The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What can artists do when the world turns ugly?

John Singer Sargent 1856-1925). "Gassed," 1919. Oil on canvas. (Copyright IWM Imperial War Museums, Art/Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts)

Many artists today are horrified by the current state of political affairs, the election of Donald Trump, the rise and mainstreaming of racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the assembly of a cabinet of billionaires whose commitment to the public weal is unknown and deeply distrusted. But if there is collective outrage at what has happened, there is anything but a unified response. Should art be a weapon of mass resistance? Should artists embrace politics and wield the blunt weapons of satire, caricature and scorn? Or, at the far end of the temperamental spectrum, should they preserve the artistic impulse — underscoring complexity and refinement — unsullied by the low and grotesque values that now dominate the social discourse?

An exhibition at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts looks at another moment of high political drama, almost exactly a century ago, when the United States decided to enter into the First World War on behalf of the Allied powers. Then, as now, artists weren’t unified about the war, nor of one mind about how to respond.

Like all wars, the First World War corrupted the winners and losers alike, spreading cynicism and lies, limiting free expression and dissent, and distributing pain, sacrifice and suffering unequally. The United States blundered into the war with its usual, reflexive habit of stupidity, American Exceptionalism, which led to enormous early losses in blunt-force mass attacks. Or, as one historian of the war put it, “The American assault was little more than a human wave into the face of German machine guns, a weapon that the Americans treated with contempt.”

Even entry into the war was presaged on a lie. The exhibition opens with a room that includes works inspired by the 1915 sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania, by German U-boats. It includes a poster by Fred Spear showing a woman cradling her baby, both of them sinking peacefully to their death at the bottom of the sea. Spear’s 1915 image includes a single imperative, “Enlist,” urging young men to join the military long before the United States had officially declared war.

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We know now that the Lusitania wasn’t just carrying the nearly 1,200 civilian passengers who died in the attack. It was also loaded with tons of munitions intended to bolster the Allied war effort. The outrage over the loss of life was sincere, but the secret effort to aid one side despite our professed neutrality was underhanded and deceptive.

Once the war was engaged, it took two basic propaganda efforts to whip up sustained enthusiasm for the project. First was vilification of the Germans and, equally as important, a visceral connection between masculinity and wartime service. German atrocities in Belgium aided the former efforts, though the dehumanization of the enemy is still deeply troubling. Posters depict the German as a bloodthirsty gorilla, and paintings and drawings by George Bellows (who at first opposed the war) become obsessive and sadistic in the depiction of enemy war crimes.

Efforts to connect the war to fears of masculine inadequacy seem now almost as comical as Bellows’s work is macabre. In one juxtaposition, an attractive young woman in a sailor’s suit says, “Gee! I wish I were a man. I’d join the Navy,” while in another image a young man in profile looks out of a window at a phalanx of marching soldiers, with the caption asking, “On which side of the window are you?”

The latter poster is jarringly insightful about the deeper psychosexual stirrings of war. Outside, in the light of day, are soldiers who have been reduced to a single facial type — square-jawed and expressionless — while the young man in the darkened interior looks pensively toward them. His shoulders are narrow, and he keeps one hand in his pocket while the other fidgets at his jacket. A set of oppositions are in play: Interior vs. exterior, introspection vs. action, doubt vs. certainty, virile vs. vacillating masculinity. All of these vanish if you do what the poster asks: Enlist.

The exhibition takes a broad view of art and artistry, using posters and cartoons from the popular press alongside major paintings by key modernists working during and after the war. Enthusiasm for the war is captured in several flag-bedecked images by Childe Hassam, alongside intense agony about conflict in abstractions by Marsden Hartley. Scholar Alexander Nemerov contributes an essay to the catalogue proposing a provocative reading of works by Charles Burchfield, one of this country’s most fascinating and underappreciated artists. In the dark, cavelike openings of a winter landscape, Nemerov hears the oratory of jingoism and nationalism, and in the tormented landscape around them he sees a “death zone,” as if Thoreau’s Walden Pond had been scorched by “purgatorial” powers.

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The exhibition also includes several works by John Singer Sargent, including his enormous, horizontal 1919 painting “Gassed,” borrowed from the Imperial War Museums in London. This is a showstopper, not because it captures the agony of war, but because it underscores the range of confusion the war inspired in so many people. “Gassed” shows two groups of young man with their eyes bandaged, each holding on to the shoulder of the man in front as they progress from the battlefield to what is likely a hospital tent just outside of view. The sun is low in the sky, its force blunted by a thick, yellow haze, which may be the smoke of war. In the distance, other men play sport, as if nothing has happened.

By focusing on the gassed victims, who are still ambulatory and otherwise unscarred by the war (at least physically), Sargent captures the beauty of the soldiers, and their intimacy, and with that all of the homoeroticism of the First World War described by Paul Fussell in “The Great War and Modern Memory.” Fussell marveled at the “severe dichotomy” between, “on the one hand, sanctioned public mass murder” and “On the other, unlawful secret individual love.” No one theme connects all the work in this exhibition, but among the several large themes of the show, this dichotomy is a powerful presence, from images of disfigurement and decay by Ivan Albright to a posthumous portrait by Violet Oakley of a young American flier lost in the war, whose absence is filled by an image that evokes a powerful sense of personal beauty and self-possession.

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The exhibition continues its survey of American art for years after the end of the war, with some of the most powerful paintings in the final room, from the 1930s, as Americans faced the specter of war once again. The sense of betrayal, of lost humanity, of deception and hollowness is on the move again. In John Steuart Curry’s 1938 “Parade to War, Allegory,” the same stony-faced soldiers in the “On which side of the window are you?” poster two decades earlier are seen marching with rifles at the ready, with streamers flowing from their bayonets and women and children cheering them on. But now their set jaws are even more square, and bony, to the point of being skeletal. It is a blunt picture, and it plays on tropes that antiwar artists had used (unsuccessfully) in the years leading up to the American entry into the First World War.

But the futility of the image is part of its power. For there is one thing artists can be sure of: They will never redeem a society determined on madness. They can inflame our ugliest tendencies, and make apologies for them; deny them or divert our attention from them; in certain rare and individual cases they may turn a few of us from our worst nature; but they can never free the species from its raptures of hatred and delight in violence.

World War I and American Art is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia through April 9. For more information visit