Nouveau Rousseau

Southwest High School after mural cover-up, September 1, 2004. Photo by Michael R. Allen.

by Susan Turk

The businesslike efficiency, which now typifies the management of the Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS), was demonstrated August 23 by the speedy obliteration of Nouveau Rousseau, a landmark mural which had graced the fa├žade of Southwest High School at Arsenal and Kingshighway for the past 20 years. Painted by Southwest students, Nouveau Rousseau, transformed an otherwise unremarkable building into a tropical jungle, giving passing motorists, Metro riders and pedestrians a glimpse of paradise reminiscent of French painter Henri Rousseau’s landscapes. In its place we are left with newly painted plain brown brick walls which the administration considers to be a more appropriate representation of the future of a building soon to house Bunche International Studies Middle School and Central VPA HS.

Photo by Frank Szofran.

Much like that icon of American business, Henry Ford, who considered history to be “bunk”, SLPS COO Manny Silva explained in the Post-Dispatch that obliterating was important to symbolize that this was a new school. Since the mural symbolized the old, now defunct Southwest HS, it had to go. And so, a work of art that had become part of our cultural heritage had to be sacrificed.

Nevermind that it was quite possibly illegal. Nevermind that federal law recognizes the moral right of artists to protect their work from alteration or destruction. Nevermind that federal copyright law requires that if the owner of a building wishes to destroy a work of art painted on it, he is obligated to either get written permission from the artist or artists who created it, or first give the artists the opportunity to try to remove and preserve it.

So much for respect to the former students who created Nouveau Rousseau. So much for their legacy, a testament to the quality of fine arts education in the SLPS. All gone within a matter of hours.

Photo by Frank Szofran.

It is a sad commentary on the current outlook of the district’s administration that some small economy could not be found to preserve Nouveau Rousseau in some way. It could have been photographed and displayed elsewhere.

From the destruction of historic buildings that housed public schools, to the scattering of the historical treasures that were housed in the districts archives, to the obliteration of the landmark Nouveau Roussea, one can only surmise that to the business men running St. Louis Public Schools, history IS bunk. But while there may not be much room for history and art in the rarified business climate that now governs the SLPS, history and art are important components of an educated mind.

Somehow, the brave new evangelists who have brought the gospel of efficiency to the SLPS are going to have to reconcile academic and business cultures if they are going to be successful in improving the outcomes for our students. Hopefully, they will not often find it more efficient to destroy the proud products of our students’ labors in the process.

From the August 30, 2004 issue of the electronic newsletter version of Saint Louis Schools Watch. To subscribe, email editor Peter Downs.

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