A soldier artist? What now?
It turns out that the United States Army has an art program. Who knew? They have, what they call, an Artist-in-Residence: a soldier who is also an artist serving two-year position to capture the life of a soldier.
Compare and Contrast
When I first heard that phrase “soldier artist,” it struck me as contradictory. A soldier is bound to rules and regulations. A soldier follows orders handed down by others. An artist learns the rules and then strives to break them to create something new. An artist follows her/his own curiosity and follows only those orders given by her/his own heart and mind. A soldier needs to remain objective and ensure successful completion of a mission. An artist needs to access feelings and emotion to find the universality underlying the situation or challenge assumptions. In certain situations, empathy is a liability for a soldier. When faced with a mortal threat a soldier must be capable of doing what is necessary for the survival of self and fellow soldiers. Stopping to experience empathy for those imposing that threat could be life-ending. Empathy is a powerful tool for an artist. The artist must be able to imagine and portray the emotions of others to render something they have witnessed.
People Are Multifaceted
So how is it that the Army employs someone who is both soldier and artist to capture the heat of battle? Or the mundanity of daily life for soldiers? After asking myself that question, I realized that we all have many sides. In many cases, we are walking contradictions. We are constantly faced with ambiguity and must hold things that seem contradictory. In fact, that is where artists excel. They live in that gray area and grapple with ambiguity.
When I considered that, it made me realize that a soldier artist is not necessarily contradictory. A soldier artist is disciplined and capable of following orders but is also able to break rules, to access the emotional side and to empathize with others. Soldiers are constantly faced with choices they have to make and artists have the flexibility of thought to evaluate a situation from many sides. A soldier artist is an exceptional person who is able to balance and nurture both sides of her/his self and know when to be what. But at the end of the day, soldiers are human who experience complex emotions and conflict – both internal and external. The soldier artist is able to give voice to that in a unique way.
There are a few thoughts and questions I have after reading and learning about the Army’s Artist-in-Residence. First, I am beyond happy that this even exists! It strikes me as marvelous that the United States Army so values art that it designates a soldier artist to capture the experiences of our army. I love that the Army sees the value in documenting its history and the life of its forces not just with eye of a photographer like a photojournalist but with the interpretive power of the artist’s hand. It makes me wonder why those in our nation’s Army see the value of art and yet art is the first thing on the table when it comes to budget cuts in our nation’s schools.
It also makes me think about some of the amazing approaches involving art that are helping soldiers suffering from PTSD when they return home. Approaches like storytelling, drama and visual art, in particular. Art is a wonderful way to work through and hold complex emotions as well as connect with others and give voice to things that are difficult to express in daily conversation. This also reminds me why teaching art in all its many forms is so important in our schools. This idea of being able to grapple with things that are difficult through art is a very effective tool. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our children had that tool so they would be ready to handle whatever complexities life should throw at them?
If this has piqued your interest and you’d like to know more…
The Army’s Art Program Instagram account
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.