“No proven Communist should hold a position at Stanford.” Yet Victor Arnautoff did, and scored a victory for academic freedom.


Much has been written about the proposed destruction of the remarkable murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School, painted by a prominent student of Diego Rivera in the 1930s. The Book Haven doesn’t need to recap the controversy. You can look here and here, if you need help. Or just google.

But the Stanford side of the story has been generally overlooked: Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was an art professor here for almost a quarter of a century, from 1938 until his retirement in 1962. Stanford’s president, Wallace Sterling, had announced “no proven Communist should hold a position at Stanford.” And yet he did. He was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and investigated by Stanford advisory boards. And the outcome of his Stanford struggle redefined academic freedom.

Arnautoff’s legacy in the Bay Area area is notable: He made several murals at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic in 1932. (You can see some of his local artwork in this Art and Architecture article here.) One of the murals, visible at 300 Homer Avenue, caused traffic problems. “The Exam,” with a half-nude woman, was apparently outré at the time. He made more buon fresco works at Coit Tower, and then, at last, his largest project for the George Washington High School, murals that challenged the received wisdom about American history, though his perspective on slavery and genocide is generally accepted  today. Why has the San Francisco School Board unanimously voted to tear down this legacy? Apparently, students are upset by them, and students of color feel unwelcome in their own school. Apparently, they “trigger” some of the students.

Here’s why San Francisco School Board should be sacked, every single one of them: They have failed their students. They district has failed to “educate” them, in a way that should be part of any sound humanities curriculum.The cliché is that the humanities are to “teach you how to think” … well, so does mathematics. What is unique to the humanities is that it teaches you how to feel. Facing complicated emotions and objectionable ideas is part of it. Learning to empathize with others is part of what history and great literature teaches – especially literature which, in the end, is an education of the heart.

In short, kids can learn to shape their emotions – an important life skill. However, the operating paradigm here seems to be  that the students’ feelings are objective and immutable, and that art, along with the effort and skill and time of the artist, must give way before them.

In the Russian subway stations, students put flowers at the feet of the statue of Pushkin. Suppose the kids, instead of complaining to their teachers, honored Arnautoff’s fallen Native Americans by placing flowers beneath the mural? Imagine if, instead of crying, they left letters and messages of solidarity before the portrayed slaves?  The whole point of education, or one of its points, is that you can change the way you look at things. It takes a little discipline and fortitude at first, but you eventually get the hang of it.

Arnautoff also had troubles before with the political correctness brigade, back when it was on the other side of the political fence.

When he was called before HUAC in 1956, he refused to answer questions about his membership in the Communist Party and other organizations. He declined to answer questions about a political cartoon he had made. Here’s what he wrote to his fellow citizens:

“The Exam” in P.A.

“The Un-American Sub-Committee knew very well that I had not committed any crime. After all, an artist has as much right to make a political cartoon as any other citizen has to express a political opinion or viewpoint….

“Members of the Un-American Committee said I am a most dangerous man for the security of the United States [an accurate quotation]….

“Do they consider an artist’s colors, brushes, crayons and pencils as murderous tools? If they do, it is a new low in right-wing thinking, and it is time for the American people—and especially for American artists—to be concerned with a threat that affects everyone as fully as it does me. I value my freedoms, and I intend to defend my rights as a citizen and as an artist, and to express my belief in American principles in the future as I have in the past.

Stanford and its alumni were alarmed about having a “Fifth-Amendment Communist” in their ranks. Administrators worried that they had no means to “get rid of a known Communist who merely remained silent when asked whether he were a Communist … if a man won’t talk, we are stuck with him.” The Advisory Board met – not for the first time – to discuss the Arnautoff case.

Three years earlier, Arnautoff had already been a subject of discussion. Sterling had appointed a special university committee to clarify “what we mean by academic freedom and academic responsibility” and to address “the problem posed by the possibility of investigation by a government committee.” The special committee was undecided on “whether membership in the Communist Party should be regarded alone as sufficient basis for the removal of a faculty member” and “the freedom and responsibilities of the faculty member with regard to his activities of a nonprofessional character.” They decided to kick that can down the road. And here they were.

The upshot: the board found no fault with his teaching or competence – all agreed that he was a distinguished artist and able teacher. The board “concluded that, while there was reason to question Professor Arnautoff’s judgment about political matters, there was no evidence that he had permitted his political beliefs to affect his teaching of art at Stanford.”

“There is no such evidence in the case of Professor Arnautoff, although there is no question but what he is intensely interested in Russia and its problems. This, however, is not illegal. Nor are views which are unorthodox or unpopular.

“The right of free speech and free thought is a very important part of a strong democracy; it is easy to lose this privilege if we do not defend the right of people to hold views which differ radically from those held by most of us. And I am sure that we can leave up to the government the job which is properly theirs of identifying and prosecuting those whose actions threaten the security of the nation.”

And so it redefined academic freedom here, and likely farther afield as well.

Read the whole thing here, in a Stanford Sandstone & Tile article by Robert W. Cherny, who also wrote an Art & Architecture article about the Washington murals here.

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