When things weigh on your mind, may as well write about them.
First is a debate over whether some people want to destroy a mural cycle in a school in San Francisco because of some of the strong imagery. The proposal is to paint over them. Second, is the odd discovery earlier this year that an area in Cherry Hills Village was termed Swastika Acres.
As for the murals: Those who want to save them point to the fact that some of the imagery – a dead Native American, slaves and a slave overseer – were part of the world when George Washington was president. Are the treatment of Native Americans and slaves sent to another country to be sold like sacks of flour something to honor? No.
(The image above accompanied a story in The New York Times.)
But the mural cycle painted in the 1930s by a stellar artist (and an immigrant to the United States) named Victor Arnautoff was trying to make a point about the real story of America’s past. You see it, or you shun it, but you can still find merit in the paintings because they tell the truth. The mural – The Life of George Washington– was created during the Works Progress Administration, which has gifted us today with some fabulous art, and even some that is troubling. That’s what art can do — and should do.
I know, these murals are not here, but this move to paint over the murals has been a stunning wake-up call in a tense time in our country. I know it’s sappy to call this a missed opportunity for a “teachable moment,” but at some point, art may just become images of bears and dogs. It must be acknowledged that some students and teachers at that school find the imagery hurtful and painful. But there must be a way to find an understanding of reality as instructive and reconcile history with today’s reality.
But when history goes, then what do we know?
Then, earlier this year, when a couple purchased a home in Cherry Hills Village they were shocked to learn that the subdivision was called Swastika Acres. That was a surprise to many of us. But the plots in that subdivision were named in 1908 and sold by the Denver Swastika Land Co. For millennia, the swastika was a symbol found in many cultures and countries, with a benign and even favorable meaning. That is especially true in the American Southwest.
But in 1920, when a madman founded the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany and designed a special flag focusing on the swastika, things changed. The symbol represented terror, repression, and death. It is abhorrent, and deservedly so.
The City Council of Cherry Hills Village pursued changing the name of that subdivision; now, it’s Old Cherry Hills. Only one person, an artist who lived in what is now Old Cherry Hills, showed up to counter the change of the name because the loss of history.
In an April story in The Denver Post: “ ‘I don’t think you should erase history,’ said Susan Cooper, who comes from a family of Holocaust survivors and who sent a letter stating her opposition to Council. ‘What would it be like if people denied the Holocaust? You have to get the facts of history.’ ”
All of this is material for concern and thought.
I’ve included links to a couple of New York Times stories, including a sensitive column by art critic Roberta Smith; a column from Hyperallergic, an online publication devoted to arts news, and a recent story in TheSan Francisco Chronicle reporting that those wanting to save the murals will put this by putting this up to a vote.
Below those links include information on the Swastika Acres issue. The top link for that is a history of the swastika on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, followed by The Denver Post, The Intermountain Jewish News, and The Jerusalem Post. This story went viral on late night TV, which is easy to find.