Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Art Service in War and Peace

by Arthur Wesley Dow - 1919

When art is mentioned the majority of people in our country think of pictures, or of something in a museum, or of something adorning public buildings and houses of the wealthy. There are those who regard art as a material thing, a luxury, to be enjoyed by a favored few. As for the producer of art—of this kind—he is popularly denied a place among the "practical," who feel that they alone run the world.

When art is mentioned the majority of people in our country think of pictures, or of something in a museum, or of something adorning public buildings and houses of the wealthy. There are those who regard art as a material thing, a luxury, to be enjoyed by a favored few. As for the producer of artof this kindhe is popularly denied a place among the "practical," who feel that they alone run the world.


In educational circles we hear of various kinds of art, "fine," "applied," "industrial," "commercial," and so on, terms more or less vague. To avoid misunderstanding let me state as clearly as I can what I mean by "art" and "art service."


In this paper I apply the word "art" to a quality, not to things. Let us say that art is a quality imparted to the shape, texture, tone, and color of things, a superior quality created by the superior craftsman or artist. It is this superior quality of looks and workmanship which the world regards as precious. It may exist in the humble things of daily use if the makers of them care how they look and have freedom to choose form, texture, and color. The good craftsman does care how his work looks, he takes pride in a "good job," he wants it to be "ship-shape," and here is the germ of art. To create superior quality is not to add prettiness to some useful object, or to "decorate" something.

The creative workman has a mental image of the object he is to produce, even if it be but a turned chair-round. Before beginning it he sees it graceful and well proportioned. The man of no imagination does not see anything but a block of wood which he fashions mechanically into a dead copy. The creative workman produces art by his treatment of shapes, textures, tones, and colorsnot only in paint and marble, but in clay, wood, stone, lead, brass, and iron, in thread and glass, and in printing-ink.

This view does not limit art-practice to a super-class, but includes all creators of form and color. It does not limit it to hand work alone, though that is the highest, for the machine may produce art if it is directed by a creative mind. No machine can ever give us great art, but it can make things good in line, good in texture, and good in color. The artist may create superior quality with the factory loom, the shop lathe, the power press; he may use all tools, all machines, all materials, and any methods of manufacture.


Has anyone the moral right to ignore superior quality and make the ugly and the ephemeral, whether by hand or by machine? Is it not a waste of material, a waste of human labor, and an injustice to society to manufacture without regard to looks of form and colorwhen there is freedom to choose form and color?


Here let me refer to the common saying that "a thing perfectly adapted to use is therefore beautiful." This cannot be true, for usefulness has nothing to do with beauty of design, A saw-horse is perfectly adapted to its use, so is a pig trough, an apple parer, a dynamo, a concrete mixer, but nobody wants or expects them to be beautiful. On the other hand, our museums are full of things that are not now useful in the smallest degree, but are kept solely for their quality of design, their fine curves, their light-reflecting textures, their mysteries of tone, their perfect harmonies of color. One does not require a fine form in a pig trough, but one does require it in a public watering trough. The advertising sign is perfectly adapted to use, and is a public nuisance when no care is taken as to its color, form, and placing.

In these days of "reeducation" and "reconstruction," when millions are to be spent on curative workshops and vocational schools, we should see to it that the workers have some training in the arts of design before they begin to handle material. If such training cannot be given, then let the men work from models prepared by competent designers. In any case, let us no longer ignore the value of good design and good craftsmanship. We are far behind foreign nations in this respect, and it is not worth while to attempt to place the responsibility. It is fair to say, though, that part of it rests upon those of our educators who put design and craftsmanship at the end of the list in a curriculum, or omit them altogether.

The art teachers of the country are doing their best to give our children an appreciation of good drawing, good workmanship, and good color. The art teacher, working under restrictions and difficulties, wearies of that banal reiteration, "art must be connected with, life," "art must serve the industries," as if it did not do those very things at every opportunity; as if the art teachers were standing for a useless accomplishment, mere dexterity, the painting of bad landscapes to put on a mantel! If there could be a nation-wide exhibit of public school art, it would show that modern art teaching is closely related to the home, city, and country life, the industries, business, and the vocations. In fact, it receives more encouragement now from the business people than from educational authorities. Before the war the art teacher was already alive to the call for good design, from the department stores, the manufacturers, the advertisers, the printers, and the publishers.

The war has come and gone, changing the current of our lives, bringing one age to an end, and ushering in another, as we are constantly told. Above all it brought the need for service. The question was how the artist, the art teacher, and the craftsman could serve in their own special fields. They said, "Here are our hands, here are pencil, brush, paper, canvas; here are knives tools, machines; here are wood, cloth, tin, clay, colors, inks, and presseswhat are the calls? Where may we do our part?" The world knows what Raemakers and the cartoonists did, how the poster was called the Paul Revere of this war and rallied the people to support the government and the Red Cross, how camouflage proved to be a powerful weapon of defense on sea and land, and how useful in gunnery have been the landscape targets prepared by painters. These were the broader lines of service. What could be done by teachers and students who could not go overseas to trench or hospital? How could such service extend on after the war?



As soon as our country entered the war we began to plan for the care of wounded and disabled soldiers. The new hospitals called for teachers of occupations and for trained craftsmen to take charge of curative workshops. Here was an opportunity for the art teachers and students to cooperate with the medical staff of the hospitals and with the Federal Board for Vocational Education. In Teachers College the department of nursing and health organized classes for the training of teachers of occupational therapy. The department of fine arts not only joined in this by giving some of the courses, but produced models to be used directly in workshops or to serve as suggestions for the vocational teacher. Types of what might be done as well as examples of what has been done are here described and partly illustrated.


For bedside work with elementary handicrafts where the aim is purely therapeutic and where the objects made are not of permanent value, the design need not be more than good simple spacing and good color. But the worker in the shop should have at least a knowledge of the elements of design. He should know how to put together a few lines and spaces in a clear, compact, well-balanced arrangement (Figs. 1a, 4), how to distribute masses of dark and light (Figs. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), to compose simple borders and patterns (Figs, 1b, 8, 9, 10), and to combine a few colors so that they will harmonize. Such an intensive course in design could be worked out in charcoal sketching, ink drawing, and wood-block printing.


Whatever craft is followed, drawing is essential and most useful. Sketching from nature is not only curative, but furnishes ideas and motifs for development in design. Drawing is also a valuable asset in some forms of military, naval, and aviation service. For the applications of drawing in war service, see such publications as Les Arts Français, La Baïonnette, and the works of our American artists in cartoons, posters, and window pictures that figured so prominently in campaigns for food conservation, Liberty Loans, Y. M. C. A., and the Red Cross (Fig. 11). Water-color painting as actually practised in hospitals has proved to be of curative value in heart cases and nervous troubles. A good number of returned soldiers desire to take up art professionally. For these the work in design, drawing, water-color painting, and oil painting will be advantageous as a preparation.


This handicraft has long had a prominent place among the Teachers College fine arts courses. Its usefulness in the hospital was at once recognized by the Government, and it was placed on the list of requirements for reconstruction aides. We have carried it on in three ways: (1) In water color on paper (Fig. 12), producing end papers for books, and sheets of small-figured design for covering boxes. (2) In oil or dyes upon cloth (Fig. 17). (3) In the printing of small pictures either in water color by the Japanese method, or in printing-ink on the press. In any case the requirements are (a) a good design (Fig. 13), (b) a smooth block of pine or some soft wood, (c) a knife and two gouges, all kept very sharp. For work on paper we use tempera, or water colors, or dry colors with mucilage; for printing on cloth, oil color diluted very thin; for printing pictures on the press, printer's inks.



The craft of printing has hitherto been practised largely by workmen trained to use it for trade and business purposes. There have always been a few who saw that printing is one of the finearts, inasmuch as it allows freedom of choice as to spacing, tone, texture, and color. Skill in type-composition, in engraving, and in handling the press, could only be acquired by specialists. It did not seem possible to bring printing within the reach of students in any grade of school. Linoleum printing changed all this and enlarged the circle to infinity. Mr. Vojtech Preissig, in his courses at Teachers College, demonstrated that this is purely an art-process where knife, gouge, and roller are used with the freedom of the brush. The linoleum is yielding, grainless, easily cut, and yet firm enough to give thousands of impressions. The question of printing-press and equipment is waived, for one may print with a clothes-wringer, a copying press, or a bench vise. Impressions can be obtained by rubbing down with a knife handle or even by stepping on the block ("foot-prints"). Here, then, is a craft immediately useful in schools and for reconstruction work in hospitals. The range is partly illustrated by a book-plate (Fig. 14), the patriotic post cards (Fig. 15), and the picture by Professor Martin (Fig. 16). Posters and large prints in full color require art training, experience in craftsmanship, and a printing equipment. Many of the Czecho-Slovak posters which did such effectual service in the war were printed from linoleum blocks by Mr, Vojtech Preissig, now of the graphic arts department at the Wentworth Institute, Boston.





This old New England home industry now comes to the front for new service (Fig. 18). Though the majority of these rugs are lacking in design, they stand as a purely American handicraft. The disabled soldier or any one who has hands and color sense can, with training in design, develop this into a fine art, as Mrs. Albee so ably demonstrated some years ago. For further information upon this subject the reader is referred to the Craft of Hand-made Rugs, by Amy Mali Hicks.


Mr. Edward J. Thatcher, instructor in metalworking at Teachers College, originated this form of conservation. Strong and durable toys, and utensils for camp, hospital, and home may be made of what would otherwise be waste material, the used tin can. There is opportunity for play of inventive fancy and for endless combinations of color. Reports from our students teaching in hospitals both in France and at home show that the disabled and convalescent men take up this craft with the greatest enthusiasm.


The war service of the photographer needs no description here. The process offers a valuable occupation for the convalescent and for vocational purposes. Under the direction of Mr. Clarence White photography appears as a fine art, the camera one of the tools of the creative craftsman. (See frontispiece, portrait of Dean Russell.)


This fine art has a large place in occupational therapy, especially as bedside work. On its mechanical side it is curative both to mind and body, some forms of it being used by patients recovering from pneumonia. But weaving is one of the world's oldest and most precious arts. To practise it with no regard to design, texture, or color is to abuse it and waste good material. Basketry is but another form of the same art, having so great therapeutic value that it has been placed along with weaving among the occupations required in government hospitals.


The sculptor's art entered war service on the battlefield by providing disguises for guns, sharpshooters, and observation posts. In the hospital the sculptor helped the surgeon in the restoration of shattered faces and limbs. Had the war continued the potter would have supplied us with substitutes for metal. Aside from these the work in modeling is a good therapeutic occupation, leading to one of the finest crafts, the potter's.

Bookbinding is an art that can be practised from the bedside to the curative workshop. It is one of the few fine arts that can be followed by the blind. Woodworking in various forms, wood carving, etched metal, embroidery, type-setting, and printing come within the field of art as they involve a consideration of design, and all have found a place in war service.

These experiences have placed the study of art in a new light. Instead of importing both hand work and worker we shall train our own craftsmen. Through the war service of the fine arts we shall come to appreciate their value and give them their rightful place in our national life.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 20 Number 4, 1919, p. 353-353
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3718, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 10:14:14 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue