I feel like I was late to the party. It was just within the past year that I started watching Parks and Recreation on Netflix and it only took a few episodes to realize what I had been missing out on. I mean how can you not laugh at Ron Swanson’s over-the-top libertarian approach to running the Parks and Rec department, Chris Pratt’s role playing as FBI agent Burt Macklin, Amy Pohler’s incredibly fun personality fit for the role of Leslie Knope, the overly ambitious mid-level politician, or the undeserved incessant badgering of their fellow coworker Jerry (oh wait his name was Garry right?).
If you’ve ever watched Parks and Rec, you would know that one of the most recurring gags on the show are the murals displayed within the municipal building in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana. At several points during the show Leslie Knope introduces one of the Murals of Pioneer Hall and explains the historical significance of the artwork. These murals addressed chapters of Pawnee’s past time, (in an overtly comedic manner) that ranged from a magician being burned at the stake in the 1970’s for pulling a rabbit out of a hat, to bare-knuckle fist fights between men and women, and the trial of Chief Wamapo, who was punished for simply being “Indian,” which at that time was considered a crime in Pawnee.
The intention of including these murals in the show was to, in a lighthearted manner, show just how outrageous people were in the fictional town’s past and they did a good job of it. At times, Leslie Knope would make references to the removal or covering of these murals to prevent any offense towards the citizens in Pawnee.
However, you will notice that Leslie had subtle elements of shame shrouded in the comedic overtones of these particular moments of the show. In a way, as a resident of Pawnee, she felt connected to, almost involved in, the actions depicted in these murals.
These mural scenes rarely lasted more than fifteen to thirty seconds in length each time, yet in a strange way, these scenes had a way of leaving an impression. At least they did on me. And they have been almost prophetic about what our nation would be confronting with great frequency not even a decade later.
Ironically, it seems that a high school in San Francisco is situated in a strikingly similar, yet I would argue, starkly different position. At George Washington High School, the school board recently approved the decision that 13 murals that constitute a cumulative work of art entitled “The Life of George Washington” are being removed from the school at a cost of at least $600,000. These murals, which highlight George Washington’s slave ownership and treatment of Native Americans, among other aspects of his life, have been deemed offensive by some in the community and there has been a push by some in the community to have them removed. Their pushing and prodding has evidently been successful.
Unlike the murals in Pawnee, these murals were not representative of a fictional town in Indiana, but of actual events that did occur in our nation’s history. And these murals were not meant as a joke like the one’s in Parks and Rec. These murals were painted in a not-so-lighthearted manner and represent what some of us would now consider uglier times in our history.
Now before we get too far ahead of ourselves I want to clarify a couple things. Most of us have not and will not ever set foot in George Washington High School. I couldn’t care less how much money it will cost them to remove these murals. If I lived in that school district maybe I would. My life will go on essentially completely unchanged with their decision to remove them. The reality is, this high school in San Francisco really has no bearing on most, if not all of my reader’s lives.
That being said, the removal of these murals is consistent with a pattern of similar conversations and decisions currently occurring across the nation regarding the preservation/removal of statues and other historical artwork in public spaces that represent, and some would argue, endorse some of the darkest parts of our nation’s history.
It is this second point, the pattern that we are observing that I wish to discuss. How should have these discussions. My hope is to have it not with anger. Not with frustration. But with consideration of what all is at play and at stake with these decisions. I want to try to answer what role should art and history should play in our culture.
The role of art
Jonathan Pageau, an icon carver from Canada, has a YouTube channel entitled The Symbolic World. I find his videos quite interesting as he discusses the symbology of movies, culture, and stories. He recently did an interview for a documentary on the purpose of art, which I have linked below (the first 15-20 minutes give the gist of his ideas).
A simplistic explanation of his view on art in this interview is that the term “art” was initially meant to mean the skill with which someone carried out their craft to serve a given purpose. Today the word “art” is largely meant to refer to the thing that was actually crafted. This difference may seem trivial, but in fact this point can be quite significant the more you think about it.
Jonathan and the interviewer discuss how the art of pizza-making, done by a pizzaiolo, is not so much based on how creative the pizza looks. When we buy a pizza, we don’t need them to reinvent the pizza. The artistry is how skillful the pizzaiolo is at making a pizza that serves it’s intended purpose, which is to be aesthetically pleasing but ultimately delicious and nutritious. A pizza that looks good but tastes like garbage is not art by Jonathan’s definition.
Likewise, Jonathan discusses how the famous painting “The Last Supper” by Leonardo Da Vinci would be a work of art. While the painting might not seem historically accurate because it would be strange for all the disciples and Jesus to all sit on one side of the table, the painting was skillfully crafted to serve a particular purpose. When the painting is hanging on the wall of a dining room, anyone sitting at their own table, eating their own meal, would be able to reflect on this painting and in a way feel like they were a part of the Last Supper. It is for that purpose that the painting was crafted.
With that in mind, let’s revisit these murals at George Washington High School. These murals were initially painted in the mid 1930’s by Victor Arnautoff, an artist who worked under the New Deal Works Progress Administration. By the way people are offended by these murals, you would think he was serving as some advocate for the actions of George Washington. You would think that the purpose he intended for these murals must have been to applaud our first president and endorse slavery and the killing of Native Americans. The reality may surprise you.
Victor Arnautoff was a communist who happened to be quite critical of George Washington. He used his skill of painting for the purpose of creating murals that would encourage critical analysis of the life of George Washington. One can argue how accurately he crafted this argument as I’ll discuss later. But contrary to many of the detractors of this work of art, its whole existence was intended to provide a critical lens through which we view George Washington’s life and the actions of his contemporaries. So basically, those who wish for these murals to be removed are advocating the destruction of a work of art that was intended to critique the very same issues they are critiquing…. Right… This sounds like exactly the type of mural that they would want preserved. Anyway…
I liken the skill of art to a process of distillation. A reduction of the raw materials to something more dense and potent. The pizza maker distills his years of experience into crafting his best pizzas. Leonardo Da Vinci distilled both his painting skillset and his understanding of the gospel story to craft a beautiful and impactful painting purposed for connecting people with the story of the Last Supper . Similarly, Victor Arnautoff distilled his painting skillset and understanding of George Washington’s life into a painting meant to persuade it’s viewers to give a critical assessment of his life when so many held exclusively wholesome and idyllic views of our first president.
When we view works of art and interpret them in a manner consistent with their intended purpose, there is a much greater depth to which we can engage with them. The skill of art distills down even the most complex narratives into something like a mural that can serve as a potent reminder of what the artist wants us to remember or learn.
the role of history
I loathed history class growing up. I mean it absolutely bored me out of my mind. Morgan would attest that I don’t have the best memory, and with how history class was structured at my school – and I think most schools for that matter – I struggled mightily to memorize dates, names, and places. I was so bad at regurgitating those flashcard facts on the exams. The primary lesson I learned after all those years at school was simple. People in our past were really bad people, but fortunately we’re so much better now and we keep making progress.
Maybe you would agree with that idea. Or maybe you wouldn’t. It wasn’t a hypothesis that I consciously constructed. It was a viewpoint formed naturally over time from the stories in history that I had been told. Stories of wars, disease, slavery, prejudice, genocide, oppression, you name it. People were so dumb in the past. Good thing we’re so much smarter and nicer than they were.
I don’t recall learning about too many historical figures with overtly positive attributes associated to them. There really weren’t too many positive stories in the past at all that I could remember. If anything there were historical figures, like George Washington, which I knew of but was indifferent towards.
But if we really are so much better off today than where we were in the past, how do we explain how possibly the most horrific chapter of human existence occurred just over 70 years ago during World War II? There are people still alive today that lived through the Holocaust. How do we explain the increased prevalence of mass casualty shootings today? How do we explain the substantial divisions within the populace, increased suicide rates, increased mental health issues, the downfall in the success of marriages, just to name a few issues.
Are we really better off than our ancestors? Maybe financially. There’s definitely less scarcity in the world than there ever was throughout human history. That definitely makes it easier to be nicer to each other (although I think even that’s debatable).
Is there absolutely nothing we can learn from history except what not to do? Is there nothing redeemable about our ancestors or their cultures?
The 2016 presidential election peaked my interest in history because I was curious how we got to where we currently stand. It was a sufficiently ugly campaign to push me to seek out what lessons could be teased out from history. I’ve (very slowly) been reading biographies on past presidents and ironically I most recently finished “Washington: A Life” by Ron Chernow. I cannot recommend the book enough.
If I were to revamp the primary lessons that I’ve learned about history, in just a few years of more intentional study, it would be in this way. I’ve found that by reflecting on history I can very quickly insert myself into the shoes of people in different times and situations and ask myself could I or would I do anything differently. I can gain insight into a different culture than my own, like a fish getting to go swim in the ocean after being cooped up in a fish tank it’s whole life (except there’s no risk of being eaten by a shark).
It’s worth noting that history, like art, can never be completely objective. Historical stories can be true, but with the inevitable selection and omittance of details, one can never fully grasp the entire story. Each biographer brings their own perspective and has to craft from an infinite number of facts and details a cohesive storyline for the life of the historical figure. I will never be able to see the inner thoughts of historical figures like George Washington. But I read excerpts from his letters, studied his actions, and learned about the current events occurring in his lifetime and began to understand who he was. Even in some of the darkest times of history, there are some absolutely beautiful stories and strong and good-natured people to learn from. Studying history has a role in my life, and I think it can and should still play a role in our culture.
So what do we make of these murals?
So how do these piece together. Murals, like the one at George Washington High School, are a distillation of the events of not just George Washington’s life but of our nation’s history. You could spend your whole life studying the reasons for and ramifications of these events and still not see it with complete clarity. Murals distill that information into a painting, placed in a public space, where we collectively can wrestle with the reasons for and ramifications of these events. Murals, like other publicly shared works of historical art, invite us to engage with history together as a community.
But historical art without a thorough understanding of the history is problematic. The Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci means nothing to the viewer if they do not already possess an understanding of the story behind the painting. Likewise, one cannot really enjoy or assess how good a pizza is until they have tasted several pizzas to which they can compare.
Regarding Washington specifically, I would like to offer a few key insights that I’ve learned. Yes he owned slaves and often was a harsh slave owner. Yes, he was involved in military conflict with Native Americans. These aspects of his life are in fact true and well documented. However, there are other sides of the stories to be considered as well.
George Washington lived in a tougher economical time, where lifespans were shorter and survival was much more difficult. In many of his letters, you got the sense that he thought he was doing his slaves a service by giving them work, a place to live, and food to eat. It’s worth mentioning that George Washington’s estate was always struggling financially, especially since he refused pay for most of the service he gave to our country. He also adopted many children from his friends and family after they died and financially supported them. Additionally agriculture was incredibly labor intensive (they were just on the cusp of introducing crop rotations and new technologies), hence the economical reasons for maintaining the institution of slavery. This is not meant to endorse slavery, but to demonstrate why it was difficult to overcome the momentum it had within the culture.
He actually allowed his slaves to marry slaves from other plantations and relocate so that he would not separate their families. This was something that was not common among most slave owners. One of his closest companions throughout his life was Billy Lee, a slave, who rode by his side throughout the Revolutionary War. And by the end of his life, with the constant attempts of persuasion from his friend Marquis de Lafeyette, he overcame the inertia of the cultural norm slavery was by rewriting his will to free the slaves he owned upon his death. Marquis de Lafeyette is a man I found quite admirable in my study of George Washington, and one I hope to study more at some time.
And regarding Native Americans, the interactions between colonists and the many tribes are way too complex for me to get into. I simply don’t know enough to really weight in on it. All I can say is that no side was completely in the right or wrong, and many horrific acts were performed by both sides over many many years. I sound a lot like Donald Trump there, but I do think this is true in this case.
Was Washington all bad or good? No. But he is a man worth studying, and we shouldn’t be so quick to praise or demonize him. Ever wonder what he thought about artists painting portraits or crafting statues of him? He actually requested that he not be drawn or sculpted larger than his actual stature in real life. I think that’s a pretty humble stance for a man who would be head of the executive branch for our nation in its infancy.
If you read articles on the removal of these murals, you will read quotes from students saying they were never taught the significance of these murals. They will say that the only interaction they have with them is that other students will suggest “meeting under the dead Indian.” It’s this hollow interaction with historical art that keeps us from contending with these essential questions in our culture. This mural was meant to serve as a catalyst for discussion and instead is serving as an incitement to anger over past sins.
We definitely should discuss whether all statues and murals should remain up? That’s not a bad question to ask. Honestly I still struggle to see the value in statues because they fail to depict any story and only seem to glorify the individual. Maybe that’s too shallow of a view on them. But not all of these murals and statues need to remain. The question is what purpose are they meant to serve, and can they continue to function in that manner if we approach them in the correct manner.
The problem occurs when we don’t give history its due respect and we interpret art in a manner in which it was never intended to be used. It doesn’t matter to me if they take the murals down or not. My question would be what would they proposed to replace it with? And if we are going to so heavily scrutinize the errors of our ancestors, can we step outside our own fish tank to see our own culture with enough clarity to identify where we may be off base.
There’s no way to whitewash or erase history. We can forget history, but it still doesn’t change the fact that it occurred. Art and a study of history can help us engage in these difficult conversations. We need to be careful about how quick we decide to remove these works of art from our public arena. Maybe we just need to rediscover their purpose or learn a little more about the stories behind them. Then we may discover new vistas of appreciation for what we have, how we got here, and where we really should be going.