My instincts this morning told me to get to the exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before it closed tomorrow. I did. Write-ups in the paper had mentioned powerful images. One person who shared his impressions with me panned the raw explicitness of the art, which included nude public demonstrations. In Chances Are, a novel by Richard Russo that I just finished listening to, the Vietnam War’s impact on young men’s lives is a strong undercurrent.
Call it coincidence or convergence, but I had to see the exhibit, “Artists Respond to the Vietnam War.”
For a fully immersive experience, before entering the gallery I donned a headset so I could listen to a playlist that included “Purple Haze,” “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “Riders of the Storm,” and other songs written during and inspired by the war. The soundtrack had the added benefit, I discovered, of drowning out the chatter of others so I could concentrate on the art.
Of all the garish colors, bold graphics, and gruesome images included in the exhibit, “War Room” moved me the most. It is an actual room that viewers walk into. The walls are layered in black. The space itself isn’t small—maybe 10′ by 10’—but the overwhelming darkness feels claustrophobic, or, as the artist intended, boxed in, as America had become in Vietnam.
The first image I thought of was the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., which I saw with my son 20 years ago. Also black on its surface, this artistic work had a quite different, but no less powerful effect on me. The smooth granite wall extended beyond my vision, as if taking in all of history with its list of names that we were drawn to touch, and the other monuments reflected on its face.
In both installations, understatement is still a statement. Or, as Toni Morrison said, “All good art is political.”
In a particularly moving video at the end, several Vietnamese artists were interviewed. They explained how and why they created art in the context of the horrors of war. For some it was a way to preserve a sense of humanity and beauty. Some hung their pictures like clothes on a line to dry, a kind of portable gallery for soldiers to see and be heartened by before going into battle. Mostly these artists portrayed individuals. Almost sketchlike in their simplicity, with a minimal wash to bring dimension and life to the faces, these portraits were a counter narrative to the thousands who died.
I was a mostly oblivious 15-year-old from the suburbs when demonstrations broke out in my home town of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The only recollections I have of that riot, Kent State, and other protests are based on what I saw on TV, just as the war itself was curated for those of us at home.
My age group just missed the draft, so I didn’t know anyone who went to Vietnam or was killed. Somehow, I didn’t see myself as political. But war lives on—in me, in art, in our understanding of what it means to be human. When I recalled the newspaper’s headline this morning—”U.S., Iran, Escalate Threats”—I realized that “War Room” is as relevant today as fifty years ago. War lives on.
I lingered longer than most at the video of the artists being interviewed. They described themselves as warriors, a term I never would have considered for myself. Their weapons were pencils, brushes, paints, paper, camera. Their role was to document war, bear witness to what they saw, portray the truth that is at once painful yet necessary to remember. Art lives on, even if people don’t.
I came home newly inspired to finish the book proposal I’d set aside during the holidays. Or was it more than that? Had the exhibit stirred the political in me, made me a warrior in my own right?
I describe my story as part memoir, part manifesto. Memoir because it’s my experience of loss, grief, and self-discovery. Manifesto because it documents the many, often insidious, ways silence has kept women from fully realized lives.
To write about that and hope the world listens: that’s political.