New York

“The Vietnam Experience”

Arsenal Gallery Annex

“The Vietnam Experience,” an exhibit of work by Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese emigres, closed on December 6, 1981. I wanted to write something about it back then, but couldn’t. Part of the problem was that the show really had very little to do with art. More than that, I felt stuck for something to say that would make sense of my totally emotional response to it. Well, time has passed and I’m still back where I was in December except that I’m convinced of the need to honor the importance of the effort and the potency of the accomplishment.

Now as then, I am hard put to single out one piece of work in the show that, in and of itself, demonstrated an esthetically competitive level of artistic achievement. By and large, the paintings and prints were competent examples of commercial illustration; the sculpture was academic and uninventive, and the photographs were probably a lot less psychologically incisive than the average wire-service photograph from the period. So, artistically, nothing much was going on. Where the power of “The Vietnam Experience” lay was in its attempt to confront a still undigested reality in America’s immediate past.

In an unassuming catalogue essay, Richard Strandberg and Bernard Edelman, two of the organizing artists, state: “ . . . through our art, we can provide a perspective of that time and place that most Americans, frankly, do not have. We know there is much more that needs to be said and learned about Vietnam. And if our images of the Vietnam experience can help people to talk about it, to deal with it, on a personal level, to clear away some of the stifling silence that surrounds it, then we will have accomplished something of value.” It is exactly on those terms that “The Vietnam Experience” succeeded.

High art has only infrequently been deployed in the service of illuminating the nature of martial violence. The few very great paintings—Goya’s The Shooting of May 3, 1808, Picasso’s Guernica—live a double life as both art and propaganda. Possibly the only contemporary artist who comes close to fulfilling such a complex strategy is Leon Golub in his monumentally horrific series, “Mercenaries and Victims.” None of the work in “The Vietnam Experience” even vaguely approximates the ferocious mastery of Golub’s accomplishment. Yet the incessant, cumulative-rhythm of the show achieved a level of emotional honesty that was cleansingly antithetical to the gallery experience.

In the end, the art produced by our Vietnam engagement may well occupy the same ambiguous esthetic ground as the art generated by the Holocaust, whereby the need for the message to be dispersed makes the application of critical criteria irrelevant and gratuitous. Hearing the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man” being played as one walked through “The Vietnam Experience,” and realizing the insidious mechanics of the kind of cavalier genocide that allowed America to sacrifice such a large portion of its youth without greater congressional or public outcry (only the threat to the children of the middle class lent authority to the antiwar movement) is to relive the absolute moral awfulness of the time.

It is still crucially important to understand how Vietnam happened, how it was sustained, and where it ended. “The Vietnam Experience” provided a catalytic environment for approaching the psychological context from which such understanding flows.

Richard Flood