2017 and World War I

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art (PAFA) is currently hosting a show titled “World War I and American Art”. The show, timed to coincide with America’s entry into the European war, is compact, contains timely reminders of what man can do, and reminds us of our liberties. Most of us have some acquaintance with horrors of trench warfare and the introduction of chemical (gas) killing methods, both made famous in the great war.

World War I made no sense to most historians but each of the belligerents gave it their all. Deaths and traumatic injuries left people around the world hoping WW I was the war to end all wars.

The show traces America’s involvement with paintings designed to glamorize the “going to war” attitude. There are “posters” advocating every man’s duty to register for the draft, for women to chose some line of work which supports the war effort, and astonishingly, encourages and praises the participation of “the colored boys” (even though US troops were segregated).

Some American artists were embedded with military units and recorded everyday life at the front along with heroic acts against the enemy. It wasn’t, however, until the war ended that art critical of war, especially depicting broken men and senseless slaughter appeared. Why might that have been?

America was extremely divided over entry into World War I. When the Germans began indiscriminately sinking US shipping after three years of war, the tide shifted and Congress declared war on Germany and its allies. And that was not all Congress did.

Congress passed “The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918” both of which violate 1st Amendment rights. Congress’ intent was to intimidate and silence opposition to the war and keep the nation focused upon the fight in Europe. Speech, writings, and art which opposed the government or its efforts were subject to fines, confiscation, and detention.

Fortunately the war ended about a year and a half after the US entered. Then the flood gates opened and so many artist produced paintings, pictures, and sculptures depicting the unglamorous, horrific realities of the War.   War’s real message could no longer be suppressed.

“World War I and American Art” completes its display with a cross section of works clearly showing what price so many people had to pay. As we know, the war to end all wars failed and most historians say World War I actually precipitated an even more horrible war, World War II… and in turn the Korean War, the Vietnamese War, and Gulf Wars I + II.

In 2017, Americans can again see war from the comfort (and security) of their living room. Americans also feel they can protest in person or write anti-government works with no fear of repression. So why is the PAFA show so important?

Civil liberties can be ephemeral. Most Americans enjoy life and do not spend free time researching where their freedoms came from. Ideologues, on the other hand, are so sure they are correct in their goals that any means are justified.  Rejecting refugees and making it very difficult for certain peoples to enter the US is an early warning signal about civil liberties.

Words are strong, pictures are stronger, and art can be the strongest of all in telling or warning what is or what might happen. World War I teaches us allowing only one set of words, photos, or art works (meeting some government standard) informs us of all we should know.  Rather, we must consider pros and cons, reports from sources we trust and sources we are uncomfortable with. Most importantly suppression of information or expression has never benefited society regardless of how dangerous the enemy is described.

Civil liberties are elusive and can disappear quickly.   Ends never justify means.

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