CMU and Art in Wartime
The history of Carnegie Mellon University and war is a long one. Founded in 1914, near the start of World War I, CMU has a long history of scientists researching and developing technology for America’s many major conflicts--but less well-known is how its artists responded to every major war. Through a semester-long project of researching the University Archives as well as reaching out to other sources, I gathered artifacts documenting the artistic response to war at CMU, whether at the administrative, individual, or community levels. As an artist myself, this long history of art and war at CMU is particularly significant, and it’s fascinating to see how war art has changed over the years.
During World War I, Carnegie campus art was largely concerned with supporting the war efforts, directly through military musician training and indirectly through plays. Students’ individual experiences, as told through Carnegie Tech War Verse, was mostly inline with the national pro-war attitude, although the poetry of a female student stands out. A similar pro-war attitude prevailed through World War II, with war-related art courses offered at the school, but war-related plays at the time were more critical or ambivalent. Individual artists contributed to the war effort by offering their skills to the military as map and chart makers, and witnessed the death and suffering overseas first-hand.
By the next major national conflict, the Vietnam War, CMU art had shifted dramatically: from supporting or simply recording the war to actively protesting against it through posters, music, and prose. Like in WWI and WWII, CMU students had personal stakes in the war, but no longer viewed the war as worth those stakes. The concept of art as activism continues into the present day, although after the Iraq War, the issues that concern CMU artists have moved away and beyond wars to violence and conflict at home. Art is now also used to explain and critique the complex politics and technology that war relies on today, as students lose that personal stake in war amidst the evolution of military technology and the professional army.
Still, one thing is clear: while the messages and methods have drastically changed over the last hundred years, the CMU community has always and will continue to express their opinions and experiences with war and conflict through art. The artists’ thoughts are immortalized in their work, and by diving into an in-depth exploration of art in wartime at CMU, we can gain a better understanding of CMU’s history with war as a whole.
World War I
Art in total support of total war
In 1917, the U.S. joined “the war to end all wars”—what we now know as World War I, the greatest conflict the world had ever seen. As part of the first global conflict, the U.S. needed trained men and officers like never before, and Carnegie Mellon University—then Carnegie Institute of Technology, or Carnegie Tech for short—volunteered its facilities, faculty, and students to become a military training school.
While CIT still offered other classes, it added to its curriculum a long roster of “war courses,” including classes like vehicle maintenance and radio communications. The student soldiers drilled on the lawn before the School of Applied Design (now known as the College of Fine Arts) and practiced driving tanks across the Cut, as pictured above. Carnegie Tech had only been founded seventeen years ago, but it was already committed to supporting the war effort.
During WWI, the whole campus was engaged in a state of total war, and that was reflected in the art created at the time. From the administrative level of war courses, to smaller level of individual faculty and class projects, down to individual students, WWI informed and shaped the art created at CIT from 1917 until years after the war had ended.
Band Musicians course: teaching music for war
Among its many other more technical-focused courses, CIT also taught a “special, intensified course for training band masters and musicians,” as described in the course proposal written in January 1918. Edward Raymond Bossange, Dean of the School of Applied Design (which later became part of the College of Fine Arts), proposed the course in response to the “greatly increased demand for military musicians,” due to the government’s lack of available resources to train musicians on their own. The Band Musicians course was intended to, over the course of a few months, teach enrolled students not only music basics but specific songs that the musicians would play as part of a military band.
The band musicians were expected to prepare for “every branch of their service, such as drill, concert work, and mob singing.” Music included bugle calls, like the reveille to wake up soldiers; music to accompany and help conduct drills; anthems to play during battle; and pieces to perform in concert for the entertainment of the rest of the men. Unlike civilian musicians, military band musicians weren’t just expected to entertain and inspire, but were considered an important part of the military organization.
After being taught for some time, the course was further refined to focus on teaching bandmasters, the eight-week course length being too short to teach novices or even people with a little experience how to play an instrument well. Like the music they performed, the bandmaster’s primary job was to organize: to know the expected music to play, to arrange the pieces, to conduct the band, and so on. Because of this, the course only took on soldiers with musical experience who were familiar with at least one instrument.
The program was successful, despite its narrowed pool of applicants and its short timeline—in his 1919 annual report, president of CIT Arthur Hammerschlag wrote that “for a time the United States Army depended almost wholly on us to produce these musicians so essential to any military organization.” He also noted that, unlike the rest of the university, the school of art had been struggling both with fewer students and in finding a way to contribute to the war effort. The Band Musicians course was one way for the arts administration to aid the war effort, by offering military training outside of the technical fields. Still, even the students and faculty not directly involved in the military or war training were determined, like the rest of the country, to find some way to aid the war effort.
The Drawing of the Sword: war pageants for soldiers
In 1917, Dean Bossange had a brilliant idea—take the students of Carnegie Tech’s Drama Department to nearby military camps to put on plays to entertain the soldiers stationed on the homefront. With the soldiers bored of variety shows and in need of something to keep their spirits up, Bossange felt that there was a need that the CIT’s drama school—the first degree-granting institution of its kind—could fulfill by providing regular entertainment.
While the U.S. government and the university supported the idea, the Drama Department had no government or school funding for a performance—but the theater’s patrons and supporters were just as determined as its members to provide aid for American soldiers, and funded a trip to Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, for the performance of two plays. The first play was The Doctor In Spite of Himself, a comedy originally written in 1666 by French playwright Moliere, translated into English, likely included for the stated intention of lifting the soldiers’ spirits. The second play was The Drawing of the Sword, a war pageant.
War pageants were popular at the time—the drama students at CIT performed many of them over the course of WWI. The pageants could perhaps be more accurately categorized as a kind of “masque,” a type of performance popular in the 16th and 17th centuries featuring actors in masks with musical accompaniment. In these pageants, the actors represent not characters, but abstract concepts like Truth and Justice or countries like Serbia and England. In 1912, the students at CIT performed a similar pageant to commemorate the laying of the first stone of what would later become the College of Fine Arts.
Thomas Wood Stevens, director of the Drama Department since its founding in 1914, wrote The Drawing of the Sword in 1917 in response to the U.S. entering the war. Its full title is The Drawing of the Sword: A Pageant for the Present Hour, and its purpose, as described by Stevens, is “to dramatize broadly the purposes of the Allied Nations, and to provide a practicable and dignified medium for the expression of community feeling about the war.” In the pageant, the actors declaim in verse and dramatize the events of WWI until the triumphant entrance of America to lend her aid to the Allied Nations.
When the students and faculty arrived at Camp Sherman, the weather was miserable, raining and freezing at the same time. Many of the soldiers had colds. Nonetheless, the CIT students performed to great applause in one of the theaters in the nearby town, with over a thousand--1,450, to be precise--soldiers in attendance. The CIT professors were surprised by the reception—they thought that the comedy would get the best reaction, but the soldiers gave far more applause to The Drawing of the Sword.
While the ticket sales were barely enough to cover the cost of the production, the Drama Department still considered the trip a success and proposed returning. While it’s uncertain whether the CIT students did in fact put on more plays for the soldiers, war pageants were a common aspect of life at Carnegie Tech during WWI. Stevens continued to direct students in similar performances through 1919, when they put on a pageant commemorating the CIT alumni who lost their lives during the war. Even without a specific class offered by the administration, faculty and students found ways to create art that supported the war effort and reflects their patriotism—and grief—in response to the war. But on the personal level, the war hit a lot harder than an abstract pageant could convey.
Sara Bennett: a woman’s perspective on war
One of the students involved in the Drama Department during this time was Sara Bennett, a young woman enrolled in CIT in 1917 and active in its program in the years after it. In addition to acting in a few different department plays at the time, she also helped design costumes and co-wrote a play with another drama student, Howard Smith. The play, The Weevils, was about Italian spies during the war, and based on the review in the student newspaper, was well-liked by her classmates. Bennett went on to marry Smith and the two returned to CIT in 1920, to help direct other student plays, and otherwise stayed involved with the drama department.
But in addition to being active in theater, Bennett was also a poet. In 1919, CIT published a collection of poetry written by students and former students affected by WWI. Called Carnegie Tech War Verse, the book features poetry from students with a variety of experiences, from students who fought overseas, to those who lost a friend during the war, to those who stayed at home. Sara is unique among these poets for being one of only two women published in this book, and for having so many of her poems included. As one of the only female poets featured in the collection, she had a very different take on the war than the men. She focuses on the women involved rather than the men, and the tragedies of war rather than its triumphs.
In her poem “A Munition Worker,” Bennett writes about one of the many unrecognized women who supported the war on the homefront. While it’s common to hear of the women who stepped up to factory work and other jobs during World War II, women also took on industrial roles during WWI, such as helping to make and stock weapons, ammunition, and other instruments of war. In her poem, Bennett sings the praises of an unnamed female munition worker—a subject overlooked by the other poets, as well as by popular history, which overlooks the important role women played in the war. To Bennett, though, this woman in a traditionally unladylike profession is as beautiful as Aphrodite, and well worth writing an ode to.
In another poem, “To A Dead Birdman: His Mother Speaks,” Bennett writes from the perspective of a woman whose son died flying planes for the U.S. military. The mother speaks with a solemn sadness, her heart “silent in pain” as she lays her son to rest. This contrasts with other poems featured in the collection, which glorifies the soldier’s death—in another student’s poem about his friend who died in the war, the poet declares that he will be happy because he knows his friend wanted to die for his country. Bennett’s poetry does not uplift the patriotic sacrifice for one’s cause and country, but focuses on the grief of the mothers whose children died far from home, a narrative overlooked by the zealous support for the war nationwide.
While the national narrative and cultural imperative during World War I was one of patriotism and support as part of the first global conflict, as you take a closer look at the people and the art they created during the time, a different story begins to emerge. On the surface of Carnegie Tech, the whole campus is behind the war effort, from the administrative to departmental level, and the art created at the time reflects this. But on an individual level, student artists are beginning to address that war isn’t the glorious event the greater narrative says it is. Still, CIT students and faculty created art that generally showed their support for the war and their friends and classmates who died overseas. It isn’t until the second World War—the deadliest conflict in history—that art created at CIT starts to show some ambivalence towards the concept of war.
World War II
Art moves away from wholly supporting the war
During World War II, Carnegie Tech and the rest of America was once again thrust into total war. Like in WWI, CIT offered its facilities to the military and war courses to its students to aid the US in the war effort. But unlike in WWI, CIT was not converted into a military training school. Instead, Carnegie students could join the various on-campus military programs, like the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP) or the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and accelerated graduation for all students—not just the scientists and engineers, but the art students as well—so they could join the army that much faster. And while at school, artists found their own way to support American troops, like the Kiltie band leading the ASTP review in the above picture.
Carnegie Tech offered many similar war courses to the ones they had during WWI, but they no longer had a band musicians course. Instead, the only art-related war course on offer was on Camouflage, taught through the College of Fine Arts. Some of the professors from CFA were sent to Fort Belvoir in Virginia to learn Camouflage from the military, and returned to CIT to teach it to any art students who wanted to take a war course. Besides that, the school administration had few ways for artists to contribute to the war effort—except for Bob Lepper’s class “Design and War.”
Design and War: Lepper and propaganda posters
Robert “Bob” Lepper started teaching art at CIT in 1930 and continued until 1975. Specifically, he taught design, and was instrumental in establishing the first Industrial Design degree program at CIT. An artist and designer in his own right, Lepper took the occasion of the war to create a class called “Design and War,” where he taught students the principles of designing war propaganda posters, like the ones posted on surfaces and printed in newspapers across the nation.
In his lectures, Lepper discussed the best way to create propaganda--”arresting, thought provoking devices (in this case graphic) for the propagation of Ideas”--so that his students could make their own propaganda posters for the state. He outlined “stories” and concepts to communicate, such as rationing and communication, as well as the angles to approach the concepts through, such as appealing through pride (“occupational,” “national,” “flattery”) and fear (“What we have and stand to lose”, among others).
Lepper’s own thoughts on creating art for war were that it should be used for a purpose--not to escape the reality of war, but to “find reasons, not excuses, for existence.” He argued that creating escapist art was defeatist, and that the artist needed to find a way to prove their worth during the war without running away from the issues. However, in his class, he took a slightly different tack, framing the lessons on propaganda as a way for artists to sell their work during the war effort. This more detached and pragmatic view--especially when taken with the matter-of-fact way he discussed how to play on people’s fears and emotions--is a diversion from the seemingly whole-hearted approach to supporting WWI. This slight shift in attitude is reflected in other art created and performed at CIT during WWII.
WWII topical plays
During WWII, students at CIT both created and performed several plays related to the war. Unlike the war pageants of WWI, these were not abstract performances illustrating nations and concepts with patriotic messages. Rather, these were what we normally think of as traditional plays, with characters and dialogues, set during or with an underlying message related to WWII. And especially unlike the WWI war pageants, not all of these messages were positive.
In 1942, the Carnegie Tech drama department performed Robert Ardrey’s Thunder Rock, directed by Thomas Job, likely a student there at the time. The play initially debuted in 1939, at the start of WWII but before the U.S. joined the war in 1941. Set in an isolated lighthouse, the play serves as an extended allegory ultimately calling for action and intervention in WWII. At the time it debuted, it wasn’t well received in the U.S. because of that message--but by the time it was performed at CIT, American opinion of the war had changed.
Harold Geoghegan, an Art History professor who wrote many reviews for CIT performances, called Thunder Rock “a timely choice,” saying that “we need all the comfort we can get in these dark times… that this is not the first time that men have despaired of the survival of civilization, and that… civilization has, somehow, survived.” The change in American interpretation of the play reflects the overall change in American opinion on the war--by the time the U.S. had joined the war, public opinion, swayed perhaps by propaganda like the kind Lepper taught, was now in support of the war. But before then, support was not so whole-hearted, and doubts likely still lingered.
The year before, in 1941, the CIT drama department performed an MFA play--that is, a play written by a student earning their master’s degree in the School of Drama--called New England Picnic. The play was written and directed by the same Thomas Job who directed Thunder Rock the next year, and was performed before the U.S. entered WWII in December.
According to Geoghegan’s review, New England Picnic is a comedy that seems as though it’s supposed to be a commentary on the trivial things people worry about compared to the war--but this message is lost amidst the comedic aspect of the play. We can infer from this play that Job and other students were well aware and likely concerned about the war, even before the U.S. entered, but other members of the CIT community--perhaps Geoghegan--were not as concerned. But unlike Thunder Rock and the WWI war pageants, New England Picnic was not written to directly support the war.
This trend away from creating art wholly for the sake of supporting the war is visible at the administrative and departmental and faculty level, when one compares the Band Musicians course of WWI to the Design and War propaganda course of WWII, and the war pageants of WWI to the topical plays of WWII. But, just like in WWI, the war touched members of the CIT community on an individual level, affecting those more profoundly than the community’s art can show as a whole.
William Bostick: artist and soldier
William Bostick studied art at Carnegie Tech as well as other schools, but during WWII he worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Navy. In 1993, he was profiled in an article in CMU’s student newspaper The Tartan, as part of a retrospective on D-Day fifty years later. Not only did Bostick design charts and maps for the soldiers landing on the Omaha beach during the famous attack, but he was also present for the invasion of Normandy itself. His sketches and watercolors of the event, as well as of his other experiences in the war overseas, were featured in the newspaper and loaned to the CMU library in 1995.
Bostick painted a map of Omaha Beach based on photos taken by a low-flying scout plane, which the Navy used when landing on D-Day. Bostick himself was not present on D-Day itself, but he was there the day after. Before he left England, he painted a watercolor of the docks as the wounded returned from Normandy. “These, in a way, were the lucky ones,” he said in a letter fifty years later. “Many of those less lucky were still on Omaha Beach.”
Bostick sketched the the view of the Normandy beaches as the soldiers arrived. When he got there, he saw “about a thousand soldiers and sailors covered with tarpaulins awaiting burial.” After the war, Bostick was decorated with the Navy Commendation Medal for “his contribution to the Normandy landings.” “I like to believe that some of the American veterans who returned for the 50th anniversary are alive today because of these printed pieces of paper which guided their landing pilots,” he wrote.
Bostick’s sketches are an example of how art empowered those who had experienced war first-hand to share and illustrate their experiences beyond just telling a story, as well as art and artists contributed to the war effort directly—through maps and charts, as opposed to posters like those made in Lepper’s “Design and War” course. Like Sara Bennett’s and her classmates’ poetry from WWI, CIT students and alumni created art to reflect their individual experiences of war beyond the collective.
As involved as Carnegie Tech students and faculty were, from coursework to plays to individually enrolling in the military, there were still students who weren’t wholly in support of the war. As ads for war bonds and promotions for rationing filled the pages of The Tartan, and students started fundraisers and drives to support the war, there were still some who “welched on their debts” to the causes they pledged to support, as The Tartan editorial board called out. While CIT’s art created in response to WWII was mostly supportive--from the propaganda posters, to the plays, to William Bostick’s maps--some ambivalence was beginning to poke through. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, during the Vietnam War, that campus culture shifted dramatically away from supporting American war, and art started being made against it.
Art in protest of the war
In the sixties and seventies, popular public opinion had turned against war. During WWI and WWII, CIT campus had courses and programs to directly and indirectly support the war effort, from war courses to officer training to plays about the war. But during the Vietnam War, these opportunities were fewer or absent altogether--while students during WWII joined the ASTP and ROTC, students during the Vietnam War protested their presence on campus, leading to events like the sacking of the CIT ROTC office, as pictured above.
Carnegie Tech students and faculty were part of a national shift in opinion on war--people at universities across the country were protesting the U.S. involvement in, and primarily, the drafting of university students for, the war. In the sixties and seventies, art created at CIT was made for protests and anti-war messages, from posters to to dances to editorial articles.
Posters & protests: anti-war signage
The most common way Carnegie students used art in response to war was to create anti-war posters and graphics. From posters made for protests, like the anti-nuke one pictured below, to posters advocating for peace created in graphic design classes, graphic anti-war art was prevalent across campus during the Vietnam War.
When compared to the pro-war propaganda posters students were designing in WWII, the anti-war posters dramatically illustrate the shift in campus attitude. During WWI and WWII, the artistic response to war was largely driven by the administration, from faculty-headed programs like the war plays, to war-related courses like the “Design and War” propaganda class. However, the posters and other art created for the Vietnam War was mostly driven by people themselves. Even the aforementioned posters made in graphic design classes weren’t made as part of a particular course, but as individual students’ drive to reflect their anti-war convictions through their art. From individual experiences and creative reflections on the horrors of war, like Sara Bennett, Carnegie campus moved towards part of a collective, community-driven artistic response to the war.
“Angry Arts Against the War”: anti-war art beyond signs
In 1967, students and teachers from across Pittsburgh gathered to witness and participate in “Angry Arts Against the War,” a protest against the Vietnam War organized by the Pittsburgh Area Students for Peace. The event brought together anti-war activists from CIT, the University of Pittsburgh, and other schools, and showcased performances and artistic endeavors made to protest the war.
Highlights included performances by two local folk singers, performing original anti-war compositions as well as covers of better-known songs; a series of poetry readings; a satirical skit called The Seven O’clock News; readings from Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, a sarcastic commentary on mainstream American morality; a performance by a local rock band; and a screening of the documentary Time of the Locust, an anti-war film compiled from news footage of the Vietnam war. Professors gave lectures on the importance of ending the war. And overall, about half of the event was “a straight, un-’artistic’, documented protest of the war,” The Tartan reported.
The performances and art shown at the “Angry Arts” protest were part of a larger, nationwide movement by students called “Vietnam Week,” as students and faculty across the country organized anti-war demonstrations for an entire week of April. The nationwide protest caused a stir at the state level. In a complete reversal from the government-sanctioned and -sponsored pro-war art made in WWI and WWII, the American government denounced the protest and other anti-war activity as communist and un-American. Mainstream media repeated the declaration, as the local Pittsburgh Press “suggested that the Students for Peace were ‘dupes’ of a subversive Communist movement,” the Tartan reported. But the student organizers of the protest argued that their demonstration was born of their own ideas, and bolstered by being part of a community against the war. With the advent of modern communication and images of the Vietnam War being broadcast across the country, war art was able to move beyond the individual and out of CIT’s campus, and into part of the broader Pittsburgh and nationwide community.
War of the words: arguments in the editorials
Carnegie campus members were vocal not only through their art and protests, but through their writing--those who couldn’t create posters, music, films, or other art in response to the war took to the editorial pages of The Tartan to share their opinions. While anti-war art was most prevalent in exhibitions outside of the newspaper, in the editorial pages, people argued vehemently for and against the war. And like they had been during WWI, WWII, and other Vietnam protests, faculty were also involved in the arguments over Vietnam that hit the pages.
One of the biggest points of contention that wasn’t as well-covered in the other artistic endeavors was the draft. While posters and protests from the time show a general anti-war attitude, the articles and editorials in The Tartan reveal the fury of Carnegie students and faculty over the military draft of university students, who were previously protected from the draft, and furthermore, the punishment of protesters as draft dodgers. The penalty for draft dodging was severe, while public demonstrations are protected under the first amendment, and students and faculty alike called out this unfair treatment, with the faculty even signing a petition against on-campus recruitment and the unfair draft-dodger punishment.
Besides the faculty, words flew fast and furious between different student groups who argued for abolishing the draft, supporting a victory in the Vietnam War, and withdrawing troops from Vietnam, among other topics. While the thoughts and opinions of students during WWI and WWII have to be gleaned from their art and spare comments, with few voicing any negative thoughts about the war because of the dominant pro-war narrative, students during the Vietnam War were not so circumspect. While they may not have been able to create posters, perform in plays, paint pictures, or write poems, the people of Carnegie campus made their voices heard.
By the Vietnam War, the nation as a whole and CIT’s campus as well had turned away from total support of the war and started using their art as a form of protest. And we haven’t seen a return to the wholly supportive attitude of 1919 since, as anti-war art and protests have continued into the present. As we look to the art that CMU students, faculty, and former community members have created since 2000, we see a continuation of collective art and protest—but also a turn away from war to other issues of activism, reflecting the broader apathy of CIT students towards the seemingly never-ending wars and “military interventions,” as well as the increased use of art to explain rather than argue about war.
From anti-war to explaining war to beyond war
In the decades since the Vietnam War, there have been few major conflicts that have grabbed and shaped American, and particularly CMU’s, consciousness like the previous wars. From 2000 to the present, there are few official wars with other nations, but many “military interventions,” as well as the ongoing war on terror after 9/11. In the early 2000s, we saw protests like that of the Vietnam War, against the war in Iraq and CMU’s involvement.
But unlike all the past war art documented at CMU, since then, CMU students have rarely been directly impacted by American military conflicts. They are neither in danger of being drafted, or likely to know someone fighting in a war, especially as more and more warfare is conducted by drones and other technology rather than “boots on the ground,” as illustrated in The Tartan illustration at the start of this chapter. Art has moved beyond supporting, decrying, or simply giving a personal response to war: we see it being used at CMU to explain the ever-more complex states of our global conflicts, and to comment on violence at home as well as abroad.
The Iraq War: Protests & posters
Much like during the Vietnam War, during the Iraq War from 2003-2011, CMU students assembled to to protest the war and America’s involvement. Like the wars of the past, students knew people or had friends who were fighting overseas in Iraq, and had a personal connection to the conflict and thus a reason to care. As they had during the 60s and 70s, CMU students participated in anti-war protests as part of a broader national movement, like the march pictured below, which featured an speaker who had been part of a national anti-war tour. Art created in response to the war at the time is documented in the anti-war posters and banners students carried during these protests.
In addition to the general message to end the war and recall troops from Iraq, CMU students also turned their focus to protesting CMU’s specific involvement in the war effort--many of the university’s technical institutions received research sponsorships from the Department of Defense, developing military technology for the government. More anti-war banners and posters were created to protest this involvement, like the one pictured below at a protest outside of the National Robotics and Engineering institute.
This is a notable difference from the Vietnam protests, where CMU-specific protests weren’t documented--besides protests against the draft. This is also a complete turnaround from campus attitude in WWI and WWII. During WWII, CIT also developed military technology for the war, but their efforts were celebrated, not protested--especially CIT scientists’ aid in developing the atomic bomb. This partially reflects the change in overall attitude on campus from supporting to decrying the U.S. involvement in war, but also reflects the changing attitudes towards technology and how it is used in war.
Art in The Tartan: Explaining, illustrating, and ignoring
Besides art created for protests and posters, it is difficult to find university records of student and faculty art relating to war. One consistent place and use of war-related art in the last few decades is in the student newspaper The Tartan, where illustrations are used to not only get readers’ attention but to help explain the complex nature of today’s military conflicts, both politically and technologically.
There is not much in the way of political cartoons commenting on the U.S.’s involvement in military conflict, either to support or condemn war, which is a distinct change from the vehement opinions expressed in the paper during Vietnam and even the Iraq wars. Part of this is likely because of the complex politics surrounding modern-day military interventions--The Tartan editorials are not as much critiquing the interventions themselves as much as the military and political policies surrounding each conflict (like in the political cartoon illustrated above).
War-related art in The Tartan is also used primarily to illustrate events and technology like drones, to accompany explanatory articles. This follows the relatively recent wave of student protests of CMU’s involvement in developing military technology, but also reflects students’ overall unawareness of said technology and how it’s used. It’s interesting to note that while these technical articles are more prevalent since the 2000s, student opinions on war are less prevalent, suggesting that the evolution of technology has helped CMU students and artists to further ignore the wars and conflicts outside of the country.
This is supported by the sheer lack of war-related art in the university’s archives and exhibits. After all, unlike in the Vietnam and Iraq wars, students are less likely to know someone fighting overseas, and therefore have less of a personal connection and reason to create art about the war. On top of that, the U.S. has been unofficially at war in one way or another for as long as people my age have been alive, and I know from personal experience and talking with my classmates that this has created a sense of apathy rather than the inspiration seen in other conflicts. Instead, artists at CMU and nationwide have turned their attention to violence and conflict at home.
Art as activism: Modern artists’ perspectives
Today, CMU artists--both students and alumni--are still, if not more, aware and outspoken of art’s capability to spark conversation and send a message on issues facing American society. However, it is difficult to find artists at campus who are primarily concerned with military conflicts overseas. While they still believe strongly in art as activism, the artists I spoke to are focused on issues closer to home, ones that they have stakes in and have personally experienced.
Boris Bally: A responsibility for activism
Boris Bally, an alumnus of CMU’s College of Fine Arts, is one such artist. Bally is a metalsmith as well as an artist, and an activist for stronger gun control laws. In 2013, his work Loaded Menorah, pictured below, was featured in the Society for Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh as part of a broader exhibit exploring “how art can shed light on creative solutions to the urgent issue of increasing violence in the U.S. and around the world.” Bally created the sculpture out of guns from Pittsburgh Anti-Violence Campaign’s gun buyback program as commentary on gun violence in America, and more recently, invited one hundred other metalsmiths to do the same. His exhibit, IMAGINE Peace Now, is currently on tour around the country.
Bally believes that true artists must be activists. Much like Lepper, he believes that “true art has spirit, has soul, has political motivation,” and is not just pretty to look at. He views art as a means of inviting conversation-- ”It’s less about being confrontational, more about being nuanced and gray-zoned.” Art enables people with opposing views to discuss contentious issues, as they are talking about the art rather than the issue itself, and these conversations are healing.
But when discussing art as it relates to war, Bally prefers to stay close to home and his own personal experiences. “We have a war in our own country,” he told me. “It’s called poverty.” Bally explained how gun violence and ownership is linked to economic disparity and other social injustice, and linked his art and activism to his personal experiences growing up in Switzerland, which has the third-largest gun ownership per capita in the world but is still one of the safest nations. Bally feels his work is particularly powerful in light of the recent responses to mass shootings and the March for Our Lives. “Art creates ripples, that amp up activism, and inspire people to join the conversation,” he told me.
Jack Taylor: Art from personal experience
I also spoke to Jack Taylor, a senior--and soon to be graduate--of CMU’s CFA. Taylor is an active member of CMU’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and a passionate advocate for art as activism. His work is concerned with with environmentalism and labor movements, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where he grew up. Like Bally, Taylor is a firm believer that artists have a responsibility to create art that is aware of the current social, political, and cultural context, but is also concerned with examining one’s own privilege as they approach these issues.
“I think of activism as a fight for freedoms,” Taylor explained, “and when you come from a place of privilege and are telling stories that are not your own, you have to proceed with a lot of caution.” For that reason, he focuses on art that comes from his own experiences growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and that of family and friends who have been displaced by the changing industries or otherwise affected. While Taylor agrees with Bally that one of the main ways art can serve as activism is to teach and invite conversation, he also believes it’s important for art to bring the underrepresented into museums and other rarefied spaces. What’s powerful about art is it’s “mediation and translation of experience” to those who haven’t had those experiences--true art, he says, “speaks from a place that is genuine.”
When asked about his views on CMU student activism today, especially when compared to the art and activism of the sixties and seventies, Taylor observed that “activism is present, but it’s stifled by the institution.” Not necessarily explicitly, but by the prevailing pressure of getting good grades and a good job. At the CFA, at least, Taylor is impressed by the ethical considerations of his fellow students and professors, and knows many others involved in SDS who are as passionate about activism as he. “There are a lot of systems in place that stifle the activist spirit,” he told me, “but it’s still alive.”
As a continuation from the Vietnam War, art in response to war at CMU is still primarily focused on activism. Anti-war art was more prevalent during the Iraq War, but has waned as students lose their personal connection to and stakes in American conflicts. With the advent of advanced technology taking over for human soldiers, and the establishment of a professional military rather than the drafting of friends and family, artists at CMU have less reason to care about war overseas and instead turn towards violence and conflict affecting them personally, as well as taking a step back to explain rather than argue about military conflicts.
In the over one hundred years since CMU was founded, the campus has been through many wars--from the first World War, to World War II, to Vietnam, to the ongoing military conflicts of the today. In each era, the CMU creative community responded with a variety of messages through a variety of mediums. But even as the purpose and messages of the art has changed, as well as the people behind it, and even the definition of “war” itself, CMU artists have never stopped expressing themselves and their thoughts on war through their art. And, if the last hundred years are any indication, they never will.
Bibliography and Thanks
A big thank you to the CMU Archives, especially Julia Corrin and Kate Barbera. Thanks also to all the other librarians and archivists who helped me in my research. For those interested, I used the World War One, World War Two, Robert Lepper, General Photo, and Prompt Books collections, as well as the digitized archives of The Tartan.
I also used The Tartan’s online newspaper, with articles dating back the last few years, for part of the “Present Day” section. Thank you!
Of course, thank you to Boris Bally and Jack Taylor for taking the time to speak with me and providing me with such thoughtful insight into art as activism. Thanks also to Larry McKay of CMU’s SDS and David Busch for sitting down to talk with me and providing me with other interesting people and resources relating to art as activism.
The photo of Camp Sherman in the WWI section is from the National Park Service. You can find the picture and read more about Camp Sherman here.
And, of course, a big thank you to my professor Brad King for creating this class and encouraging me to put this story together. I (literally) couldn’t have done this without you!