Loud Halls, Silent Rooms

There is a really vibrant debate going on regarding the content and context of a Great Depression-era fresco within San Francisco’s George Washington High School. The painting by Victor Arnautoff, titled Life of Washington, depicts the life-cycle of George Washington, portraying him through a web of identities including a war hero, political leader, colonizer of indigenous land and a callous slave owner. The imagery of the latter two facets is quite blatantly expressed, which is why some advocates for the fresco’s removal have decried the painting to be racist and unnecessarily violent. They assert that these images can cause trauma to students of color for whom racial and cultural bias is a very contemporary issue.

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One of the panels from Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington fresco (1934), depicting slave labor, which Washington and other founding fathers were beneficiaries of. © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

This isn’t the first time that this fresco has been largely scrutinized and critiqued. Arnautoff’s painting initially caused a school-wide stir in the late 1960s, when African American students addressed several problematic aspects of the work. The Black Student Union wanted the fresco be removed because they felt it represented a binary view of African Americans during the colonial era. While they agreed that the painting accurately depicted the brutality of slavery and genocide, the students objected to the lack of positive imagery regarding contributions made by black individuals, as well as the depiction of the enslaved as passive victims instead of revolutionaries and fighters. A compromise was made, and a mural was painted in another hallway by artist and activist Dewey Crumpler, who studied mural painting with some of the seminal Mexican Modernists and painted in a similar emotive and monumental style. Crumpler’s mural consists of three panels featuring several historical and contemporary revolutionaries and metaphorical imagery that symbolizes the vitality and cultural influence of Latinx, black American, Asian American and indigenous peoples. For the next five decades, Arnautoff’s fresco and Crumpler’s mural coincided without controversy. Crumpler has weighed in on the current debate and is in favor of preserving Arnautoff’s painting.

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Dewey Crumpler’s Multi-Ethnic Heritage mural (1974). © Tammy Aramiam/GWHS Alumni Association.

The current disagreement between people who want the mural removed and those who want it to stay, illuminate a division in how we look at, understand and critique art. This is not shocking, since art is a visual experience that is informed by our cultural backgrounds (prior experiences and knowledge), research and appreciation of art and art history (education) and a degree of subjectivity (personal taste and/or emotional responses to artworks). While it is perfectly reasonable to like or not like a work of art, we should be able to articulate why, using compelling arguments that are both content specific and rooted in our social and cultural framework. In critiquing works of art we should anticipate a variance of interpretations and responses. A good critique empowers us to communicate empathically and find helpful ways to support and understand each other’s lived experiences.

Opponents of the mural would prefer that the unpleasant imagery be gone for good and replaced with more uplifting images. And that is what will eventually happen. The school board has voted in favor of covering the fresco with panels that illustrate the triumphs of marginalized people. By doing this, they won’t physically destroy the fresco’s form, they will just censor its imagery. Proponents of the painting suggest that it should remain intact and be utilized as a teachable resource, because it confronts us with an unpleasant history that needs to affect us deeply and make us uncomfortable if we are truly going to reconcile injustice, inequality and inequity. An essential question here is whether we need a 1930s painting by a white male artist to ‘teach us’ these things? Jennifer Wilson (2019) argues that the very real and recurring trauma still induced by racial injustice is impactful enough. She says “to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.”

Since all art is created in a time that is contemporary to the artist, it is important to understand the context of that period, while also scrutinizing it through a more current lens. In the previous post, I mentioned the new AP Art History curriculum and one major component of the course, which is to have students formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations. Arnautoff ‘s mural was created at a time when public art was being sponsored by the government –through the Federal Art Project– to lift the American spirit and promote a pride for civic duty and labor. This was done in varying degrees of aesthetic execution by a range of artists, many of whom leaned to the left of the political spectrum. Arnautoff was a member of the Communist Party and studied painting with Diego Rivera in 1929. He believed that art needs to exist as a critique of society. However, that critique and the way it is presented can change over time. The artists of the Federal Art Project weren’t without fault, and several of the highly stylized murals from that era idealized the working class to be uniform and soulless as Laura Hapke (2008) mentions. What can be gained from critiquing their art is significance for the way they expressed the zeitgeist of “the era of labor insurgency, anti-fascism, and anti-eviction campaigns” (Kelley, 2019). Arnautoff’s fresco is not wrong in its depiction of Washington, however, the painting could benefit from updated contextualization in light of contemporary non-binary sociocultural experiences. As Titus Kaphar states and exemplifies in his own paintings (see: What does an equitable art education look like?), it is more poignant to “try to make these “amendments”—not to remove those monuments, not to take them down, but in the same way as we do to the constitution, when we change the laws we add an amendment” (Blondiau, 2016).

The students at George Washington High School should have agency in what they have to encounter in the halls of their school on a daily basis. If they decide the fresco should remain then perhaps there are ways to amend it so that it is acceptable to the student body at large. A problem-posing pedagogical model (see: Freire, 1970), that allows students, teachers and administrators alike, to develop a collaborative environment, rooted in equitable ideas and multiple perspectives is needed. A successful active learning setting should manifest creative responses to thinking critically about such a complex issue.

An interdisciplinary project where students turn the fresco into a memorial as suggested by art critic Zachary Small (2019) is one possibility. This would entail significant research and collaboration between the students, educators and possibly even experts in the fields of art, history and social justice. The names and narratives of enslaved individuals, black abolitionists and indigenous leaders, could be incorporated around the work of art to humanize the victims of slavery, colonialism and genocide. Small suggests giving students the opportunity to amend the painting’s purpose and “preserve the mural as both an art historical tool and a critical lesson on the politics of representation.” It is important that any solution is representative of those affected, and circling back to Wilson’s argument, groups and individuals who have been traumatized by racial inequality do not need artistic imagery to remind them of this truth. Preserving this challenging painting and being sympathetic to students’ social and emotional experiences is a slippery slope that will require a very creative solution that hasn’t yet been realized.

While the George Washington High School community hasn’t shied away from having a passionate discourse and critique of art that narrates issues of race and identity, you can almost hear a pin drop within some higher art educational settings when it comes to discussing these themes. The silent treatment during formal critiques was a profound and poignant experience for the students who formed the Black Artists and Designers (B.A.A.D.) collective at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In predominantly white private art schools, there can be a discrepancy in the pedagogical framework, due to the aversion to having discussions about race and identity. This avoidance further marginalizes a minority group of artists who are using art as a means for communicating their experiences enduring racial bias.

The Room of Silence, is a metaphor for the lack of equitable discussion within art school critiques. B.A.A.D., commissioned filmmaker and artist Eloise Sherrid to create a short documentary exposing the racial inequity that students of color and mixed-race encountered during classroom studio critiques. Students describe the silence that occurs when works that address intersectionality are presented. As the students reflect, whenever feedback about their work was given –either by peers or professors– it was almost always about the formal qualities of their artwork rather than the context.

Whether it is because their predominantly white peers and professors are uncomfortable discussing these issues or don’t want to come off as offensive for critiquing work about race; the lack of contextual discourse and feedback given to students of color in these instances is indicative of implicit bias and the insufficiency of their peers’ and teachers’ ability to exhibit empathy or make connections to the work on a humanizing level. This is unfortunate, because exhibiting empathy and making connections are two studio habits of mind that the arts teach us, yet they are evidently not being applied in certain higher education settings. Fortunately, through the initiative of B.A.A.D., the bias within art school programs can become a teachable moment for making formal critiques and art historical curricula more equitable within classroom environments. The short film has been screened at both national and international colleges and universities. The accounts of the students speak for themselves and can be viewed below.

The Room of Silence from Eloise Sherrid on Vimeo.

 


References, Notes and Suggested Reading:

Blondiau, Eloise. “Amending American History with Titus Kaphar.” Interview, 19 Dec. 2016. https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/titus-kaphar

Hapke, Laura. 2008. Labor’s Canvas: American Working Class History and the WPA Art of the 1930s. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Kelley, Robin D.G. “We’re Getting These Murals All Wrong.” The Nation, 10 Sept. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/arnautoff-mural-life-washington/

Freire, Paulo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Small, Zachary. “A Controversial WPA Mural Is a Litmus Test for the Longevity of Public Art.” Hyperallergic, 8 Jul. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/507802/the-life-of-george-washington/

Wilson, Jennifer. “Black People Don’t Need Murals To Remember Injustice.” The Nation, 9 Jul. 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/san-francisco-school-mural/

What does an equitable art education look like?

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Titus Kaphar, Shifting the Gaze, 2017, oil on canvas, 83 × 1031/4 in. (210.8 × 262.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, William K. Jacobs Jr., Fund, 2017.34. © Titus Kaphar. (Photo: Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery)

Curricula is always in flux, yet sometimes we get too comfortable or complacent with what we know, or perceive to be worth knowing. The common core, core knowledge, and other curricula seek to find ‘universal’ set of standards, goals and information that would enable a collective society to have a similar understanding. These types of systems form a canonical framework for education, much like the way art history has been presented and understood through the canon; a set of self-evident principles and rules that govern a conventional model for teaching what is believed to be worth seeing and knowing. The issue is that those who design the aforementioned curricula or who write art history as a linear and prescribed narrative, are often at odds with presenting an equal and equitable reality of the human experience.

This post will critique the canonical framework for the study of art history, and how contemporary curricula, such as the new AP Art History course and pluralistic cross-cultural exhibitions in museums have shifted the canon away from traditional Eurocentric and binary modes of analyzing, researching and discussing art.

An essential question, that is worth contemplating is how the artworks we are most familiar with and deem most valuable get that way? How did the halls and galleries of museums get established and the narrative of art history become the basis for idealizations of beauty and symbols of wealth, power and knowledge?

An enduring understanding, is that art history is a discipline based on both an account of the stylistic and conceptual stages of art, as well as the bias or personal taste of the people who record and present it. There are factors that contribute to this scenario including: patronage, colonialism and academic or institutional status. For example, art historians have had a role in propagating the masterpieces of classical civilizations like Greece and Rome, as works of art symbolize beauty, balance and an ideal democratic ideology, while describing work outside of this classical tradition as ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ (see: Breukal, 2011). They have elevated the works of certain artists, styles and cultures who adhere to their standards of what makes for good form, content and context. They also dictate what is art and what is not, such as when, in the 18th century, Johann Joachim Winkelmann defined art by its aesthetic nature –to categorize the form, content, and context of Ancient Greco-Roman art– or when centuries later, Arthur C. Danto (using Hegel’s thesis “end of art” as an influence) argued that art isn’t as much about aesthetics as it is about its concept and intent. The media that was used, the style of the art, or who the artist is that made the work is not as important as the physically embodied meaning. In this day and age, artworks don’t have to fit into prior art historical categories to be considered a part of the artistic narrative. In fact, Danto argues that art hasn’t had a linear progression since the end of the Modernist era (c.1960s-70s).

Because Danto’s argument shatters the preexisting model of how art is defined, it re-posits the age old question of ‘what is art?’ and who gets to define art.  To answer that philosophical question, Danto formed the foundation for an institutional theory of art in his seminal text ‘The Artworld.’ In Danto’s definition of the ‘artworld,’ something is art if those who have erudite and/or content specific knowledge about art deem it to be art. The ‘artworld’ is more than a philosophical space, it shapes the very fabric of our culture and how we value objects and essentially each other.

It is evident that the art historian, critic and patron have nearly as much influence on our perception of art as the artist or artwork itself. Flip through any survey textbook and take note of how many of the same images of artworks you see. How many of these works are by artists who are white? How many are male? How many come from European or colonial American backgrounds? The same goes for museum collections. Both these textbooks and museum collections have been shaped by generations of canonical reinforcement. While art history and the institutional art field is concerned with presenting narratives that give context to people, places and events throughout civilization; specific people, places and events become marginalized via their methodology.

Art historian Robert S. Nelson (1997) warns, “As a discipline, art history acquired and has been accorded the ability to reject people and objects, and to teach and thus transmit values to others…If these structures are seldom noticed, much less studied, they are always present. They are revived and replicated whenever a student attends an introductory class, reads a survey book, or follows a prescribed curriculum….” Fortunately, some people within the artworld are noticing this, and finding engaging ways to address this problem.

Taking an art history survey course in college and realizing that the course content had been whitewashed in favor of Eurocentric ideals, led Titus Kaphar to become one of today’s foremost contemporary artists.  A combination of noticing that art made by artists of African descent was only a short segment within a larger textbook, and the reaction of indifference from his professor when he asked why the class had skipped over it, prompted Kaphar to look closely at the ways that black figures have been treated within historical works of art.

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Frans Hals, Family Group in a Landscape, 1645-1648, oil on canvas, 79 1/2 x 112 in. Collection of Museo Nacional Thyseen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

His painting Shifting the Gaze, is a repainting of Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape (c.1648), a 17th century portrait of a wealthy Dutch family standing in front of a lush forest near the shore. While the family is portrayed distinctively so that we know they are of a particularly noble status, Hals mysteriously included a black boy in dark clothing, sandwiched between the mother and daughter. His positioning seemingly several inches behind the family, gives the perspective of his being nearly invisible. If not for his white collar he’d hardly be seen at all. His brown skin and tunic blend into the dark green and brown tones of the trees in the background. He actually becomes more of a background formal element than a contextual figure within the painting. In the object description by the head curator of Old Master painting from the museum where the work is held, the dog next to the daughter –ironically rendered nearly as invisible as the boy– is mentioned and analyzed, while there is no acknowledgment of the boy’s presence whatsoever.

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Description of Frans Hals’ Family Group in a Landscape by curator Dr. Mar Borobia from the website of the Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

The perplexing inclusion of this figure and the absence of any proper identification or biographical information, is consistent with the way Kaphar noticed black individuals being portrayed within traditional European and American paintings. In order to shift our gaze to this unequal and inequitable issue, Kaphar took a large brush, dipped it in white paint and essentially covered up the Dutch family so that our attention is solely drawn to the black boy, thereby amending the form, function and context of the original Dutch portrait. Eventually the translucent quality of the paint he used to mask the Europeans will lightly fade over time (but still masked), creating a portrait where everyone is represented more equitably.

The new AP Art History curriculum and art history courses on the college level can do a great service to amending past art historical bias and omission. Through focusing more on art made throughout the world and presenting it in a manner that supports active learning, the new AP Art History course is designed to give students agency to think critically and outside of the box. By narrowing the content down to 250 required works, teachers can supplement these works with other examples that broaden students’ skills to closely observe works of art, make formal, contextual and sociocultural connections between works of art –with a heightened awareness for connecting works spanning time and place– and critically question and examine problematic narratives (or lack of specific narratives) previously attributed to works of art, styles and geographical locations. These are all important habits of mind that build students’ skills to develop empathy for the world around them, find patterns within the human condition and poignantly address ambiguity about questionable historical analysis and bias.

By using works both within and outside the required 250, teachers can prompt students to research specific works of art that have complex sociocultural context and critique degrees of interpretations from reputable sources. The goal is not to feed them didactic knowledge about each work, but enable them to formulate their own original thesis on why art is made, how art changes meaning over time (essential questions within the curriculum) and how historians might address bias within traditional meanings and interpretations.

For example, each of the painting sets below feature a work from the 250 paired with a contemporary example of a work that offers an amendment to tradition. Students can take close look at each of these works, compare and contrast the content and context and make inferences about what each artist on the right of each image set is expressing in rebuttal to the artists on the left.

Enduring Understanding: The male gaze, portrayal of the ‘other’, ideals of beauty, power, and seduction are ripe motifs throughout the Western art historical canon.

Essential Question(s): How has the form, function, content and context changed from the painting on the left to the painting on the right? How has the traditional portrayal of these 19th century paintings been amended by 21st century contemporary artists? What issues are being addressed in the contemporary works of art?

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Dr. Robert Glass writes: “Art historians ponder and debate how to reconcile the discipline’s European intellectual origins and its problematic colonialist legacy with contemporary multiculturalism and how to write art history in a global era.”

The study of art history in primary, secondary and higher education, should give students agency to make significant and critical inferences by making art meaningful to their lives. This can be done through active learning and also by making the content more relatable and equitable to a wider and more diverse student body. There is still a major equity and equality problem both within academic art and institutional art environments. There is no easy solution that will rectify present and past injustice. However, if the study of art becomes more pluralistic and relevant to students’ lived experiences, perhaps schools will see an increase in the diversity among students who are studying art history. Perhaps these students will go on to shatter the canon once and for all…

 


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Breukel, Claire. “WTF…Is Primitive Art vs Tribal Art.” Hyperallergic, 14 Sept. 2011. https://hyperallergic.com/35460/primitive-art-vs-tribal-art/

Danto, Arthur C. “The Artworld” (1964) Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584.

Glass, Dr. Robert. “What is art history and where is it going?” Khan Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/approaches-to-art-history/an-introduction-to-art-history/a/what-is-art-history

Nelson, Robert S. “The Map of Art History.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 79, no. 1, 1997, pp. 28–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3046228.