Now that there has been some time to process the work in Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1’s latest exhibit, it has become clear that museums are censoring the voices of American military veterans in exhibitions focused on war and politics. The work of veterans only seems to matter to the art establishment when it relates to art therapy and healing. This latest incarnation of exclusion was prominent in their recently closed exhibit, ‘Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991–2011.’ The retrospective chronicled U.S. and coalition forces effect on Iraq during two distinct wars. The curation offered insight from an array of international artists spanning Iraq and its diaspora to the West. Among the western artists included, none represent veterans who served in Iraq during either war, with only Robert Morris and Wally Hendrick ever having served in the U.S. Military. How can any retrospective fully explore the issue at hand without including the full spectrum of identities that hold influence?
The curatorial selection portrays an apathy towards veterans, their experience, and perspective by omitting their voice. Is it the art world’s collective view that the ivory tower should dictate representations of war and conflict on behalf of veterans? If so, some veteran artists Ivy League alma maters should grant them a seat at the table. Or is it the view that veterans are too damaged to be insightful, lending them incapable of contributing relevant and critical work?
MoMA’s history seems to reflect this ideology. The War Veterans Art Center was established at MoMA during World War II with programs supplying soldiers and veterans with art supplies for therapeutic use from 1940–1945. In 2011, MoMA had an inconsequential exhibition “honoring vets” titled ‘Inked Identity’ where art therapy was again the focus. The exhibition, held in the Cullman Education Building, received minimal exposure.
Many celebrated artists use trauma as a vehicle for creation, and numerous veterans who do the same. The creative fruit from these groups, each bears their unique burdens; however, the veteran’s trauma is the result of actions that, for better or worse, shift borders and make or break economies. The implications of a soldier’s duty have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications that transcend the insularity of family or community. These experiences have lasting impacts on the world and should be front and center in any dialogue of war and politics.
The single effort to include the veteran voice in the exhibition was through Sean Snyders appropriated photographs, taken by soldiers during tours of duty and downloaded from military servers for Snyders use. His work investigates the representation of events consumed second hand. When reached for comment, MoMA offered Harun Farocki and Steve Mumford’s works as a representation of the veteran’s perspectives. Neither served, though Mumford did embed with U.S. troops. Was the first-hand veteran account an intentional exclusion? The layer of separation between the veteran’s images and Snyder may give the work added subjectivity and mystique, but unequivocally detracts from its credibility. Does the institution feel it is justifiable to exclude the veteran in favor of exploitation by telling their stories through the institution’s lens? The artists featured in this show produce admirable work, but curator’s pervasive exclusion of veteran art in exhibitions about their lives and actions is reprehensible.
This absence creates a vacuum that stifles the public’s understanding of how war shapes society. Unfortunately, this seems in line with left-leaning socio-political ideals, which often ignores veterans altogether. The New York Times critic’s Jason Farago and Tim Arango confirmed this in their review, ‘These Artists Refuse to Forget the Wars in Iraq’ by failing to highlight MoMa’s choice and in so doing, have failed the veteran community and the public at large. In 2017, ‘Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11’ at the Imperial War Museum of London also ran afoul of the same curatorial omission. It is ironic and unsettling that an art establishment professing values of equality and inclusion makes this error repeatedly. Institutions like MoMA owe their existence to art movements created by artists responding directly to both world wars. Max Ernst, Salvator Dali, Rene Magritte, and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, along with American artists Sol Lewitt and Robert Rauschenberg, all are military veterans whose perspectives were honored and respected. The art these great minds bestowed upon society, and the movements they fathered cannot be ignored. Otherwise, there would be few contributions from post-war art to celebrate today, and MoMA would lose many of its most notable works.
The toll of these wars on humanity persists to this day, having a significant effect on the Iraqi people and inflicting moral injury on the many veterans who served only to realize later the cruelty in which they partook. Becoming a soldier is often the result of limited options, and soldiers are rarely aware of how their actions contribute to the greater realpolitik. It is true that soldiers serve as an instrument for new imperialism and are an easy target for criticism given their subjugation to state power. However, this subjugation can be the key to unlocking their similarities with the Iraqi people and others with whom the U.S. left its mark. Although some soldiers were likely bloodthirsty and subscribed to neoliberal or right-wing ideologies of global military hegemony, many had an understanding of the grave consequences these wars had on society and regional stability.
The veteran artists I have encountered have great respect for the Iraqi people and are remorseful for participating in the destruction of their home, over a clear act of aggression motivated by economic gain, and Bush-era vendetta. Their work is a perfect complement to the Iraqi perspective and completes the narrative for the general public. This inclusion allows for unification by bridging the subversive divisions that give rise to sectarian conflict. To exclude the veteran voice from exhibitions focused on war is akin to Harper-Collins refusing to publish veteran authors or Sony Music not signing veteran musicians. This notion is absurd; many best-selling war stories are authored by veterans, such as Tim O’ Brian and Kurt Vonnegut, along with many notable musicians including John Coltrane and Johnny Cash. Veteran artists with meaningful insights into the seemingly never-ending Iraq war do exist. When engaging the subject of conflict and war, including veterans, is necessary for a cohesive discourse. Curators must uphold their responsibility to honor all perspectives to break down barriers of separation and inform the public of the collective human experience.