Fresco Fiasco: An Artwork in Jeopardy and a History Redressed

Artwork & Illustrations, Censorship

By: Tommy Vinh Bui

Languorously labyrinthine the pathways and escalators that lace the interior of the Los Angeles Central Library downtown. The soft whisper of pages being lightly turned with care and the occasional thumb being licked as a newspaper is rifled through for the day’s track results. And it’s with bated breath I hold my anticipation as I turn a certain corner on the second floor and am flooded with a wallop of walleyed walled whimsy.

The Grand Rotunda at the Central Library is something to behold. It’s neck-craning wonderment that washes over you with alacrity. Adorned with twelve panel pastel hued murals masterfully flung by American artist Dean Cornwell with care, you’ll be struck dizzy with the sceneries draped before you. The murals were unveiled in 1933 but were not met with immediate accolades. Rather a wave of opprobrium was the initial reception from art critics and city officials.

The artwork has appeared to have aged well in the eyes of LA historians. And can safely be considered one of the more treasured aesthetics spots in all of Los Angeles. The negative chatter concerning the charge of the commercial nature of the artwork has dissipated and been scattered over the annals of time. And Cornwell’s library murals are inarguably deemed some of the finest work of his career, if not the pinnacle.

But not all responses to artworks are as tidy and resolved as the library murals. A recent furor at a high school in San Francisco is raising all types of dander. The foofaraw has ignited a contentious debate about the nature of history and how modern audiences can contextualize and discuss appropriately. The San Francisco School Board is mulling a decision to obliterate a 1935 artwork by WPA artist Victor Arnautoff located at George Washington High School. The embattled 13-panel, 1600 square feet frescoes feature highlights from Washington’s life and career but stirs controversy for its depiction of slaves at Mount Vernon and slain Native Americans. The artist is not tacit in his full-frontal representation of the victims of brutal westward expansion, the complexities of slavery, and the traumas of genocide and colonization. It’s a history that attempts to find something like a measured balance between unflattering truths and heroic elevation. Many critics interpret the imagery as offensive and broaching upon an element of the past best forgotten while others argue that refusing to acknowledge the mistakes of the past are tantamount to inexcusable societal amnesia and a crime against culture. A heated brouhaha coming from all sides.

Life of Washington Mural
A WPA-era mural by Victor Arnautoff depicting slave ownership and Native American genocide is part of a new controversy at George Washington High School in San Francisco. (George Washington High School Alumni Association)

Whitewashing the difficult details of history would be a vast injustice. Parallel with the current controversy of Confederate monuments and the call to topple them, it’s an issue that rankles and musters much ire and acrimony amongst stakeholders. No one wants constant reminders of the inequities and sins of the mistakes of the past writ large in memoriam and in perpetuum. But contrarily, shielding future generations from the lessons of the history would amount to a severe disservice to society at large. If anything, these are valuable teachable moments that will prepare them for the sometimes bedraggled and unwieldy nature of history and the world they’ll themselves inherit and have to navigate. Bestow them with an understanding that sometimes history is unkempt, complex, and controversial. Laying a layer of paint onto these unique murals would be a true loss to the artworld and represent a squandered opportunity for forward motion and growth as a society. Entice more understanding and extrapolate important lessons and critical thinking from these murals. Instead of taking the woefully passive route of just painting over them. While artwork can be painted over, history can’t be dismantled for the sake of convenience. Erasure is endemic when it comes to censorship. Intellectual freedom is under siege when the option of destroying artwork is proposed. And there’s nothing more ahistorical and devoid of thought than a sterile freshly-painted white wall.

It’s an important artwork that should be preserved for its artistic, historical, and educational value. If not for those qualities, then it earns its right to remain by virtue of the vigorous discourse it has inspired. Art should arouse anger. And this is the axiom I carry with me as I depart the Central Library rotunda and leave Cornwell’s mural in my wake.

Innately incensed somehow.  

Tommy Vinh Bui

Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.

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