A mural in George Washington High School in San Francisco has been the subject of a bitter dispute.
It includes the life-size image of a dead Native American, as well as a scene of George Washington and the people he enslaved. The city's Board of Education voted to paint over the mural and later decided to cover it up. After three members of the board were recalled in an acrimonious election, the body rescinded the directive. It's all chronicled in Town Destroyer, a new documentary streaming through October 16.
"The intent of the artist matters to some degree but it's the impact on the audience that matters just as much if not more," said Deborah Kaufman, who co-directed the film with Alan Snitow.
Jessica Young, a scholar who focuses on memory in the literature of genocide, told the filmmakers that the images in these controversial murals can be traumatizing over time.
"The definition of trauma is that it is a repetition," said Young. "Sometimes [it's] the outright repetition of the violent event itself, sometimes it's the way we see something again and again in our mind's eye. It can seem like I'm just walking into a building, but it's the accumulation of these things that can, I think, over time lead to traumatization. Cumulatively, they can lead to real harm."
Among the supporters of the mural are two of the high school's prominent alumni: actor Danny Glover and Bay Area artist Dewey Crumpler, who was commissioned to paint a response to it in the late 1960s.
Crumpler said artist Victor Arnautoff was critiquing American history in his 1936 artwork.
"All great murals exist to teach," said Crumpler. "They exist to speak about history and history is full of discomfort. Arnautoff attempted to give us the clarity of our history, as all great works should do."
When Crumpler was in high school he thought the Arnautoff mural should be removed. But before accepting the commission to paint the response mural, he insisted that neither his nor Arnautoff's mural be destroyed. (The high school alumni association is working to have the school included on the National Registry of Historical Places as a means of protecting the mural, according to Lope Yap, Jr., the association's vice-president).