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Part I: Industrial Arts

Part II: Pop Cinema

Part III: New Tactics in the Vietnam Era

New Tactics in the Vietnam Era: Far from Vietnam (1967)

Film Still from "Far from Vietnam"

Fig. 1 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

The film Far from Vietnam (1967) commences with its title in stark white sans-serif text on a black background. Cut to the first scene and we are away from the fighting at the front. The title becomes a caption. Deadly cargo is being loaded onto aircraft carriers of the United States Seventh Fleet sailing in the Gulf of Tonkin. Countless munitions fill the vista; the explosive mounds provide an image of America at war, making the overwhelming facts of the matter more tangible. A voiceover informs us that the weapons on-screen will soon join the “over a million tons of bombs” America has dropped on North Vietnam since escalating the air war with Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965 (fig. 1). The footage reveals a fraction of the arsenal of a nation that, according to the narration, spends more money on packaging alone than all of India does on food. The stacks of bombs—olive-green, yellow, and white, seemingly unlimited in number—evoke other plentiful, mass-produced consumer goods and the chain of the military-industrial complex. “The war by the rich,” as the voiceover calls it, America’s Vietnam is variously distanced: it is mediated through the television screen for citizens at home. From the cockpit of a bomber, the countryside was an opaque patchwork of brown and green to be shot through with orange flashes and billowing towers of black-gray smoke; US soldiers on the ground experienced something else.

Cut. An apparently clear view of an empty field, accompanied by the same voice: “The war of the poor . . . but not the weakest.”[1] Suddenly, some of the green, leafy clusters seem to come alive; attached to fighters’ bodies, they are the camouflage of the Viet Cong. A picture of determination, the fighters march forward, rifles at the ready, only to dip down again and become nearly invisible to the camera eye. Cut again—this time to other revolutionaries in a verdant landscape on the other side of the world. Fidel Castro strolls with troops and advisors. The narrator states: “It is in Vietnam that the main question of our time arises: the right of the poor to establish societies based on something else other than the interests of the rich.”

Fifty Years Further from Vietnam

Fig. 2 - Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey—Merry Pranksters’ day-glo painted “Further” cross-country bus Neal Cassady’d driven S.F. to Manhattan, L.S.D. cool-aid pitcher in icebox for local hitchhikers and Police, here stopped for gas lunch upstate on trip to Timothy Leary’s Millbrook n.y. psychedelic research commune just before election time, “A Vote For Barry Is A Vote for Fun” logo painted large across bustop side, Goldwater the libertarian Republican would-be Presidential candidate Hawk during Vietnam War, summer 1964., 1964, gelatin silver print, printed 1995, Gift of Gary Davis, 2012.118.90

One of the most divisive events of the second half of the twentieth century, the Vietnam War provoked a rift that continues to haunt American society. The war was fought from 1955 until 1975 between the communist North Vietnamese (supported by the Soviet Union and China) and the democratic, capitalist South Vietnamese with the United States. The US deployed ground troops for the first time in March of 1965, which coincided with accelerating expenditures of resources on the war that lasted through 1969. Spending and loss of life continued steadily until a January 1973 ceasefire agreement, negotiated in Paris, marked the end of the war for the US. The last American combatants left Vietnam in March of 1973.[2] While the conflict can be couched in the terms outlined by the directors, it was also war fought disproportionately by poor Americans and racial and ethnic minorities. About 25 percent of troops were in Vietnam as a result of the draft; 1,857,304 men were inducted into the military via the Selective Service System.[3] Some US citizens were shocked and galvanized to protest what they viewed as an unjust conflict that yielded unnecessary loss of life. The idea that people would be conscripted and forced to fight provoked significant backlash. Nonetheless, many other Americans were more convinced about the validity of the war. Outside the US, especially in Europe, there were also mixed feelings about US military involvement in Indochina; antiwar protests flared up in European cities. Opposition to the war increasingly became central to the burgeoning counter-culture, as the caption on Allen Ginsberg’s photo of Ken Kesey indicates (fig. 2). Antiwar sentiments were synonymous with left-wing politics. People on both sides of the debate about the Vietnam War’s validity would likely have agreed that it was a “hot” manifestation of the Cold War, an attempt—perhaps in retrospect, misguided or too costly—to staunch the spread of international communism and limit the influence of the Soviet Union. Vietnam was one of the first conflicts that was broadcast regularly via television. By the late 1960s, the TV was a fixture in numerous American homes; moving images of the conflict in Vietnam were projected nightly into living rooms by the evening news.[4] Broadcast via the mass media, the war was both amplified and abstracted as it streamed back as images. Aspects of the horrors of war and the casualty toll bombarded viewers miles away from the front.

Three horizontal paintings with raspberry-pink backgrounds and white text hang spaced out in a row against a white background. The central panel is slightly larger than those hanging to the sides. The white text on the left panel reads, “ONE THING.” In the center is “1965,” and the panel to our right has, “VIET-NAM.”

Fig. 3 - On Kawara, Title, 1965, acrylic and collage on three separate canvases, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 2006.40.1.1

Beginning in the mid-1960s, numerous artists and filmmakers in America and Europe felt compelled to demonstrate their stance against the war in artworks or films that registered and critiqued the conflict in Southeast Asia. One of the first instances of art about the war came in On Kawara’s Title (1965) (fig. 3). The conceptual artwork transmits the ubiquity of the war as well as the way it weighed on the minds of many. Curator Kynaston McShine summed up current sentiments in his introduction to the catalog for Information (1970, Museum of Modern Art): “If you are living in the United States, you may fear that you will be shot at, either in the universities, in your bed or more formally in Indochina. It may seem too inappropriate, if not absurd, to get up . . . and apply dabs of paint from a little tube to a square of canvas.”[5] The contemporary situation required new tactics. Traditional media and techniques were no longer adequate. The most potent commentaries came from works realized in new or renewed artistic forms: rejections of clear authorship, aesthetic standards, and traditional artistic competence were combined with embraces of readymade images and objects and “the eruption of language into the aesthetic field.”[6] Artists and directors critiquing sociopolitical issues also mounted critiques of representation, recognizing and interrogating cinema and art’s own conventions.[7] 

Beyond Documentary

Film still from Far from Vietnam

Fig. 4 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

Far from Vietnam is a documentary film that pushes the limits of the genre while addressing, ostensibly, the topic of the Vietnam War. Concerned with more than the physical fighting in Southeast Asia, it represents the manner in which the war’s impact variously rippled outward through societies in the East and West, North and South. Mirroring the logic of the complex conflict, the image that emerges in the motion picture is kaleidoscopic (fig. 4). Far from Vietnam approaches the idea of Vietnam from various angles, with contributions by the directors Joris Ivens, Jean-Luc Godard, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda. It was edited by Chris Marker, a celebrated director in his own right, and marked the first effort of SLON (Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles [Society for the Launch of New Works]), the political film making collective he headed.[8] Film historian Jennifer Stob writes that Marker “worked from the theory that cinema could focus on the movements between the misleading categories of subjective and objective portrayal.”[9] The film combines found footage, individual vignettes shot by the directors (some on location in Vietnam [fig. 5] and the United Sates) and collaborative sections. Its diverse contents include recordings of military action and protests, interviews, a straight discussion of French and American involvement in the war, a music video with folk singer Tom Paxton, Varda’s voice narrating newsreel footage interspersed with comic book cells selected by Marker,  a “cameo” appearance by Fidel Castro expounding on guerilla warfare, a peppering of snippets of the directors’ other films, an animated sequence, a filmic self-portrait by Godard, and a segment directed by Resnais with a philosophical monologue by a fictional character.

Film still from Far from Vietnam Icarus Films Film still from Far from Vietnam

Fig 5 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

Following the opening shots, an intertitle statement from the directors discloses their politics: they made the film “to affirm, by their craft, their solidarity with the Vietnamese people and to fight against the [war of] aggression.”[10] Nonetheless, Far from Vietnam presents a wide and international range of perspectives on the war—including linguistically, as the polyglot production navigates the different languages of various nations. There are many scenes of people in North Vietnam, often shown working collectively to make defenses; particularly striking among these are shots by Joris Ivens of deactivation of anti-personnel cluster bombs, which look like strange fruit, and the creation of personal bomb shelters from concrete. While the scenes of North Vietnam serve to humanize the Vietnamese people by showing them up close, these same peoples’ opinions and voices are often absent. In contrast, many scenes do showcase the diverse perspectives of Americans. A number of these were filmed by William Klein, the sole contributor who was a US citizen (since 1948, he had primarily been expatriated in Paris). Despite ’greater geographic proximity to Vietnam and French involvement in the First Indochina War (1946–54), which could be seen as merely the first phase of Vietnam, Europe was politically a degree further removed from the conflict in by 1967. The European filmmakers perhaps enjoyed a greater critical distance from their subject. Equally, America and Vietnam are foreign to most of them. Especially because Far from Vietnam juxtaposes conflicting viewpoints—usually with no or limited narrative framing them—it compelling provides a sense of the radical divisions that characterized the era.

Indeed, while an early example, Far from Vietnam fulfills the criteria of an “essay film” as defined by film historian Nora Alter: this experimental mode of creation breaks conventions of genre and “strives to be beyond formal, conceptual, and social constraint … The essay film disrespects traditional boundaries, is transgressive both structurally and conceptually, it is self-reflective and self-reflexive.”[11] Distinct sections enable the juxtaposition of Far from Vietnam’s diverse content. Intertitles with white text on a black background mark the breaks (or suture points, depending on one’s perspective). They push written language back into the visual field of cinema.[12] 

The intertitles also provide the film with the reflexivity Alter describes. One, “A Parade is a Parade,” a quotation from one of the organizers of a parade supporting American troops, has a tautological quality common to many titles found in works of art at the time. The section shows marching soldiers whose tours have ended; young businessmen brandishing their draft cards and gleefully screaming “Bomb Hanoi!” as a ring of protesters chants “Big firms get rich, GIs die!”; and, most chillingly, young boys, who might soon enlist or be drafted, marching in uniformed rows. Another patriotic performance is paired with the manifestations of support for the war effort in America: “Johnson Pleure” (Johnson Cries) consists of colorful street theater critiquing the US in North Vietnam (fig. 6). “Flash Back,” “Vertigo,” and “Camera Eye” all refer to the history of cinema, acknowledging that the lines between reality and representation, event and spectacle can be blurred when mediated by moving images. A flashback is a filmmaking technique common to Hollywood, which often takes the form of a montage of elements that occurred prior to the diegetic thread of the film. In Far from Vietnam, the flashback is mostly historical; the section takes the form of a standard documentary, seemingly made up of newsreel footage, which recounts the longer history of colonialism and war in Vietnam going back to French involvement.[13] However, at various points, comic-book images of war splash gaudy color on-screen amid the silvery shift of history. Near the end, there is a fragment of a statement by the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh: no matter how long the war takes, he says—five, ten, twenty years—the United States “will never win.” Although the war was difficult to envision, it was nevertheless important to plot its history, according to Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg had worked as a military advisor before becoming an activist and whistleblower, when he released the Pentagon Papers in 1971. In his 1972 book Papers on the War he warns about the “quagmire myth”—that the experience of the war was like sinking into quicksand, where the United States kept going deeper and deeper without ever intending it. Ellsberg saw this metaphor as dangerous because it seems to suggest there was no agency, no particular decision taken. In order to critique this dominant discursive trope and its associated false ideology, it had to be displaced by facts. “Truth is the first casualty” affirms Joseph Goulden of the Gulf of Tonkin affair, an apparent attack by the Viet Cong on US ships, today suspected of being a fabrication, which sped American involvement. [14] 

Film still from Far from Vietnam

Fig. 6 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

The segment entitled “Vertigo” (also the title of a 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film) shows America as a nation reeling from the conflict. It depicts protests and demonstrations; citizens for and against the war forcefully debating as well as more hysterically and emotionally engaging one another. An antiwar protester repeatedly shouts and stutters, as if traumatized: “NA-NA-naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa . . . Napalm!” Others talk about the need to support the war as a patriotic act. In one of the scenes, a protester wields a sign with a handmade replica of Robert Indiana’s LOVE (first made as sculptures in 1964–1966 and as a graphic image in 1965), a work that was quickly embraced by the counter-culture (fig. 7). For Love (1966) by James Rosenquist, who is perhaps most famous for his critique of the military-industrial complex in F-111 (in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art), also seems to trade similar ideas related to the slogan “Make Love Not War” (fig. 8).

Fig. 7 - Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1967, color screenprint on wove paper, Gift of Laura M. Slatkin, 1993.75.1

Fig. 8 - James Rosenquist, For Love, 1966, color screenprint, Gift of the Woodward Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1976.56.170

At the conclusion of “Vertigo” the film cuts from aggressively debating protestors, to a war movie, to children playing with toy guns, to a modern dance troupe performing an experimental struggle-dance on a Lower Manhattan rooftop. The variously shirtless and fully clothed performers enact scenes of torturous interrogations: some have their hands bound, while others theatrically deal them blows, grab or prod their flesh, and force their heads up and down. The actions of the dancers, whose writhing bodies grasp and claw at each other, appear more shocking than the filmic violence shown just prior. Indeed, within the context of the New York art world, artworks and performances foregrounding corporeality were understood to resist the logic of bellicose moving images. The dancer Yvonne Rainer, whose circle in the 1960s included the visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris, explicitly described the slippage between factual and fictional enactments of violence broadcast via a common screen that is implied by Far from Vietnam’s montage. A statement that Rainer penned to accompany her Trio A reveals similar preoccupations to the film’s directors.  She saw her difficult-to-digest dance forcefully foregrounding her body, as a counter-measure to “the horror and disbelief upon seeing a Vietnamese shot dead on TV—not at the sight of death, however, but at the fact that the TV can be shut off afterwards as after a bad Western. My body remains the enduring reality.”[15] 

Fig. 9 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

Fig. 10 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

Although the televised war could be tuned in and out, it left an indelible mark on many who were far from the front. The section titled “Camera Eye” is a kind of filmic self-portrait of Godard as camera operator (figs. 9, 10). Hence, the eye is also an “I.” The vignette is even more richly layered, in fact, as the director cast himself as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Caamera (1929), almost exactly recreating one of the Soviet director’s shots. Further signaling this homage, Godard’s segment title alludes to Vertov’s theory of kino-glaz (literally, film-eye), or the power of cinema to present real information perhaps missed by the naked eye. According to Kristin Romberg, Vertov’s film Kino-Eye (1924) was “celebrated as the closest thing to Constructivism in cinema” when viewed by critics like Annette Michelson in the early 1970s."[16] Godard’s resuscitation of the strategies of the early Soviet Union parallels a broader afterlife of “constructivism” in the visual arts of the United States, Europe, and Latin America. For it was also in 1967 that kinetic artist and writer George Rickey plotted the new international field in Constructivism: Origins and Evolution; like Rickey’s own artworks, international constructivism tended to consist of modular, geometric constructions that incorporated movement (fig. 11). Constructivism emerged in Russia around the time of the Revolution; resuscitating its forms and techniques surely appealed to young artists interested in resisting the status quo in art and society, as their Soviet heritage connoted a certain degree of rebelliousness during the Cold War.[17] 

Fig. 11 - George Rickey, Anatomy of a Cube of Six Hinged Planes, 1970, lithograph, Gift of June Wayne, 1974.99.123

In “Camera Eye” Godard narrates a fact-filled description of a scene of war. He sits behind a camera, musing about the North Vietnamese government’s denial of his request to film there. He affirms that he nonetheless attempted to work aspects of Vietnam into all of his films. The director reflects on his own particular subject position—neither an “ABC cameraman” nor “a Soviet cameraman,” and describes the kinds of shots he might have taken, suggesting that he could have shown the real effects of a cluster bomb on a woman’s body. The fact that he did choose to make images about making such an image, at a remove from the actual subject, implies the inadequacy of rendering such trauma in celluloid. He speaks about the revolutionary potential of cinema vis-à-vis actual revolution, as shots of the operation of the apparatus of cinema (camera, lights, rolling film) are mixed with scenes from Godard’s La Chinoise, a school and bomb drill in Vietnam, the impact of the war on plant and animal life, and the Rhodiaceta textile strikes in Besançon, which had concerned both Marker and Godard the same year.[18] In fact, further forming a link between these apparently distant sites and conflicts, Far from Vietnam premiered in Rhodiaceta.[19] Calling for solidarity among the oppressed around the world, Godard suggests “creat[ing] a Vietnam within ourselves” as a mode of resistance. The montage accelerates to faster cuts until Godard, with the director’s command, “cuts” the whirring camera and lights turn off and the next scene begins.

Anti-Authorship, Collective Creation, and the Real

Zero as Art. Some polite applause for Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Joris Ivens. They at least tried to make a personal statement. But where was Chris Marker’s “unifying” editing? I haven’t seen such a patchwork quilt since Mondo Cane. . . . The “peace” marches are presented as grotesquely as the “loyalty” marches, as if all Americans of every political persuasion had gone mad over Vietnam.[20] 

With these words in the Village Voice, critic Andrew Sarris assessed Far from Vietnam (1967). While Sarris was disappointed with the film, his colleague Jonas Mekas found it far more worthwhile. Indeed, Mekas published a riposte to Sarris the following week: in lieu of his usual column, he composed a cartoon depicting an angry Sarris contemptuously watching the film on TV.[21] The fact that Mekas imagined the film being screened on the television, rather than in the cinema, might also reveal its proximity to the newer medium and potential as a corrective supplement to the similar images shown on television.

Sarris’s unfavorable take on Far from Vietnam is illuminating in various regards. The failures he points to are instructive about the ways that the film moves in new directions. He criticized Far from Vietnam for possessing “zero” art value, implying that the film was not a creative representation but instead a presentation of information that verged too close to the “real.” Sarris’s critique recalls those levied against minimalism—for example, the “minimal art-content” that Richard Wollheim attributed to new art forms.[22] Emerging tendencies such as minimal and conceptual art also rejected the hand of the artist (and associated signature style) and embraced real material elements and, in some cases, an anti-aesthetic, written language and entry into areas of knowledge beyond art. Following Sol LeWitt’s definition, in conceptual works information transfer is privileged over beautiful execution: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”[23] In particular, the sections by Resnais and Godard take on a conceptual tinge, as they deal more with the idea of Vietnam rather than the conflict directly.

Seth Siegelaub, a key promoter of conceptual art in the 1960s, saw artists’ repudiation  of traditional artistic competence and rejection of beauty as intimately related to the shockwaves of Vietnam in American society: “You can’t even talk about our period without talking about the impulse behind that [the war]."[24] Further suggesting the interwoven nature of new art and the war is Lucy Lippard’s important Six Years. The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, which, via a series of notes and text fragments, charts the developments of conceptual art in a period largely coextensive with that of US military involvement in Vietnam. According to Lippard, in the “1960s, . . . the art world’s urgent desire to find new ways of generating art paralleled the spirit of political revolt rising from civil rights struggles and the Vietnam war.”[25] Lippard considered the new art as a way of contradicting the establishment: it “becomes clear that today (1973) everything, even art, exists in a political situation.”[26] 

Hans Haacke, Condensation Wall, conceived 1963/1966, fabricated 2016, Plexiglas and distilled water, Gift of the Collectors Committee, 2013.44.1

Hans Haacke, one of the younger generation of creators whom Lippard supported, affirmed “a system is not imagined; it is real.[27]” Haacke produces art that engages with reality in order to reveal “which way the wind blows” within art institutions.[28] Resonating with activist calls to fight or “name the system,” Haacke’s artworks typically incorporate real changes and intervene in and highlight naturalized systems.[29] His Condensation Wall (1963–1966/2013) is a Plexiglas container with a small amount of water, which changes state—from liquid into gas and back (fig. 12). With its foggy panels, Haacke’s work registers the controlled climate requisite to maintain the privileged class of objects known as “Art.”

According to Sarris’s assessment, Far from Vietnam lacks “personal statement[s]” and is instead a displeasing “patchwork.” The film is fragmented into over dozen parts, each marked by a title, echoing in some sense of the societal ruptures the war provoked; the flow is hardly unified. Despite being the production of a constellation of luminaries of vanguard cinema, who might amplify one another, it is often unclear who was responsible for each section. The parts are generally not credited and, in the case of the found footage and reportage, not at all “directed.” Thus, even though it trades on the aura of the its celebrity-director’s names on the billboard, the film’s jarring combination of information undermines standard filmic structure and singular authorship. Woven together via Marker’s post-production, their footage took on the cooperative character of a SLON film.[30] By this, Far from Vietnam challenged Sarris’s view of cinema as individualistic creation: five years earlier, he articulated the trend toward personal directorial style in his pioneering “Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962.”[31] 

Fig. 13 - Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #65 / Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall., 1971, red, yellow, blue, and black colored pencil, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, 2001.9.25

In the visual arts, there were also attempts to eschew signature style. Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings—impermanent, site-specific works executed by others—were an important solution (fig. 13). Interestingly, LeWitt’s very first work in this vein, Wall Drawing #1: Drawing Series II 18 (A & B) (1968), was born in the context of a protest against the Vietnam War. It was realized for the Paula Cooper Gallery’s inaugural exhibition Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (1968). The other works included alongside LeWitt’s were abstract and minimalist, underscoring how non-objective artwork was understood to imply objections to the status quo.

Collective creation closer to the polyphony of Far from Vietnam characterized a number of antiwar art initiatives, such as the contemporaneous print portfolio Artists and Writers Protest against the War in Vietnam (1967), which included Ad Reinhardt’s No War, a rejection of the conflict.[32] The printed work takes the form of an airmail letter addressed to the “War Chief, Washington, DC, USA”—a missive that, like the film, seems to similarly acknowledge distance and mediation of the war. Other instances include the Angry Arts Week (January 29 to February 4, 1967) and the 1966 “Peace Tower” (sometimes called “The Artists’ Tower of Protest”) overseen by Marc di Suvero and Irving Petlin and erected in West Hollywood. Slightly later collectives, such as the Art Workers Coalition (which included Haacke and Lippard among its core members) and the Guerilla Art Action Group also staged antiwar projects. Although the trend to create portfolios with multiple contributing artists extended far beyond antiwar initiatives, important coproductions in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, such as serial boxed sets S.M.S. 1–6 (Shit Must Stop) (1968) and Experiments in Art and Technology’s (EAT) New York Collection for Stockholm Portfolio (NYCSP) (1973) do contain politically committed works expressing antiwar sentiments among their stylistically disunified contents. William Copley, the director of S.M.S., saw the range as pedagogical: “We are not trying to push any kind of art but rather to suggest how many different ways ideas can go.”[33] 

Fig. 14 - Hans Haacke, Styria Studio, Experiments in Art and Technology, 420 West Broadway Visitors' Profile, 1973, color screenprint on wove paper, Gift of Robert Rauschenberg, 1976.66.10

Julie Martin—who, along with artist Robert Rauschenberg and engineer Billy Klüver, spearheaded EAT—said of the NYCSP: “It embodied the range of new work of the early and middle 1960s: geometric abstraction, Pop Art’s depiction of everyday materials and themes from the mass media, the use of industrial fabrication by Minimal artists, incorporation of new technology, and the reintroduction of politics into art as reaction to the Vietnam War."[34] Though fairly subtle in many cases, politics crops up in various projects in the portfolio. Haacke’s contribution consists of the results of one question from a para-sociological poll at John Weber Gallery, where he asked visitors demographic questions as well as their opinions about political issues (fig. 14). His print reveals the New York art world’s overwhelming allegiance to George McGovern, the democratic candidate who ran on an antiwar platform against Richard Nixon in 1972.

Fig. 15 - Andy Warhol, Julie Martin, Experiments in Art and Technology, Mao, 1973

Interfusing paperwork and artwork, Andy Warhol produced photocopies of Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) for each number of the edition (fig. 15). Paralleling Marker’s moves in Far from Vietnam, Warhol used mechanical reproduction as a productive interruption, to achieve distance from his mass-reproduced subject. The still relatively new communications and replication technology of the Xerox copier enabled Warhol to decrease in fidelity an image of the iconic Chinese leader. Warhol realized the project—which distorts a legible image toward abstraction—by copying and recopying an image, enlarging and elongating it by 1 or 2 percent each time he pressed the photocopy button. Mao was on the minds of many because President Nixon arranged a meeting with the Chinese Premier in 1972, with the goal of improving America’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the USSR in order to resolve the Vietnam War.

Fig. 16 - Roy Lichtenstein, Styria Studio, Experiments in Art and Technology, Finger Pointing, 1973, color screenprint on wove paper, Gift of Robert Rauschenberg, 1976.66.15

In contrast to Warhol’s dematerialized portrait of the Chinese leader, Roy Lichtenstein’s pointing finger echoes the indexical gesture of the quintessentially American Uncle Sam, found in posters calling upon citizens to transform into combatants (fig. 16). The suit sleeve and shirt cuff—conservative attire associated with politicians or businessmen—seem to imply that soldiers ultimately serve the interests of economic and political elites. Lichtenstein’s print conjures the lyrics of the protest song performed by Country Joe and the Fish at the Woodstock Music Festival a couple years before:

Well, come on all of you, big strong men / Uncle Sam needs your help again. . . . Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow / Why man, this is war à gogo / There’s plenty good money to be made / By supplying the Army with the tools of its trade / But just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb / They drop it on the Viet Cong.[35] 

“Seeing the Elephant”

“Seeing the elephant” is a saying that originated during the American Civil War. It refers to the experience of the battlefield, something sufficiently complex and overwhelming that all descriptions are inadequate. Thus, in some sense, anyone who sets out to capture war is undertaking an impossible task. Despite numerous advances in image-making at the time of Vietnam, contemporary warfare also exceeded any recording or representation. In an address to a joint session of Congress, General William Westmoreland noted that Vietnam posed particular challenges to vision and visualization: “We are fighting a war with no front lines, since the enemy hides among the people, in the jungles and mountains, and uses covertly border areas of neutral countries. One cannot measure [our] progress by lines on a map.”[36] It is no accident that parts of this televised speech appear in Far from Vietnam. The film implicitly and explicitly acknowledges the limits of visual representation as well as the gaps between event and reality even as it produces a picture of the war.

In the first issue of the journal October (spring, 1976), which focused equally on art and film, the editors outline the directions the publication will take and explicitly discuss the inadequacies plaguing representational political paintings by East Coast elites:

We will not contribute to that social critique which, swamped by its own disingenuousness, gives credence to such an object of repression as a mural about the war in Vietnam, painted by a white liberal resident in New York, a war fought for the most part by ghetto residents commanded by elements drawn from the Southern lower-middle-class.[37] 

Far from Vietnam recognizes the key challenges faced by those who recount history from a critical angle. It is necessary to both capture the truth of a complicated situation and capture the impossibility of any singular truth. By combining sections with distinct styles and perspectives and mining the archive, the film achieves a new form of transmitting the events of the Vietnam War.

While sometimes viewed as a supplement to written histories, the visual arts have importantly served as a medium for representing notable events (or even producing them). History paintings, typically large-scale depictions of biblical or mythological scenes, were considered the most prestigious genre from the seventeenth century onward. Beginning with late eighteenth-century masters like Benjamin West and Jacques-Louis David, to innovators in the nineteenth century such as Francisco de Goya and Théodore Géricault, to Pablo Picasso in the last century, artists rendered increasingly contemporary subject matter in the grandiose language of the history genre. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) alludes to cinema—particularly the newsreels that covered the bombing of the Basque town—by its scale and silver-toned palette.[38] In addition to conjuring up reporting and fiction on the silver screen, Guernica seems to reference the gray of the newspaper. As Picasso tacitly acknowledges by his painting’s color palette and scale, by the late 1930s photojournalism and film had largely replaced painting as the mediums of record. We might thus consider Far from Vietnam as a discrepant iteration of the grand tradition of history painting. The collective film attempts to weave a historically rich tapestry of Vietnam that does not get bogged down in the pitfalls expressed by October’s editors. Indeed, as Picasso knew, the scale of the image on the big screen linked the two modes. Not coincidentally, one of the film’s first sections is “actualités vietnamiennes,” a black-and-white newsreel showing the aftermath of the bombing of Hanoi on the December 13 and 14, 1966.

On Kawara’s Date Paintings (1966–2013) also strove to broker a new relationship with past events at the same time. For these, Kawara combined dark, monochromatic grounds with white text of the date the canvas was made; he fabricated cardboard boxes to store each painting, which are typically lined with newspaper revealing the day’s headlines—and not necessarily shown in galleries. His works signal the dual crises that painting and history experienced at the time. The photographer Jeff Wall insightfully sets Kawara’s Date Paintings into the history of painting and photojournalism, arguing that “[t]he presence of the date compels us to redefine Kawara’s work in relation to a particular genre: history painting. This is to say that Kawara’s work is not history painting in any direct sense, but its identity has been constructed in a negative relation to that genre, a negative relation established by the orders of avant-gardist discourse.”[39] Wall’s assessment might well also extend to Title (fig. 3)—though not officially part of the Date Paintings series, it is closely related and seems to anticipate Kawara’s subsequent works. Spread over three panels, Title’s overall size is close to that of the classics in the genre of history painting. Within the context of the galleries, the triptych tautologically captions itself; furthermore, it operates like an intertitle, breaking the flow of stylistically organized images. Kawara’s canvases possess the logic of Godard’s self-reflexive section of Far from Vietnam. They are also refusals: stark texts on painted ground, with small stars stuck in each corner, describe the situation in spare terms, rather than “abstract” the war into singular, fixed images.

Fig. 17 - Roy Lichtenstein, Irwin Hollander, Hollander Graphic Workshop, Explosion, 1967, color lithograph on Rives wove paper, Gift of Roy and Dorothy Lichtenstein, 1996.56.33

Fig. 18 - Roy Lichtenstein, As I Opened Fire [center panel], 1966, color offset lithograph on wove paper, Gift of John Simmons, 2004.137.2

Fig. 19 - Roy Lichtenstein, As I Opened Fire [left panel], 1966, color offset lithograph on wove paper, Gift of John Simmons, 2004.137.1

Fig. 20 - Roy Lichtenstein, As I Opened Fire [right panel], 1966, color offset lithograph on wove paper, Gift of John Simmons, 2004.137.3

Film still from Far from Vietnam

Fig. 21 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

Roy Lichtenstein importantly engages questions of art’s ability to represent historical events in the age of the image. His output of the era grapples with the legacy of history painting too and also intersects with the tactics of Far from Vietnam. Unlike Kawara, the pop-art painter employed his characteristic comic language of bold lines, primary colors, and discernible Benday dots. Lichtenstein continued to mine comics for inspiration, but his subjects shifted in relation to the war. In the context of Vietnam, it is difficult not to see projects like Explosion (1967) or the triptych As I Opened Fire (1966) as responses to the conflict raging in Indochina (figs. 17, 18, 19, 20). Like Kawara, Lichtenstein negotiated a provocative solution by repurposing and translating images. He incorporated drama and emotion without falsifying a “true” explicit or exact rendering of history; with his flat pop idiom he dodged the traps of history painting and its grandiose images. Moreover, like Far from Vietnam, which juxtaposes actual violence and comic-book images close to the end, Lichtenstein too reflects upon the ways that images from commercial mass culture and the war flowed into one another. Further, both the film and the paintings suggest, perhaps, that overly simplistic “comic-book” notions of good and evil—which had informed understandings of World War II—were no longer adequate. Resnais’s character, Claude Ridder, says as much, invoking the legacy of Nazi occupation and resistance in France: “Until the end of time I will kill Germans and love Americans; except that the Americans are the Vietnamese’s Germans” (fig. 21). Other works Lichtenstein made during the war, such as Peace Through Chemistry and Peace Through Chemistry Bronze (both 1970) (figs. 22, 23) and the 10-by-18-foot canvas Preparedness (1968, in the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) prove a similar point. Lichtenstein seems to channel Fernand Léger, as well as Louis Lozowick or Jólan Gross-Bettelheim—artists associated with the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and communist-aligned American Artists’ Congress (AAC).[40] By adapting styles (and size) of the past to his own ironic pop syntax, he achieves critical distance. The artworks conjure up some of the social commitment of Lichtenstein’s artistic predecessors but imply that total faith in patriotism and utopian technological progress was naively facile in the late 1960s.

Fig. 22 - Roy Lichtenstein, Peace Through Chemistry Bronze, 1970, bronze, Gift of Gemini G.E.L. and the Artist, 1981.5.280

Fig. 23 - Roy Lichtenstein, Peace Through Chemistry I, 1970, lithograph and screenprint on Special Arjomari paper, Gift of Gemini G.E.L. and the Artist, 1981.5.60

Remix, Interruption, Resistance

Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes, 1967–1972, printed 2007, inkjet print, Gift of the Collectors Committee and Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 2015.76.1

In his monologue, Ridder affirms that images of the war are so ubiquitous, no one could have the excuse that they did not know about its horrors. He notes the strangeness of how death and destruction enter homes via a piece of furniture—the television: “You can show massacres to try to cure people from wars. But they’re on show all the time. It doesn’t stop anything.” These observations signal the ways in which information overload hardens and numbs viewers to the images they consume nightly. Reflecting upon the situation in the United States, in which the war similarly entered homes via TV and magazines, the artist Martha Rosler saw mediation increasingly reducing viewers to “audience spectators rather than citizen participants.”[41] 

Rosler’s series Bringing the War Home (1967–1972, fig. 24) also investigates the representation and consumption of war. These works consist of photomontages of images of the Vietnam War—soldiers, haggard civilians, broken bodies, and mangled, bombed-out landscapes—juxtaposed with luxury interiors found in the glossy spreads of periodicals like House Beautiful. The title of her series had specific period connotation that may be less obvious today than in 1967. “Bring the war home” was a phrase that implied ending the war and returning soldiers to the United States, and was also employed to describe a need for radical actions to combat the systems that had led to the war in the first place. Rosler implies that a common network linked the war with bourgeois consumer goods. Stephanie Schwartz argues Rosler’s series emphasizes how “the military-industrial complex produces, simultaneously and necessarily, the private home and more Vietnams.”[42] 

Film still from Far from Vietnam

Fig. 25 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

According to Matthew Israel, “Rosler’s works reacted to what she has called the dangerous, dualistic separation between ‘the here and the elsewhere,’ by trying (in some, but importantly, not all, collages of the series) to bring the war home to the American public.”[43] Strikingly similar still photomontages of the war intermixed with magazine pages or advertisements appear in a layered filmic sequence near the end of Far from Vietnam (fig. 25). As with Rosler’s artworks, this admixture reminds viewers that Vietnam is not so far away from the consumer societies of the West; moreover, it proposes a consideration of the way the war had become a spectacle with mass-mediation, one more thing to be morbidly consumed. Marker and Rosler’s respective juxtapositions yield uncanny results.[44] The familiar contents of the weekly or monthly magazine become strange.

Far from Vietnam investigates the mass media by mediation as well: shots of General Westmoreland on television capture the texture of televisual light patterns and a swaying vertical hold. Similar sorts of grainy images are cut into the fabric of the film in various sequences. The spectacular images become opaque via the interruption. No longer are they a transparent language that just transmits information about their subject; instead they, too, become an object of study when sewn into the film. In many ways, Far from Vietnam is an extended montage—a series of streams of information and interruptions proper to cinema that nonetheless, when used correctly, can produce shocking new understandings of the world. This characteristic resonates with Godard’s sentiments: “To me, pure film, pure cinema is pieces of film assembled. Any individual piece is nothing. But a combination of them creates an idea-montage, you can call it that. But there are many kinds of montage.”[45] The montage of Far from Vietnam produces a new understanding of history and awareness. By recombining then-contemporary events with the archive of film and television, new understandings arise. The film reveals limits of vision as it recognizes the politics of visibility; it provides a necessary counter-image to the Vietnam War presented in the commercial mass media.[46] 

Conclusion: Film as Political Philosophy

Film still from Far from Vietnam

Fig. 26 - Still from Far from Vietnam, courtesy of Icarus Films

The political theorist Chantal Mouffe emphasizes the “the distinction between antagonism (friend/enemy relation) and agonism (relation between adversaries)” when defining democratic politics. Mouffe continues:

We are better able to understand why the agonistic confrontation, far from representing a danger for democracy, is in reality the very condition of its existence . . . democracy cannot survive without certain forms of consensus. . . . But it must also enable the expression of conflict, which requires that citizens genuinely have the possibility of choosing between real alternatives.[47] 

It is precisely the two types of relationships Mouffe identifies—antagonistic warfare and agonistic civil disagreement and debate, and the rift between them—that are the focus of Far from Vietnam. Indeed, the multifaceted movie can be considered an exercise in agonism. It shows us what democracy (and its discontents) looks like by presenting numerous perspectives, many irreconcilable. Thus, we might view the complex movie as a form of political philosophy.

The film’s politics are not merely theoretical, but spill into practice as well. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, when screened at the New York Film Festival in autumn of 1967, Far from Vietnam did more than just capture combat and disputes; it catalyzed heated discussion too, “creat[ing] more angry debates than anything else I had seen that year.”[48] Far from Vietnam asks its audiences to position themselves in response to its images (fig. 26). Even those removed from the conflict by geography and the passage of time, must consider their own stance in relation to history.

The National Gallery of Art’s film program provides many opportunities throughout the year to view classic and contemporary cinema from around the world.

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  1. The voice in this section is that of Chris Marker. See “Far from Vietnam, John Akomfrah Presents. . .” Barbican Gallery, October 24, 2017,

  2. At the time, more than 1,200 US soldiers were missing in action or were being held as prisoners of war.

  3. See Selective Service System, “Induction Statistics,” 2018, (accessed March 30, 2018).

  4. By the 1960s, approximately 95 percent of American homes had a television. Primetime television was broadcast in color starting in 1966–1967. By 1970, 39 percent of households had a color set. See Vincent LoButto, TV in the USA: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas(Santa Barbara, 2018), xiv; xi. 

  5. Kynaston McShine, “Introduction to Information” (1970), in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, 2000), 212.

  6. Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” October 10 (Autumn 1979): 126. For an extended discussion of Owens’s insights about language and broader cultural changes (the advent of postmodernism) vis-à-vis the end of painting, see Michael Maizels and Juliet Kennedy, “The System That Destroys Itself, or Greenberg’s Modernism and the Liar’s Paradox,” Crisis & Critique 5, no. 1 (March 2018): 211–234.

  7. For an example of an articulation of such views, see The Editors, “About October,” October 1 (Spring 1976): 4–5. 

  8. While the film largely eschews singular authorship, there are attributable sections: Claude Lelouch shot the American warships seen at the beginning of the film, Joris Ivens filmed the color scenes of Vietnam, William Klien captured American protesters and parade participants in “A Parade is a Parade” and ‘Vertigo”; he also filmed the interview with the widow of William Morrison, an antiwar activist who immolated himself in protest; and Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais both created recognizable segments, respectively “Camera Eye” and “Claude Ridder.” Varda’s audio narration of history and her footage of the reparation of a dyke in France also enter the film. Marker selected much of the already extant materials that interweave the sections.

  9. Jennifer Stob, “Cut and Spark: Chris Marker, André Bazin and the Metaphors of Horizontal montage,” Studies in French Cinema 12, no. 1 (2012), 42.

  10. Far from Vietnam (Icarus Films, 1967), my translation.

  11. Nora Alter, “The Political Im/perceptible in the Essay Film,” New German Critique 68 (Spring/Summer 1996): 171. Alter is not the only writer to define this genre. For more on the essay film see Laura Rascaroli, "The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments," From: Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media49, no. 2, (Fall 2008): 24-47

  12. Intertitles were of course a key component of silent films and are proper to a longer history of the medium.

  13. For more on the theme of anti-colonial cinema see, Matthew Croombs, “Loin du Vietnam,” Third Text 28, no. 2 (March 2014): 493.

  14. See Joseph Goulden, Truth Is the First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair—Illusion and Reality (Chicago, 1969).

  15. Yvonne Rainer, “Statement” from The Mind Is a Muscle, Anderson Theater, New York (April 1968); reproduced in Work, 1961–73 (Halifax, 1974), 71.

  16. Kristin Romberg, "Labor Demonstrations: Aleksei Gan's Island of the Young Pioneers, Dziga Vertov's Kino-Eye, and the Rationalization of Artistic Labor," October 145 (summer 2013): 39. 

  17. Moreover, they perhaps more easily romanticized, as they hailed from the more utopian moment of the USSR, before Joseph Stalin’s iron rule.

  18. See Trevor Stark, “‘Cinema in the Hands of the People’: Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant Film,” October 139 (Winter 2012): 117–150.

  19. Croombs, 493.

  20. Andrew Sarris, “Far From Vietnam,” Village Voice, October 12, 1967, 31.

  21. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia(Chicago, 2010), 143.

  22. Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art” (1965), in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York, 1968), 387.

  23. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967): 79–83.

  24. Seth Siegelaub interviewed in Stefan Römer, Conceptual Paradise, 2006 [film].

  25. Lucy Lippard, “The Structures, The Structures and the Wall Drawings, The Structures and the Wall Drawings and the Books,” Sol LeWitt, ed. Alicia Legg (New York, 1978), 29.

  26. Lippard, Six Years. The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York, 1973), 8.

  27. Hans Haacke, “Untitled Statement,” 1967. Notably, many of Haacke’s works appear reproduced in Rickey’s Constructivism: Origins and Evolution (New York, 1967).

  28. Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” in Bringing It All Back Home, Columbia Records, January 1965, 7” vinyl.

  29. Paul Potter, “The Incredible War,” April 17, 1965, Voices of Democracy: The US Oratory Project, (accessed March 29, 2018).

  30. For more on SLON, see William Van Wert, Chris Marker: The SLON Films, Film Quarterly 32, no. 3 (Spring, 1979): 38–46.

  31. See Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” Film Culture27 (Winter 1962–1963): 1–8. Some more recent commentators have viewed the film in terms of “auteur theory.” For an analysis focused on Lelouch’s and Godard’s contribution to Far from Vietnam in relation to their broader oeuvre, see Jonathan Ervine, “Representations of War: From the New Wave to the New Millennium, Journal of War & Culture Studies 2, no. 1 (2009): 81–91. Matthew Croombs also sets the film in conversation with other examples from Godard’s cinematic output. See Croombs, 489-505.

  32. This portfolio is held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (2350.1967.1–16) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (2006.50.1–16).

  33. William N. Copley speaking of his S.M.S. “SHIT MUST STOP” portfolio. Joseph Cornell papers, 1804–1986, bulk 1939–1972 [General Correspondence, Box 2, Folder 3], Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

  34. Julie Martin quoted Broadway 1602 Gallery, “EXHIBITIONS: EXPERIMENTS IN ART AND TECHNOLOGY (E.A.T.)’S THE NEW YORK COLLECTION FOR STOCKHOLM PORTFOLIO (1973),” May 7–July 1, 2016, Broadway 1602, 2016, (accessed March 25, 20)

  35. Country Joe and the Fish, ““I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” in I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die, Vanguard Records, November 1967.

  36. General William Westmoreland, “Address to Joint Session of Congress,” April 28, 1967.

  37. The Editors, “About October,” October 1 (Spring 1976): 4–5.

  38. This interpretation of Guernica was posited by Anne Wagner and T.J. Clark in their exhibition Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica, which was held at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia from April 4, 2017 to September 4, 2017.

  39. Jeff Wall, “Monochrome and Photojournalism in On Kawara’s Today Paintings,” Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, ed. Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly (New York, 1996), 137.

  40. See Roy Lichtenstein, “Preparedness,” Collection Search, Guggenheim,; for more on Lozowick and Gross-Bettelheim, see Joyce Tsai, “American Mosaic: Modern American Prints,” in Three Centuries of American Prints, exh. cat. (New Haven and Washington, 2016), 163, 164–165.

  41. Martha Rosler, “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful,” quoted in Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent (Manchester, 1999), 172.

  42. Stephanie Schwartz, “Anti-Photojournalism: Working Against the Grain,” in In Focus: Waiting for Tear Gas 1999–2000 by Allan Sekula, ed. Stephanie Schwartz  (London, 2016), (accessed March 31, 2018) (original emphasis).

  43. Matthew Israel, Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (Austin, 2013), 78; Martha Rosler, “Here and Elsewhere,” Artforum 46, no. 3 (2007): 50; quoted in Israel, 78.

  44. I employ the term “uncanny” in the sense Sigmund Freud attributed to it. Freud describes it a particular kind of terrible aesthetic, when a familiar thing is changed just enough so that it “arouses dread and creeping horror.” In German, the term has additional resonances; unheimlich literally translates to unhomely. See Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (London, 2003), 123–124.

  45. Jean-Luc Godard quoted in Peter Wollen, “Theory and Practice,” Journal of Media Practice 6, no. 2 (2005): 76.

  46. Chantal Mouffe, “Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics,” Pavilion 15 (May–July, 2010): 249.

  47. Mouffe, “Agonistic Democracy and Radical Politics,” 250.

  48. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (Chicago, 2010), 143.