Letter from the Presidents

AICA-USA, the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics, condemns the June 25, 2019 decision of the San Francisco Unified School District to destroy the murals by Victor Arnautoff at George Washington High School. In doing so, we join with the National Coalition Against Censorship, San Francisco Art Institute Professor Dewey Crumpler, and the 500-plus distinguished signatories of the open letter published at Nonsite.org decrying this assault upon art and discourse.

The murals in question possess notable historical import and are of unarguably good quality and repair. Opinion about them has varied over their eight decades of existence, and will vary further given another eight decades or more, perhaps in illuminating ways. Those advocating for their destruction are acting as if their responses of the moment are the only true and right ones and will remain eternally so. Every censor throughout time has thought similarly and time has shown how short-sighted their decisions were.

Arnautoff intended to scuff the legacy of George Washington. The artist portrayed our first president fairly, as a slave owner and as one who set events into motion that cost countless Native Americans their lives. We wonder how Arnautoff might have expressed such ideas without depicting slaves or defeated Native Americans. By giving these facts visual form, he did not praise Washington or the institution of slavery; he revealed the complexities of history to encourage us to think more deeply about our heroes.

Arnautoff’s murals discomfort us with impolite truths about the father of our country. We as educators and art writers see this as an opportunity for a teachable moment, to help students and visitors understand the historical context for the artist’s choices. Too, we want young people to learn that great men and women made certain choices in the past that we don’t agree with today.

AICA-USA calls upon the San Franciscans entrusted with the preservation of Arnautoff’s work to reverse their decision to destroy it. We strongly urge the SFUSD to allow Arnautoff, in 2019, the freedom of expression and conscience that the Works Progress Administration afforded him in 1936.


Judith E. Stein and Norman Kleeblatt, co-presidents of AICA-USA

AICA supports art writers around the world through public programs and membership that includes free access to museums across the globe. Since its formation in 1950, AICA has been committed to elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.
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AICA supports arts writers around the world through public programs and membership that offers free access to museums across the globe. AICA-USA represents the largest national section of AICA International with over 450 distinguished critics, curators, scholars, and art historians working throughout the United States. As part of the international organization, we benefit from a global reach in presence. AICA-USA is intent on international communication, elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.

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