[Image left: Jonathan Harris with "Critical Race Theory," to right, homage revision by author for this essay with permission from Mr. Harris]
Recently Detroit artist Jonathan Harris painted “Critical Race Theory,” rightly pointing out the irreversible erasure that conservatives are calling for in the face of post-George Floyd reassessments of US history. Bravo!
But whitewashing is not just the tool of narrow-minded racist reactionaries. Well-intentioned progresive activists can be swept up in that solution as well.
The 2019 campaign to whitewash Victor Arnautoff’s 1936 mural at San Francisco’s George Washington High School was a politico-cultural watershed. The paintings include George Washington’s slaves and indigenous people murdered as part of American manifest destiny. At first blush it was a righteous criticism of imagery perceived by some to be offensive, but as the discussion expanded it became clear that there was much more to the story. Expectedly, artists and art historians defended the mural, pointing out how bold and radical it was to raise such heavy awkward topics in a public school. But perhaps more importantly, communities of color defended it, including the NAACP, author Alice Walker, and GWHS alum Danny Glover. Artist Dewey Crumpler (who painted a supplemental mural at the site following similar criticisms in 1970), said: “If you run away from history, you’ll never change history… Art is a teaching tool.”
Those opposing the mural wanted it whitewashed. The terms used were “paint it down” and “permanently destroyed,” and they succeeded in getting the school board to agree. That decision was reversed, but the controversy deeply divided the community. Art critic DeWitt Cheng publicly applauded the non-destruction, saying “That we are now an anti-intellectual culture does not bode well for the future,” while cultural writer Christian L. Frock in private social media believed that “While I agree that there are any number of alternatives to whitewashing the painting, I think it’s critical to defer on questions of method to those asking for its removal.”
I supported the passion of the opponents, but took the side of standing with the cultural workers of the world who have had their murals whitewashed, their prints burned, and their sculptures smashed in the name of corrective cleansing.
I'm with Dewey. Don’t run away from history.
-Lincoln Cushing 12/20/2021, revised 1/23/2022
Docs Populi / Documents for the Public