Therapeutic aesthetics?

Chaired by Rebecca Gill (University of Huddersfield), this session examined the links between military and civilian cultures rehabilitation during the ‘long’ Second World War. Since the nineteenth century, humanitarians have encouraged the production of handicrafts by wounded soldiers and displaced people for the purposes of fundraising, overcoming mental strains, ‘re-masculinising’ war victims or fostering ‘national’ traditions. The aim of this session was to discuss the different functions of ‘art therapy’ within both military and humanitarian settings and the ways in which art served as modes of agency and soft resistance for wounded men or refugees (Carden Coyne, 2019).

Sophie Delaporte (Université de Picardie Jules Verne) opened this session with a fascinating paper on the readjustment of American veterans to civilian life between 1918 and 1941. Drawing on medical sources, she demonstrated that this readjustment was as much about returning ex-servicemen to their pre-war normality as it was about helping them recover from their physical and psychological injuries. Sophie highlighted the specificity of the United States, which took war neuroses into account even before 1917. As a result, US veterans of the First World War were extensively studied in medical theses and publications until they were overshadowed by the many veterans of further conflicts. The main question that animated these writings could be resumed as follows: “Does war make one unfit for ‘normal’ life?”. Two different periods can be identified: the period immediately following repatriation, between 1917 and 1921; and a medium-term study of this readjustment, between 1921 and 1941. Sophie demonstrated the influence of the Canadian experience on US policy toward veterans; in that sense, she identified a North American specificity, especially in the consideration of war neuroses – much more advanced than in Europe. She provided a very precise picture of the different institutions involved in the rehabilitation of US war veterans, depending on the sequels they suffered – with significant disparities in care across the United States. Another factor of differentiation was the time at which the war neurosis occurred: those whose symptoms appeared after the war seemed to have more trouble in reintegrating society.

In her captivating paper “Rehabilitating veterans at MoMA, 1944-1948: craft fabrication and normative masculine ableism”, Jennifer Way (University of North Texas) explored “craft fabrication deployed as a therapeutic modality to help wounded veterans heal from their war injuries”. Jennifer showed “the ways craft-based healing helped to construct and privilege the identity of white, abled heteronormative masculinity” – especially through the published images and commentaries accompanying rehabilitation programs. She “traced a discursive genealogy that links fabrication to healing and wellness; it proceeds from the hospital, occurring also in sites of occupational therapy, and moves into the museum and home”.  Craft was indeed understood as a way to facilitate the veteran’s transition from wartime to civilian life and, as such, reflected what society expected of them as men. MoMA’s War Veteran Art Center, which opened in October 1944, contributed to this process during four years. This program conveyed a certain image of healed, capable, and white ableist men responding to social expectations about post-war masculinity. Finally, this initiative reached veteran’s homes through self-instruction books published by the museum. In 1948, the War Veteran’s Center turned into the People Art Center. This period, Jennifer concluded, “witnessed art museums claiming a role as standard bearer and keeper of healing the world of war and tending to civilization and humanizing”.

Jennifer Way, slide, “Rehabilitating veterans at MoMA, 1944-1948: craft fabrication and normative masculine ableism”

Ana Carden Coyne (University of Manchester) concluded the session with a fascinating examination of Arts and Crafts in post-war DP camps. This presentation was part of her broader AHRC-funded research project on Understanding Displacement Aesthetics and Making Change in the Art Gallery with Refugees, Migrants and Host Communities (link to the project available here). In this paper, Ana traced ‘art therapy’ back to the late nineteenth century, highlighting parallels between post-war craft activities and embroidery practices in the Crimean war.  Drawing on the archives of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and other international organisations, Ana considered how and why these institutions commissioned DP artists to exhibit art works across Europe and North America and encouraged DPs to use art to process traumatic memories.  She looked, for instance, at the work of Marie Paneth with Jewish children in Britain. The conclusion of her paper shed some lights on the broader aims of her project and the role of art and creativity for DPs themselves, whether it was to claim sovereignty, reinvent ethnic cultures, process traumatic memories, resist humanitarian power or demonstrate their worth as (anti-communist) and productive migrant.

Ana Carden Coyne, slide, Displacement Aesthetics: Art and Crafts in post-war DP camps.

These papers were followed by a rich discussion about the business and trade of humanitarian art and crafts and the role of ‘national aesthetics’ in the process. Rebecca Gill (University of Huddersfield) ended this session by announcing a forthcoming conference on ‘Crafting Identities. Handicraft Programmes in Times of war, Genocide and their Aftermaths, c. 1890-1950’ that she is co-organising with Dr Wendy Wiertz (University of Huddersfield).  The call of paper is available here.

Further readings:

Ana Carden Coyne ‘Butterfly touch: rehabilitation, nature and the haptic arts in the First World War’, Critical Military Studies, 6: 2 (2020), 176-203.

Sophie Delaporte

Visages de guerre, les gueules cassées de la guerre de Sécession à nos jours (Paris: Belin, 2017)

«Traumatismes psychiques», dans Encyclopédie de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, sous la direction de Guillaume Piketty (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2015)

Sebastien Farré, Jean-François Fayet, Bertrand Taithe (ed) L’humanitaire s’exhibe (1867-2016) (Geneve: Georg, 2022). Open access available here;

Jennifer Way Deploying craft: Crafting Wellness and Healing in contexts of war (Routledge, forthcoming).

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