Sublime Dissonance: Art, Politics, and Historical Record on a San Francisco School Wall




Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



The murals at George Washington High School, in San Francisco, California, present an exceptional opportunity to explore the metamorphosis of plaster, paint, and identity – both the material and the ideological. The research, news, reports, and journals concerning the site of inquiry fail to comprehend the dynamic nature of the art piece. This compelling project consists of two narratives, sixteen mural panels, and three time periods. Around the synergistic work at the center of my research, revolves a mercurial coalescence of social values, identities, nationhoods, ideologies, space, and time. This narrative begins with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) mural series, Life of Washington, which illustrates the exploits of first president George Washington over the course of thirteen panels, and was completed in 1936 by artist Victor Arnautoff (1896-1979). Almost forty years later, in 1974, a young Dewey Crumpler (1949- ) contributed a response work – the three-panel, Untitled (Multi-Ethnic Heritage) mural series. His inclusion of social justice leaders, and cultures representative of the many peoples living in San Francisco during the late 1960s and early 1970s, metaphorically exhumes previously silent narratives and adds complexity to Life of Washington. However, scholarly literature concerning this site treats the response murals as a footnote. My research reveals that such a myopic and cursory perusal of the work fails to fully grasp the magnitude of the combined panels’ resultant significance. Previous research primarily concerned the thirteen WPA mural panels, with a brief aside regarding the three, considered mostly unrelated, panels installed four decades later. The flaw in this assessment sits with the lack of attention paid the response mural. Crumpler freely chose to include Arnautoff’s original work; he chose to include - to merge - the first mural series with his own. Through this merger, what began as a WPA mural series, painted in 1936 by a Russian émigré in a California high school, evolved into a compound artwork in 1974, when, in the same California high school, at the height of the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, a young, African American artist painted a response mural to address the former. My research concerns one, complex and hyphenate, artistic piece – one that provides a springboard to further understand the impact of time, memory, and the historical record on art, and one that aids assessment of the epistemological hierarchy critics and scholars hold, which engenders segregation of the mural artform from those more in line with the canonical artworks accepted into the illustrious “White Cube.” This research reveals a work fraught with loaded emotions, affected by and affecting, multiple publics, with disparate views and interpretations of historical, political, and cultural memory. My research exposes a multivalent topic, which, due to length, this thesis only begins to address.



Art History, American Studies, Education, History of