Sometimes San Francisco really sucks. It sucked one cold, foggy day last week when I tried to get into George Washington High School to see the controversial murals painted in the 1930s, under the aegis of the New Deal, by a commie named Victor Arnautoff. The friendly Samoan security guard told me “No Way. No entrance.” When I asked him what he thought of the murals he told me, “It's history. History sucks. You can’t cover it up.” Those are my sentiments, exactly.
History doesn’t always offer pretty pictures. You can't cover them up, though some San Franciscans want to do just that. They want to paint over the past and hide what’s real. Critics of the murals say that they “traumatize” young people because they depict a dead Indian and enslaved African-Americans. My San Francisco pals say, “Life traumatizes young people.” One pal, an ex-school teacher, told me about a former student of his who was raped and shot on a street in Oakland. “That’s real trauma,” he said. “Stuff like that happens almost everyday.”
The real school problem in the city isn’t the murals, but the fact that public education in San Francisco is in many ways a travesty of real learning. One member of my family, who was for years a school principal, and who still works for the SF school district, told me that some schools are in such horrible shape that they ought to be closed down, or else thoroughly repaired. She also said that inexperienced and under-qualified teachers are often sent to schools where the majority of the students are brown and black. White kids get the experienced, qualified instructors.
What’s more, the public school system doesn’t have a social studies text for kids because the authorities can’t agree on what ought to be in the text. Those are some of the real issues in San Francisco, not Arnautoff’s murals.
On the day I went to George Washington and was barred from entering, a longtime official of the teachers’ union joined me. He told me that the union has not taken a stand on the murals because the membership is divided down the middle. He also said that some union members would like to throw paint on the controversial murals. Joe Hill must be turning in his grave, along with Harry Bridges and Victor Arnautoff.
San Francisco has a reputation as a city that welcomes and endorses freedom of expression. Citizens point to the murals in Coit Tower and to the many murals on walls in the Mission and other neighborhoods. True enough, artists are encouraged to express themselves. But San Francisco also has a long and dishonorable history of censorship and intolerance. City Light’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and put on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” For a time, Coit Tower was closed down; the public couldn’t see the murals because, in the words of a banker, they “might be interpreted as communistic propaganda.”
After public pressure, Coit Tower was reopened and the public allowed inside, but not before an image of a banner that read “Western Worker,” and another image of a hammer and sickle, associated with communism, was removed. The Coit Tower muralists protested the destruction of Diego Rivera’s mural in Rockefeller Center because it included an image of Lenin. One can understand why Rockefeller’s gang wouldn't want Lenin staring them in the face, but the decision by the San Francisco Board of Education to destroy the images at George Washington is incomprehensible, immoral and reactionary.
It’s true that the school board changed its mind. The murals won’t be destroyed. Still, the offensive images will be covered-up. Kids won’t be traumatized by art. Just by the violence and the obscenity of life in the Bay Area.
Public art has never been widely accepted in San Francisco. It still isn’t. And that sucks. The only reasonable thing to do is to go on defending freedom of expression and to go on making art, whether it’s controversial or not.