Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Drawing on Experience: A Study of Vietnam Veteran Artists

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Drawing on Experience: A Study of Vietnam Veteran Artists

Article excerpt

The topic of this study is the connection between experience and art. It focuses on individuals who participated in the Vietnam War and who, at some point, responded to this experience through the production of art. There are many facets of the war reflected in this work. They range from straightforward documentary accounts of events to the psychological exploration of war experiences. In his essay, "Art as Experience: Works by Vietnam Veterans," Janson (1998) writes of veterans' art:

These works are documents of their time and for that reason of great historical interest, just as diaries and oral histories are...[each Vietnam veteran] participates in the widespread tendency during the late twentieth century to develop kinds of art based on shared personal or social experience, (p. 200)

The work produced by these artists expands our consciousness of the Vietnam War, because it connects us directly to the experience of those who participated in it. Dewey (1934) observed that art, as an external and physical object, is naturally removed from its connection with the human experience that produced it. He suggested that the "task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience" (p. 3).

The individuals who participated in this study demonstrate the fundamental relationship between personal experience and the production of art. In the field of art education, Viktor Lowenfeld articulated this important connection. According to Lowenfeld, a basic experience is:

any experience in which the whole individual participates. That means his thinking, in which he discovers something; his feelings, in which he feels what he has discovered; and his perceiving, in which he has become sensitively aware through his senses so that what he has discovered has meaning to him. (Lowenfeld, cited in Michael, 1982, p. 5)

Lowenfeld's basic experience differs from vicarious experience because it draws on the total individual. That distinction is important to him, because, "we are living in a time in which mass production, mass education, mass seeing, and mass experiencing have somewhat suppressed sensitive feelings toward our own individual relationships" (Lowenfeld, cited in Michael, 1982, p. 6). This study, then, is a reminder of how artists' lives are a source for art, and how their creative endeavors represent an attempt to assimilate and find meaning in their experiences.

The inspiration to undertake this research came from my own experience as a Vietnam veteran who became an artist as a way of dealing with the trauma of war. I wondered if other Vietnam veterans shared my experience. An important challenge during the study was to keep my preconceived ideas in check in order to achieve a degree of objectivity.


The design of this study is based on an amalgam of three different qualitative traditions. Because it is both descriptive and exploratory, it involves aspects of ethnography, case study, and phenomenology. It is equally a study of a group of artists and an attempt to understand the connection between experience and art.

The existence of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, Illinois made it possible to contact a national participant population. An initial survey was mailed to 100 individuals. Interviews were subsequently conducted with 41 male and 2 female respondents. Eighteen of these interviews were then randomly selected for analysis.

Survey and interview questions covered four subject areas: 1) artistic history beginning with childhood and ending with college or other professional training; 2) history of Vietnam service, including significant experiences and feelings about one's participation in the war; 3) artistic practices and creative processes with an emphasis on the latter as a way of determining the mental and emotional aspects of making art; and 4) the relationship of Vietnam experience to art. …

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