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Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

This exhibit promises that it is the most comprehensive exhibit that examines the contemporary impact of Vietnam War on American art. The art of this time is commenting on certain political and policy issues and does have adult themes. I walked away from this exhibit really appreciating the First Amendment and the freedom to voice our opinions through the arts. The exhibit showed veterans, African American, Chicano, Conceptualism Artists, Performers, Photographers, and Political and Social Activists.  For example, veterans of the Vietnam War were represented by Jesse Treviño and Kim Jones.  Both expressed their pride of service and pain of experiences.

What Happened with American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975

1. Selective Service AKA Military Draft forced us to think about our 18 – 26-year-old sons having to serve.  Artists questioned patriotism and service during this time.  And, often at opposing perspectives which began to divide the country. The division was an economically one which excused college and graduate students thus having more conscripts from young men whom could not afford to attend schools.  The Black Arts and Chicano art movements emerged with an emphasis of art’s political role, and cultural self-determination. 

2. Conceptualism Art really took hold during this time.  This art is defined by the important of concept over object and thinking over form.  An Art Gallery could exhibit knowledge and stimulate thought.  Hans Haacke brought ideas concerning political topics into the gallery for active questioning.  A few other artists that are great exemplary of conceptional art are Philip Jones Griffith Vietnam Inc. photojournalistic book, and Emile de Antonio’s Year of the Pig documentary film.

3. Site of Protests is probably the least understood from today’s perspective.  This art movement has its roots in the Civil Rights protests where you would put your body on the line to demand social change. By performances and Happenings antiwar protests used action at strategically selected sites.  The Smithsonian Museum did not really focus on defining what this art form is so I took the liberty of doing a little research.  Here is an excerpt explaining Guerrilla Art Action Group from Inenart

“With their actions, taking place in the museum and therefore in an institutional space the claimed this space to be a public one, and pointing out the possibility that it can be an artistic space as well.”Besides public performances they used written manifestoes to deliver their points. Additional to their resistance to the war they claimed more openness of museums, complaining about the almost nonexistence of black or women artists in the featured expositions of the MoMa.”

4. Our Body becomes the most important feature to experience the art as a subject matter and political instrument.  Images of the war caused people began to become conscious of their own mortality in a different manner.  Artists such as Chris Burden and Yoko Ono focused attention on the psychological and ethical dynamics of aggression and spectatorship.  Judy Chicago and Dennis Oppenheim performance photographers documented performances by photos and videos.  Once such performance resulted in showing how the artists questioned the use of chemical napalm.  Yvonne Rainer dances, were filmed, and explored how our bodies can swing emotionally between the aggressor and dissent. 

5. Living Room War – Vietnam War was the first to be televised.  Artists questioned how we could have these mass destruction images contained in a television screen, magazine, short broadcast, and small newspaper article dwindled down to background and easily ignored by the American public. 

6. Walking away I had a sense that the political environment and global problems of the world changed how we thought what Art Is.  We are blessed that we have the First Amendment allowing artists to comment and ask for social change.