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    War and the service of art Essay

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    What, if any, is the place and function of art in war time ?” This question is in the mind of every art lover and every sincere artist. Between us and the answer lie other ques- tions. What, if any, is the place and function of art in time of peace? How do our war duties to ourselves as a nation compare with our peace duties to ourselves? How much of concentration on one subject can the individual mind or the national consciousness endure without losing its edge? These latter questions imply their own answers. The very existence of artists, art schools, and art museums after all these centuries of both peace and war is a partial answer to one of them.

    To the second we can say that anything which makes for health and poise, of mind or body, in the individual or in the nation in time of peace is an asset of double value in time of war. Art does these things and more. For in addition to these it serves as a vehicle for the imagination, which in the last analysis we find has blazed the trail on which the race goes forward. It is no mere coincidence that Robert Fulton and S. F. B. Morse were both painters of pictures before they made steamboats and telegraphs, nor is it a marvel that Leonardo da Vinci invented engines and weapons as well as Mona Lisas. As the play of children is an earnest rehearsal of the work which they are to perform later in life, so the «activities of the adult imagination pave the way for the acceptance of new and strange realities when these shall be at hand. It was a great step, but only a step, from the figure of Atlas holding up the pagan heavens to the conception of Christ bearing the cross of mankind upon his shoulders. In wartime may it not be the peculiar function of the imaginative arts, which always hint at unseen meanings, to reconcile the human spirit to the things which the human flesh must undergo?

    We are told that even in the trenches the men are obliged to keep their faces clean shaven and their clothes in order — all this diversion of energy to personal tasks from the prime business of fighting being regarded as well spent in the purchase, among other things, of “morale.” And what is this “morale?” Perhaps it is best explained by an illustration. We have heard somewhere a fable of a pet ape whose master was wont to dress him in a silk hat and a high collar and to walk arm and arm with him in the park, and how upon a hot day when the master for compassion had relieved the ape of the troublesome collar, the animal fell at once upon all fours and became a wild beast again. He had simply lost his “morale.” May we not have something of this kind to fear if we allow ourselves to be divested of the arts which civilization has evolved? For painting, sculpture, music, and literature tend to keep up the morale of the community, the family, and the individual; and it must not be forgotten that the community, the family, and the individual are also units in the great army of the nation.

    Already the need of attention to morale at home has made itself felt in an occasional isolated case. Now and then an individual, more highly strung than others, has been stimulated by the sight of some object which suggested the war, to an intensity of expression which contains the germ of panic. The help of every individual and every institution is needed now to make the distinction between true patriotism and these danger- ous manifestations which masquerade under its name. In the present crisis the Art Institute desires above all things to do its part in stabilizing the civic mind, for this, when all is said and done, is its fine and characteristic obligation.

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