In a sense, this is the reanimation of the deep-seated quarrel between categories of “consciousness” and “being.” In the first, art works are adjudicated in their truth and falsity: in the second, the language is of a granting or denial of the right of certain groups to their very right to exist. Epistemology or what can be known, on the one hand; and the epistemic violence of speech acts on the other.
Perhaps the best example of such left-wing melancholy can be found in the furore surrounding the Russian-American Communist painter Victor Arnautoff’s mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco. The mural dating back to the early 1930s was the first of its kind to depict this most iconic of founding fathers in a less than iconic light.
It is a twelve panel, meticulously researched work covering all the walls and stairwell of the entrance to the school. The mural ( see above) is an exemplary instance of a style of fresco that consists of applying paint directly into wet plaster – the so-called “buon” style. It took some ten months to complete.
What’s particularly interesting about the mural is the way it actually centres enslaved African-Americans, working class revolutionaries and Indigenous peoples while at the same time marginalizing its subject, George Washington, in a kind of inverted ‘great man theory of history.’ One panel depicts Washington standing over the corpse of an Indigenous person, giving orders for the catastrophic westward expansion of the Republic, another of enslaved African Americans. Criticism, here, would attend to the truth of the mural, its refusal to present a monumental, legitimating account of the shining US “City upon a Hill.” In contrast to such an account, Arnautoff brushes history against the grain so as to reveal the utterly barbaric truth of the American civilizing mission. This, by any account, is an exemplar of politically engaged art.Print