In the Hyperreal World of US Education, Art Must Be Innocuous

Anything that offends an individual’s sensibility in the US educational environment — even valuable, original art with its own history — must be removed, whatever the cost, lest young eyes suffer humiliation and trauma.
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One of the deepest features of any culture concerns the general approach to problem-solving. Some cultures, before defining the actions intended to solve any complex problem, privilege the idea of engaging in research. Others prefer contradictory public debate. And many cultures rely on guidance from accepted traditions and spiritual authorities.

This past week has shown two examples of how the most basic ingrained reflex to problem-solving works in US culture. When President Donald Trump, after making his own outrageously racist comments concerning Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, allowed a cheering crowd to chant “send her back,” he and the mob were applying what has become the standard problem-solving reflex within US culture: removal of the offending object. Export, hide or kill whatever or whoever you believe to be the source of the problem. Order will then be re-established.

Another example comes from the San Francisco Board of Education that has been grappling with the question of what to do with a work of art that has decorated the wall of George Washington High School for the past 80 years. The controversial object is a series of murals depicting the life of the first American president, George Washington, painted by a Russian-American artist and Stanford University art professor, Victor Arnautoff. Following protests by families offended by the representation of Washington’s depicted treatment of Native Americans and slaves, the Board of Education recently voted unanimously to paint over the impressive murals.

Seeking the most politically correct justification for the decision, one person defending the vote justified the proposed solution by invoking an issue that has recently been evoked by presidential candidates concerning America’s unpaid debt to the descendants of slaves. “‘This is reparations,’ Education Board Commissioner Mark Sanchez said in a KQED report when asked about the estimated $600,000 price tag for its removal.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Removal:

The ultimate phase of the most efficient way of two-phase problem-solving as practiced in the United States. The first phase consists of identifying a unique cause and removing all nuance. The second phase consists of removing from perception and (hopefully) from memory the unique cause identified in phase one.

Contextual Note

The first thing to notice about Arnautoff’s murals is the artist’s commitment to the portrayal of nuance. US culture systematically attempts to remove nuance by reducing problems to a black vs white choice. US history identifies and elevates notable individuals to unequivocal hero or villain status. Children at school learn that, as the “father of the country,” George Washington’s every act was virtuous, beginning with his childhood act of defiance of his own father, when he chopped down his dad’s favorite cherry tree. The sin of destroying his father’s property existed simply as a prelude to his noble act of honesty when he owned up by saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”

The story is apocryphal but illustrates how heroism is defined in the US. It generally contains a form of aggression whose negative features are “removed” from official memory, justified by the existence of a higher purpose that overwhelms them. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” the symbolism of the act was so powerful that generations effectively removed from their historical memory the obvious fact that he continued to own slaves and abuse them in the usual ways.

Historical Note

As the artist of the original murals, Arnautoff understood that Washington’s life was an essential part of the nation’s identity. Instead of seeking to negate its reality, he chose to introduce the nuance of Washington’s racially based aggression as a commentary, not just on the personality of the first president, but also on the glaring elements of injustice toward other races that accompanied the entire project of building a nation across the breadth of an entire continent. He intended his murals to be a nuanced history lesson, deepening what every schoolchild learns about George Washington.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Afro-American Club proposed a response to a work of art that focused on Washington alone. The school board commissioned black artist Dewey Crumpler to produce a complementary work highlighting the contribution to the life of the nation of African-Americans, indigenous people and Mexicans. Crumpler produced his own murals in a spirit of artistic dialogue with Arnautoff’s, adding another level of nuance to the perception of history.

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For Americans in today’s increasingly polarized society, nuance has become intolerable. It may cause offense. Because some children are troubled by seeing a dead Indian at Washington’s feet or being reminded of his commitment to slavery, the school board decided that these fascinating works of art must be painted over or simply removed, leaving Crumpler’s politically correct work in place. Crumpler now vehemently defends the original murals and claims that his own make no sense without Arnautoff’s. He explains: “History is full of discomfort but that’s the very thing that human beings need” in their quest to understand history.

But in today’s hypersensitive culture, any individual’s sense of discomfort has become intolerable to the point of requiring the removal of the source of discomfort. This has led to a highly paradoxical situation typical of societies sliding inexorably into hyperreality, a condition that fears complexity and always requires a smooth, uniform, unnuanced version of reality to keep reflection at bay.

This incident contains the ultimate irony: According to school board member Gabriela López, most of the people defending the communist painter’s murals “skewed older and white” and, therefore, weren’t “representative of the people affected.” Not the sort expected to validate “communist” art. Their appreciation presumably stems from the fact that they understand the artwork as the glorification of a white hero, perpetuating their cherished patriotic myths. The strongest criticism of the murals comes from people with Native American heritage who complain that kids “don’t see these images as helpful or powerful, they see them as insulting and demeaning.”

This is understandable, but only because the kids have been taught by contemporary US culture (and not necessarily by their school) that images have no meaning other than what they literally represent. That is a feature of hyperreality. It exclusively seeks to represent as one-dimensionally as possible, rather than reflect or create meaning. Instead, it banishes or “removes” meaning whenever it dares to appear. As the critics observe: “[S]lain and enslaved people of color have no place in a school lobby. They believe the artist’s intentions are irrelevant in light of the harm to young people of color daily confronted by images of their ancestors debased.”

In their eyes, being reminded of the violence inscribed in one’s own history can only produce “harm.” This reminds us of the lesson so carefully learned by both George Bush Sr. and Jr. as they prosecuted their respective wars in Iraq. They remembered the effect on TV viewers whose news programs presented them with images of American body bags returning home during the Vietnam War. The American Conservative notes: “In the Vietnam years, the Pentagon had, for instance, been stung by the thought that images of the American dead coming home in body bags had spurred on that era’s huge antiwar movement.” Bush Sr. and Jr. both fittingly banned pictures of dead Americans coming home in coffins.

Hyperreality’s goal is to enable us to believe in our idealized world. To make it work, the death of one’s own people must always be removed from sight. Even at a cost of $600,000.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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