American Art and the Vietnam War


Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War and Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue—two new exhibits at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.—are more different than they are alike. Their only common thread is the war they profile.

The former emphasizes conflict here at home, as Americans clashed over the morality of U.S. intervention. It's brash, imbued with flashy colors and gruesome sights that implore the viewer to look at things he or she might prefer not to. The confrontational nature of the show is epitomized by Chris Burden's disturbing piece of performance art, documented in a series of still photographs. In 1971, he stood against a wall and had a marksman shoot him in the arm.

Artist Tiffany Chung takes the opposite approach. With images of deserted battlefields, meticulously drawn maps, and refugee video diaries, she offers a straightforward account of the lives of Vietnamese Americans whose stories were never heard at the time. After the war, with millions of casualties and a country in shambles, hundreds of thousands from South Vietnam fled to the States. Many suffered intense emotional trauma as they desperately clung onto their vanishing culture, their community, and their home.

Chung calls the absence of these Vietnamese stories "politically driven amnesia." Considering our current interventionist approach, it's an ailment we can't seem to kick.