The emerging Veteran Art Movement is a decentralized network of veterans and service members committed to making art and using creative practices to transform themselves and a society grappling with militarism and dehumanization.
Militarism (noun): the opinions or actions of people who believe that a country should use military methods, forces, etc., to gain power and to achieve its goals.—Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Militarism is tearing the United States and our world apart. In resistance, veterans and service members—those who best understand the everyday workings of the military—offer a creative response.
A growing number of veteran artists and writers are now making critical, conceptual and socially-engaged work that challenges the destructive forces of U.S. militarism. They are building communities to encourage, share and develop a critical discourse about war and its consequences. Their work confronts the stereotypes and politics that allow hawkish strategies and voices to go unchecked. They explore and address subjects such as state-sanctioned violence and the military economy, Islamophobia, extralegal detention and freedom, and sexism in the ranks. Their work questions why we need militarized police forces monitoring our cities, why the U.S. spends billions on the military while cutting funding for education and healthcare, and why suicide is so prevalent among veterans. Their art seeks to highlight shared struggles, while always presenting a more-nuanced picture of veterans and service members, in contrast to politicians’ and media portrayals.
The emerging Veteran Art Movement celebrates and continues a long tradition. Veterans, both U.S. and international, have made art about their military experiences and played key roles in cultural and political movements for decades. Many key figures of the DADA and Surrealist art movements were veterans, including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Ernst, and Otto Dix. The controversial German artist Joseph Beuys, icon of the Fluxus Group and coiner of the term “Social Sculpture,” returned to his World War II Luftwaffe experience for artistic inspiration throughout his career. “Trench art” practices of World War I extend into the 21st century: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Mary Borden (to name just a few) mailed critical poetry from the front to London newspapers, while soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s published blogs featuring writings questioning U.S. military motives. The anti-war movements of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Iraq Veterans Against the War produced collages, posters, street theater performances, and poetry collections. In the history of social justice, many Civil Rights Movement leaders were veterans, including World War II veteran and NAACP organizer Medgar Evers and the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Defence, Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, recipient of two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War. Elements of these movements are still apparent in the work of veteran artists today. The emerging Veteran Art Movement continues in the spirit of the above forerunners, while highlighting the often-overlooked diversity of our community, including women, blacks, latinx, LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people and others. This network also strives to connect with those people our military has most profoundly affected: Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, the Vietnamese—the list goes on.
Socially-engaged art offers a way for veterans to speak out, while also building solidarity across movements and communities. As the U.S. marches on in perpetual war, veterans find themselves in a unique position to comment on and challenge the status quo. For example, the misguided military “hero worship” we see at sporting events and in political venues—a symptom of both American exceptionalism and commercialism—allows militarism to go unchecked, while stifling dialogue about how the U.S. employs its fighting forces. Veterans are challenging this spectacle, while also employing their creative talents to redirect attention to front line communities. In this way, art can serve as a tool to help connect veterans to the larger people’s movement.
Over the past decade, national communities and collectives of veteran artists have emerged, including Combat Paper, Warrior Writers, Veteran Print Project, Dirty Canteen, Frontline Arts, the National Veterans Art Museum (which started as the “Vietnam Veteran’s Art Group” in 1981) and many more. While the concepts, explorations and messages these groups intend to amplify is evolving, all agree: the time is now for veterans to speak out and to not become one of those who never talked about “the war."
The emerging Veteran Art Movement is building solidarity—and not just with other veterans. With enormous challenges like climate change, resource depletion, racism, dysfunctional governments, and endless war driving a massive refugee crisis, we need people working together now more than ever. Through their various creative practices, this network of veterans challenges systems of dehumanization and destruction, while also fostering community. To say this work is necessary for our survival is not hyperbole.
Follow the emerging Veteran Art Movement as it continues to grow and develop this important work in solidarity with your own communities.