Say Again: Language, Politics and the Veteran Art Movement (Part 1)

Photo credit: Lovella Calica

Photo credit: Lovella Calica

By Kevin Basl

George Orwell—whose works are having a moment thanks to the doublespeak of the current presidential administration—writes at length about how language is not only a reflection of reality, but also a means for changing it: words, to a great extent, control what we see (or don’t). He reminds us in “Politics and the English Language” (1946): “By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague.” One way to counter “post-truth” (i.e. lies) is to identify your own dead language and determine what it is that you mean...then say it.

Beyond Orwell, this two-part article was prompted by a recent publication of AK Press, Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle (2016), a book that looks closely at terms many activists and cultural workers on the left take for granted (highly recommended).

The veteran arts community (“community—what does that really mean?) could gain focus and insight by scrutinizing language we’ve come to take for granted. Accordingly, the following terms and explications should be read as arguments encouraging dialogue about what the veteran art movement represents and what societal changes we wish to see. Certainly words such as “art,” “disability,” “accessibility,” “service,” “warrior,” “trauma,” (some of which are included in Keywords) have produced libraries of materials and ongoing debates, and carry special meanings for veteran artists. But I chose the following terms because they’re commonly used by veteran organizations, though they’re rarely defined. (And, yes, I’ve been guilty myself.)

 

Bridging the Gap

Many organizations include the above metaphor in their promotional language or mission statement: “bridging the gap between veterans and civilians.” In the present context, this usually implies a change in how the U.S. civilian population views or interacts with veterans, perhaps encouraging conversations about war and trauma. Avoiding isolation and talking about our problems is healthy—but beyond talk, what? What concrete actions does the “bridge” represent?

We’re sometimes reminded such a metaphor didn’t exist during World War II, when a congressional declaration of war meant all Americans sacrificed: the draft, rationing, women shoring up the industrial labor force—all citizens felt the effects (even the rich elite: they felt their pocketbooks grow). Now, “the gap” seems to invoke both the neglect many Vietnam War veterans experienced coming home and the small percentage of the population today that volunteers for military service (less than .5% in 2015). The United States has been at war for over 15 years, yet citizens go about their business as if we’ve been at peace—a sign of cultural decadence and apathy. Does “bridging the gap” mean normalizing this?

Roy Scranton, author and Iraq War veteran, provides insight:

“What [veterans and pundits mean by ‘bridging the gap’] is that veterans have learned something special through their encounter with violence, and civilians need to hear that sacred knowledge.

[…] The real gap is between the fantasy of American heroism and the reality of what the American military does, between the myth of violence and the truth of war. The real gap is between our subconscious belief that righteous violence can redeem us, even ennoble us, and the chastening truth that violence debases and corrupts. (New York Times 7/2/2016)

Audiences may be unsettled by a veteran art exhibition or poetry performance that highlights such “corruption by violence,” opening a window for education or awareness-raising. But if we can’t articulate what changes we wish to see, we miss an opportunity. Similarly, if our work merely reinforces stereotypes or clichés (e.g. uncritical military pride, or over-simplified trauma/healing narratives), we won’t move audiences beyond attitudes maintaining business-as-usual militarism—the very thing that causes so much trauma. Yes, everyone has the right to tell their story as they wish. I want my veteran brothers and sisters to speak out, to help our society understand the consequences of war. But if we only use our public forums and art to highlight personal traumas, never connecting our struggles to other peoples’, we won’t effectively challenge our culture of perpetual war and its consumption of so many resources, lives and ecosystems.

How can we fuse the personal and the political? How can we harness and redirect military hero worship and use it to help others who need support: Iraqis; Afghans; immigrants; brown, black and indigenous peoples’ movements; the LGBTQ community? Veteran artists may have a greater, more immediate cultural impact by honing in on specific goals and issues and dropping the bridge metaphor.

 

Community  

This term builds on the above, as “bridging the gap” is sometimes substituted with “community-building.” It carries special meaning for participatory artists and veterans, many of whom have witnessed firsthand how war devastates communities both abroad and at home. This term is so common (how many times have I used it in other Praxis in Color articles?) I had to include it.

 “Community,” especially when used by artists and activists, has anti-capitalist implications. When we build community, we attempt to mend all that total-commodification has fractured: family, neighborhoods, face-to-face interaction, free time. We establish social pockets, or alternative spaces, that may outlast all that gets discarded.

Sarah Lamble makes the point in Keywords that “everyone seems to know what the concept refers to when invoked, yet its precise meaning remains elusive” (103). For me, when I talk about our community of veteran artists, I’m talking about friends (most of whom were in the military) who give me confidence to express difficult or dissenting viewpoints and stories publically. We share artistic opportunities and promote each other’s work. We discourage isolation. I’ve got a couch to sleep on if I’m travelling, and advice is just a phone call away. The veteran artist community, however, is scattered across the map and wouldn’t be helpful if I needed a ride to the hospital. I have a local community for that.

Additional questions arise: When does a community become a movement? What about accessibility and inclusion—who’s in and who’s left out? What is the difference between “community-building” and “recruiting?” One criticism of social practice artists (see Praxis in Color #2) is that some who claim to be building community really aren’t: the artist sets up a table on your street, has you silkscreen a t-shirt, takes some photos then leaves…never to be seen again. Thinking critically about how we use the term “community” could help us avoid such criticism and foster stronger, long-lasting connections.

It’s helpful also to remember that community-building means getting messy—in work, decision-making and conflict resolution. It’s not utopia, but it’s necessary.

Part 2 will evaluate the terms “Veteran experience” and “war.”

 

Sources

Fritsch, Kelly, Clare O’Connor and AK Thompson, eds. Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle. AK Press. 2016.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” 1946.

Scranton, Roy. “‘Star Wars’ and the Fantasy of American Violence.” New York Times July 2, 2016.