Ehren Tool: Cup, 2018. Stoneware. Photograph by Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth)

Ehren Tool: Cup, 2018. Stoneware. Photograph by Mr. Fish (Dwayne Booth)

A Different 1% and

The New Avant-Garde

Janet Owen Driggs and Terence Lyons

How does it feel to go to war, and what does it feel like to come back? With less than 1% of the US population in the armed forces, how are artist-veterans making bridges for, and to, a public that’s increasingly disconnected from the consequences of war?[i]

Art and military veterans are usually discussed in the context of therapeutic activities for individuals who are struggling to heal from the often-invisible wounds of war. However, for artist and Gulf War veteran Mark Pinto this is not enough: “I honor and respect art therapy work,” he said, “but at the same time I want to transcend it…many of us, we feel an obligation to share what we have learned.”[ii]

An emerging generation of American artist-veterans are acting on the conviction that their work can help to heal not only its makers and viewers, but also wider societal wounds. The artists concerned are individual makers of diverse art objects who also embrace the interventions and interactions that have been named “social practice,” and frequently collaborate in a web of overlapping collectives.

The Dirty Canteen, for example, works to promote “understanding of how war and trauma not only affect members of the military, but our society as a whole.”[iii] Many of its members – including Mark Pinto, Amber Hoy, Ehren Tool, Thomas Dang, Aaron Hughes, and Ash Kyrie – have worked with San Francisco-based Combat Paper, a project founded by Drew Cameron, which has been “transforming military uniforms into handmade paper since 2007.” In addition to collaborating with Combat Paper, Iraq War veteran Hughes also works with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and print cooperative Justseeds. In 2014, Justseeds made a portfolio of prints called Celebrate People’s History to mark the IVAW’s Ten Years of Fighting for Peace and Justice, which includes prints by both Pinto and Hughes.

Running wide and deep, the networks these connections represent suggest not only the degree of isolation that veterans experience in civilian life, but also the enduring power of both military training and what artist, micro-biologist, Iraq War veteran, and current Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant, Thomas Dang has described as “a compelling camaraderie ignited between…combat veterans.”

At the heart of the transitioning veteran’s difficulties is a truth that everyone who has been through basic training knows: It is the business of the Army (or any branch of service) to “break you down so we can build you up.” And the military goes about that business very well: it breaks down a civilian so it can build up a warrior. In basic training, when a soldier is “out of line” (literally), the drill sergeant screams in his face, “What do you think you are – an individual?”

The reassertion of an individual spirit is crucial to the warrior coming home, but how can a veteran break down the warrior so that an individual civilian may emerge? Art helps for many. Not only because it can be a tool of self-expression and self-discovery, but also because it provides a conduit by which to share with other veterans and with civilians. As Dang remarked in a recent interview, “Coming back from any deployment you get that feeling of isolation…Creating art is a great way to express experiences…the community may not be able to understand in words.” 

The humble cup is the chosen conduit of Berkeley-based ceramic artist and Gulf War veteran Ehren Tool. “After my experience in the Marine Corps,” Tool states, “I am wary of the gap between the stated goal and the outcome. I am comfortable with the statement ‘I just make cups.’”[iv]

Rather than selling his vessels, which are decorated with war-related imagery and text, Tool gives them away. With over 16,000 cups gifted to date, the artist believes that “the cup is the appropriate scale to talk about war.” “It is a small hand-to-hand gesture,” he explains. “Small scale is where I think there can be real communication. The best cups I have made are cups that became a touchstone for a vet or someone close to them to talk about unspeakable things.”

In his video installation Fragments of a Grunt’s War Diary, Folleh Shar Tamba uses stark white words against a black screen to share things that no image can convey: “Fresh blood smell assaults the air mixing with burning gunpowder”. Then, in such award-winning films as The Triangle of Death (2009), which documents the first Iraqi election after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he employs an abundance of cinéma vérité images to foster a sense – however fleeting and erroneous – of being ‘there’.  

‘There’ is interlaced with ‘here' in the work of Amber Hoy, an army veteran and photographer who presents “past and present colliding, communicating and unraveling.” In her photograph Elle (whiplash girl child) for example, the artist’s dog tags nestle in the corner of a white jewel box lined with red satin. Interleaving girlhood desires and military service, the artist illuminates “the slippage between military and civilian life.[v]

The desire to serve is a powerful driver for these artist-veterans. As Dirty Canteen puts it: “We were soldiers and humanitarians and though we can no longer do so in uniform, we choose to continue this service to others by using the arts.”

Sitting cross-legged on a small Persian rug and serving tea, Aaron Hughes's TEA performance seeks to create a “space to ask questions about one’s relationship to the world.” “Tea,” the artist writes, “is not only a favored drink but a shared moment that transcends cultural divides and systems of oppression.” The effort to transcend that which divides us is not, insists Hughes, “a clichéd utopian statement, but…a reminder of a shared humanity that is so often overlooked.”

For Mark Pinto, the crux of the matter is “moral injury”: a phenomenon that, though it shares symptoms with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), is not the same thing. “You can get PTSD from a car crash,” said Pinto, “but you haven’t done anything that goes against societal norms. With a moral injury, you’ve done something, seen something, or know something that you shouldn’t have to see, know, or do.”

The artist was “referencing the morals you are raised with,” not least the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” which is present in his Small Arms, a mandala-like print of word-filled rifles and grenades. Speaking to a psychological progression that prepares recruits to kill, the words move through “I don’t want to kill,” and “take them out,” to “I f*cking killed them,” and finally, “I’m f*cked.”  Far from being the last words of an action hero about to die, to Pinto that final expletive signals a lifetime of psychic rupture ahead.

Pinto, a former Buddhist priest, sees the mandala as “a map of the spiritual world and a focal point for meditation.” As the public “gets farther and farther away from the actual fight,” he said, so the military “are isolated, and feel that they’re becoming expendable…We need to stop these endless wars…If I can personalize this moral injury and make it visceral, if non-veterans understood their complicity in war, something might change? I wrestle with that.”

Every war delivers a raft of new technologies, injuries, and artworks. The American Civil War produced multiple amputations courtesy of a spinning bullet that ground bones “almost to powder,” as well as some of the first major war photographs. In the First World War, heavy artillery shrapnel mangled soft flesh. Advances in medical science kept severely wounded troops alive, and WW1 artist-veteran Otto Dix recorded the nascent plastic surgery and sensory prosthetics that tried to give them back a life.

The signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are PTSD, Major Depression, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Although 22 veterans kill themselves each day, there is, as yet, no Defense Department recognition of Moral Injury: “a bruise on the soul” that Michael Castellana, psychotherapist at the U.S. Naval Medical Center in San Diego, has attributed to “what happens when we send our children into a war zone and say, ‘Kill like a champion.’”[vi]

And what happens when the “war zone” extends to a computer terminal in a California office complex? With its repetition of the phrases “you can’t hide” and “on my way home honey,” Pinto’s Death From Above, a digital print of drones and bombs, invokes the confusion that such a circumstance may inflict on the moral foundation of a military operative.

In the fifteenth century, the French term avant-garde – “advanced guard” – named highly trained soldiers who went ahead of an advancing army and returned with information about the terrain ahead. In the nineteenth century, as the modern addiction to progress through innovation took hold, reformers adopted the term to describe people or ideas that spearhead change by challenging mainstream values. More recently – anxious perhaps to signal their post-modern understanding of a contingent multiverse – artists have approached the phrase avant-garde with trepidation. But when a generation of contemporary artists returns from war and insists, without irony, that a universal shared humanity is worth protecting, when they’re making “war-awareness art” and doing “anything I can” to challenge unthinking acceptance of global war, perhaps it is time to bring the term avant-garde back?


Essay adapted from A Different 1%: Veteran Artists and the Ghosts of War, first published by KCET Artbound in May 2016


[i] Eikenberry, Karl and Kennedy, David. “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” New York Times, May 26, 2013. Accessed June 24, 2018.

[ii] Mark Pinto’s quotes throughout are from an interview with Owen Driggs

[iii] Dirty Canteen. “About," Accessed June 29, 2018.

[iv] Tool, Ehren. “Artist Statement," Dirty Canteen. Accessed June 24, 2018.

[v] Hoy, Amber. “Artist Statement," Dirty Canteen. Accessed Aug 1, 2018.

[vi] Wood, David. “The Grunts: Damned if They Kill, Damned if They Don’t.” Huffington Post, March 18, 2014. Accessed June 24, 2018.