Art Vs. Moralistic Therapeutic Barbarism
From George Orwell, 1984:
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. “Reality control,” they called it; in Newspeak, “doublethink.”
If you’ve read the novel, you’ll remember that Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Information is to go back into the archives of newspapers and re-write them to make them conform to whatever the Party currently wants to have been true. It’s not far from that to what’s happening to an important piece of public art in San Francisco today — a work of art that, bizarrely, was painted by an actual Communist. From Bari Weiss’s op-ed column about the controversy, which involves “the San Francisco school board’s unanimous decision on Tuesday night to spend at least $600,000 of taxpayer money not just to shroud a historic work of art but to destroy it.”
By now stories of progressive Puritanism (or perhaps the better word is Philistinism) are so commonplace — snowflakes seek safe space! — that it can feel tedious to track the details of the latest outrage. But this case is so absurd that it’s worth reviewing the specifics.
More about the New Deal-era mural by Victor Arnautoff, which offends because it depicts black slaves and a dead Indian, murdered by white settlers:
This is why his freshly banned work, “Life of Washington,” does not show the clichéd image of our first president kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Instead, the 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural, which was painted in 1936 in the just-built George Washington High School, depicts his slaves picking cotton in the fields of Mount Vernon and a group of colonizers walking past the corpse of a Native American.
“At the time, high school history classes typically ignored the incongruity that Washington and others among the nation’s founders subscribed to the declaration that ‘all men are created equal’ and yet owned other human beings as chattel,” Robert W. Cherny writes in “Victor Arnautoff and the Politics of Art.”
In other words, Arnautoff’s purpose was to unsettle the viewer, to provoke young people into looking at American history from a different, darker perspective. Over the past months, art historians, New Deal scholars and even a group called the Congress of Russian Americans have tried to make exactly that point.
“This is a radical and critical work of art,” the school’s alumni association argued. “There are many New Deal murals depicting the founding of our country; very few even acknowledge slavery or the Native genocide. The Arnautoff murals should be preserved for their artistic, historical and educational value. Whitewashing them will simply result in another ‘whitewash’ of the full truth about American history.”
These contemporary leftist lunatics are destroying — not just covering up, but destroying — a historically significant example of explicitly left-wing art, for the sake of protecting the feelings of students, and vaporizing images (and thoughts) that might make them uncomfortable:
One of the commissioners, Faauuga Moliga, said before the vote on Tuesday that his chief concern was that “kids are mentally and emotionally feeling safe at their schools.” Thus he wanted “the murals to be painted down.” Mark Sanchez, the school board’s vice president, later told me that simply concealing the murals wasn’t an option because it would “allow for the possibility of them being uncovered in the future.” Destroying them was worth it regardless of the cost, he argued at the hearing, saying, “This is reparations.”
These and other explanations from the board’s members reflected the logic of the Reflection and Action Working Group, a committee of activists, students, artists and others put together last year by the district. Arnautoff’s work, the group concluded in February, “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.” The art does not reflect “social justice,” the group said, and it “is not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students.”
Read the whole thing. You’ve got to see the ending, to find out what Arnautoff went through in the 1950s, and to contrast that with what his work is suffering today, from the far left. Here’s a link to a video by San Francisco art historian Dewey Crumpler, a black man who, in the video, defends keeping the mural in place.
The school board is spending $600,000 to destroy a work of art. The mind boggles. If right-wingers were doing this because the mural was insufficiently reverent to George Washington, all left-wing Californians would see this idiotic iconoclasm for what it is. The religion of Social Justice is a thing of staggering stupidity and destructiveness. It is moralistic therapeutic barbarism. If you value art, literature, and freedom of thought and expression, you will fight hard to keep these people from coming to power within political and cultural institutions. It might be too late for California. But for the rest of us? We are creating a generation of sentimentalized Stalinists.