Art as Propaganda in World War I

Today’s post comes from National Archives volunteer Cynthia Peterman.

Two new WWI-related teaching activities on introduce students to artists who were employed to show the war to Americans back home: Artists Document World War I and WWI Propaganda and Art.

Doughboy Fighting through Barbed Wire Entanglement, 12/21/1918. From the Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. National Archives Identifier 12060634.
Doughboy Fighting through Barbed Wire Entanglement, 12/21/1918. From the Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer. National Archives Identifier 12060634.

During the Great War, the government attempted to influence public opinion about the goals of military intervention in this European conflict. A large segment of the U.S. population was opposed to America’s entry into World War I. Therefore, the government attempted to influence popular opinion by sending American artists overseas to depict the conflict in ways that would remind Americans what their boys were fighting for.

Students today are buffeted by many types of media that vie for their attention. Advertisements (both physical and digital), music, and social media are all part of our media-saturated environment. They seek not only to claim the attention of young people, but attempt to influence their opinions about culture, politics, and more. In modern times, the word “propaganda” has become synonymous with falsehood, distortion and misrepresentation. As a result, many students become cynical about what they hear and see.

Before using these activities it is important to consider the following questions:

  • Is all propaganda misleading?
  • Do all forms of media create false impressions in order to influence the viewer?
  • What do we want students to know about why it is important to have a knowledgeable citizenry?

In “Artists Document World War I,” we are introduced to Walter Jack Duncan, one of eight artists who travelled to France to document the experience of U.S. troops in battle. Duncan’s drawings show both the enormity of the force sent overseas, as well as the results of war in the French countryside.

Segment of Walter Jack Duncan's drawing “Newly Arrived Troops Debarking at Brest"

This activity hones students’ attention in on a single drawing, the debarkation of American troops in 1918. Students are asked to think critically about the image, to explore the mood as well as the historical reality it depicts, and to consider the role of art in interpreting a scene.

Using the zoom/crop tool, students look at a small piece of the drawing and hypothesize what the image depicts before seeing it as part of the entire drawing. The activity also asks students to consider the role of art and photography as they influence the viewer’s opinion.

General Policy Reference the Work of Official Artists inside activity

WWI Propaganda and Art” presents students with five historical documents and two drawings (by WWI artists William James Aylward and Harvey Thomas Dunn) in order to consider how the military and government communicated their goals to the artists, the difference between how art and photography present a scene, as well as the dangerous conditions in which the artists were placed.

Using the Making Connections tool, students read historical documents, such as memos and letters, in order to identify the often conflicting aims of the artists, the military, civilian agencies and government agencies in depicting the war through art.

In addition, this activity compels students to ask important questions such as: Why did the military choose to send artists to the war zone when photographers could capture the same images? When the Acting Adjutant General says the “official artists [should] be employed in making pictures of subjects that cannot be adequately covered by the camera,” students need to think about how drawings and paintings create more drama and humanize the scene more than do photographs.

Finally, in our own day we expect reporters to travel to war zones (as well as scenes of disaster) to bring us our news. The World War I artists had little military training to prepare them. This activity pushes students to weigh putting people in hazardous situations in order to quench our hunger for information.

2 thoughts on “Art as Propaganda in World War I

  1. What a wonderful use of rare documents and artwork! These two DocsTeach activities not only look at unusual work being carried out in or near the battlefield during WWI, but will also serve to encourage students of the arts to understand real applications of their passion in the real world. Carefully done and intelligently presented! Stellar!

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