a purity purge, the Taliban obliterated them.

Remember the slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015? I’m not intentionally picking on Muslims in this article, but they have offered up some prime examples of attacking art they consider dangerous. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, a number of people voiced the opinion that perhaps Hebdo’s journalists had been a bit too awful in their words and drawings. Perhaps they’d still be alive if they’d been more deferential. But confronting issues head on was their entire point.

I mention these two responses to dangerous art because the US is in the midst of a ferocious series of attacks by the purity police. It’s summer; we’ve all been confined by the bleeping virus for much too long; so these purity police are roaming public areas of all of our cities, focusing their loathing on statues of imperfect men of the past. They first attacked statues of Confederate Army officers. Soon, they remembered Union soldiers who had once been slave owners. One after another, they toppled them. They finally met resistance when they went after an emancipation monument with backwards imagery (a black man was kneeling at the feet of Lincoln). The monument was protected by black elders.

Whereas the toppling of statues has been much in the news, it took an artist friend, to alert me to a more serious attack. The San Francisco school board has already decided to cover or destroy a set of depression era murals depicting the life of George Washington and scenes from the earliest days of our national history. If you, too, have been oblivious to the looming destruction of this dangerous art, please take some time to admire them. They were funded by FDR’s Works Progress Administration in 1935; the artist was Victor Arnautoff.

The murals have been controversial at least since the tumult of the ‘60s, but it seems ironic that people who were so intent on dismantling censorship of movies and books would then object to historical art that is honest if disturbing. Much has been made of the dead Indian in one scene and slaves working in a field in another scene. Little is made of the complete absence of women. I’m not sure at what age the absence of women in important settings became an issue for me, but once it entered my consciousness, it has stayed put. 

That hasn’t stopped me from appreciating good art, or, in this case, important murals. Had this been my high school, I would have been disturbed by the content as well as the missing women. But this is history I was aware of already. The scenes in the mural would have made the words of our textbooks more gut wrenching, but that’s not a bad thing.  I know I failed to understood the gravity of the Holocaust until I saw pictures of it in high school. 

Many people are working to persuade the school board to change their minds and keep the murals. The friend who alerted me to this pending purge suggested that the city build a new high school and use the building that houses these murals as a museum for difficult art. I love the idea. I’d support a GoFundMe account for that!

San Francisco Mural Controversy: Perspectives and Updates

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