American Flag Art Has Better Things To Be Than Patriotic
When the American flag makes it into the news, the reason is usually inane, petty and embarrassing. For example, there was that time an adult questioned whether then-candidate Obama “believe[d] in the American flag” because he did not wear a flag lapel pin. Also, there’s every argument that has ever been made in favor of legislation or constitutional amendment forbidding “desecration” of the flag. If we don’t seem to be very good at talking about the flag, what are the stakes when it comes to American flag art? On Independence Day, let’s look at some trends in the ways artists engage with the American flag. The childish people who are over-invested in politicians wearing lapel pins probably won’t be very happy about what some of these artists have been up to.
While the visual culture of unexamined American flag imagery is robust and ubiquitous (and questionable), the flag is a rare motif in more sophisticated art contexts. This makes sense; it is exquisitely overdetermined as a symbol, and it represents patriotic attachment to national ideals that, for many, especially many artists, have been farce, if not often outright tragedy, since before Betsy Ross got started. Flags, in general, are awkward subjects for artists who like to question authority.
Thus, empirically, it takes a certain kind of artist to decide to make American flag art: one with nothing nice to say on the subject. That so many of them are African American is hardly a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to racial dynamics in America since, if we’re being realistic, 1492. To find Republican-approved, straightforwardly celebratory American flag art, you need to look back a full century to Childe Hassam’s Impressionist paintings of military parades along New York City avenues during World War I to see good work; otherwise, more recently, there was Thomas Kinkade.
Sure, there are artists like Claes Oldenburg and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who each dabbled in American flag art. Their flags, in plaster sculpture and drawing, respectively, are slapdash, informal, flippant, but not what I would call aggressive critiques of American injustice. Still, when the new culture wars come, I don’t think the Make America Great Again nationalists would find them suitably respectful. Robert Longo is hardly associated with American flag art or identity politics, but his 2014 sculpture Untitled (The Pequod) makes a strong statement. Named after Melville’s doomed whaling ship, the direct association of the American flag with the maniacal vengeance, terrible decision making and senseless death of Moby Dick feels, well, organic. Couching all of that in a 19th-century literary metaphor lends some grandeur, but definitely undercuts the immediacy that artists like Faith Ringgold or David Hammons bring to their American flag art.
Jasper Johns is associated with American flag art, but not with politics of any kind. His way of approaching the American flag is profoundly critical, although not from a racial or cultural perspective. His focus in Flag, 1954-55—the first in what became an expansive series—is closer to a conceptual formalism, with plenty of icy postmodern reserve. Johns found flags a useful subject because they, like targets and other images the artist favored, are “things the mind already knows.” Combine that with the artist’s succinct description of his own process—“Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Ditto.”—and it is clear that Johns’ flags refuse a patriotic reading. He treats the American flag as a dispassionate formal pattern. That Johns’ American flags are far and away the best known and most prominent use of the motif—and the most potentially consistent with patriotism, despite demonstrating none—makes my point about the collective tone of American flag art: The closest the genre comes to actually celebrating the United States is a study in the ironic absence of meaning. And what could be more authentically American than fussy, emotionless undermining of potent symbols?!
Through the rest of this essay, I will shift to look at American flag art that is more acutely political, especially in the play of identity politics. This work is extraordinarily thoughtful and powerful; some of it, especially by Ringgold and Dread Scott, as we will see, is incendiary. Emma Amos’ 1992 lithograph Stars and Stripes dispenses with the numerological symbolism—13 stripes, 50 stars—for a sketchy and gestural field of too many red and murky white stripes. The stars are gone, replaced by a blue and white print of a George Shivery photo of some dour and disheveled—but self-possessed—Black children on an Atlanta street. A rough “X,” possibly a reference to the design of the Confederate flag, interrupts the stripes in the center of the image; another single slash of white cuts across the stripes at the upper right. Barbara Kruger’s untitled 1991 print uses bold textual graphics to suggest the design of the American flag. Stripes of white text on a red background ask ethical questions about what happens to whom within the power structures of the United States:
Who is free to choose? Who is beyond the law? Who is healed? Who is housed? Who speaks? Who is silenced? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?
Replacing the white stars is the statement, “Look for the moment when pride becomes contempt.” This prescient 25 year old artwork is unsettlingly fresh today.
Many mid-century Civil Rights photographers occasionally employed American flags in their images. Among the most potent is Gordon Parks’ American Gothic, 1942. This is a portrait of Ella Watson, who worked at the Farm Security Administration, standing in front of a looming, over-sized American flag on the wall. The title plays on the famous Grant Wood painting of stoic (and creepy) rural life during the Depression. In Parks’ version, Watson’s expression is resigned, her eyes glazed over. Her broom and mop threaten to upstage her—she maintains her dignity, but Parks exposes the indignity of her situation as a Black woman doing janitorial work for an agency of an actively racist and sexist government. The flag evokes menacing prison bars. In addition to Parks, other photographers with civil rights-era images of the American flag include Bruce Davidson’s, Charles Moore’s and James H. Karales’ shots from Alabama and Ansel Adams’ photos of the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar.
David Hammons’ African-American Flag, 1991 (see the image at the top of this page) shifts the colors from the usual red, white and blue to the colors of the Pan-African flag, developed and theorized in the 1920s by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. It manages to be both a sly and playful intervention in the American flag and quite poignant as it has flown over a number of prominent museums with varying relationships to the diversity of their collections, staffs and audiences. Hammons also used the American flag in a series of works based on prints he made by covering his body in oil, pressing himself against sheets of paper and shaking powdered pigment over the surface to stick wherever the oil had transferred. The ghostly prints feel disembodied, but also surprisingly specific to Hammons African-American racial identity. Injustice Case, 1970, is framed by an American flag; the body print at the center shows the artist bound, gagged and straining his head upward. It is an urgent image about violence done to Black people generically, but Apsara DiQuinzio points out that the pose very specifically echoes that of Black Panther Bobby Seale, who stood trial bound to a chair like this in 1969. The spectacle of Seale so savagely physically restrained by the courts undermines the sanctity of the flag all on its own, and certainly makes a strong case for these artists responding to this government symbol with incisive anger.
Ringgold’s and Scott’s work go even further, and both artists found themselves dealing with real governmental censorship—thus, again, reinforcing how reasonable they had been to go after the American flag with such focused contempt. Ringgold co-organized the “People’s Flag Show” at Judson Memorial Church in 1970, which was shut down by the police for flag desecration. Appropriately, her poster for the show, laid out like an American flag, replaced the stripes with this text:
The American people are the only people who can interpret the American flag. A flag which does not belong to the people to do with as they see fit should be burned and forgotten. Artists, workers, students, women, third-world peoples, you are oppressed. What does the flag mean to you? Join the people’s answer to the repressive US Government and state laws restricting the use and display of the flag.
By the time of the 1970 show, Ringgold had already completed several paintings based on the American flag; her critical commitment to the subject resulted in some of her most powerfully immediate work. This is the important thing to know about Ringgold: Her 1967 painting The Flag is Bleeding, which fully integrates the flag and imagery of racialized violence—including bleeding from the red stripes—is absolutely not her most incendiary work of American flag art. That honor goes to a 1969 painting from her Black Light series (as in the brilliance of Black people, not as in UV fluorescence), Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger.
There are not very many things that were legitimately shocking in 1969 that remain just as intensely shocking today, but this painting is one of them. Roughly the size of a real flag, the field of stars remains in the upper left-hand corner, but the word “DIE” hovers in front in translucent black letters. The stripes are replaced entirely, but clearly echoed, by the block letters of the word “NIGGER,” sideways against a red background. The title refers to the moon landing, which took place that same year, and the painting contrasts the progressive accomplishments of space travel against the regressive inability of the same government that runs NASA to treat its Black population as citizens with human dignity. Ringgold, clearly, rejected the naïve idea that a flag is just a flag, saying, “I need to communicate my relationship with this flag based on my experience as a black woman in America.” The artist has painted a flag that makes literal the message she and her community receive from the image of an official flag, a relentlessly consistent message as police around the country continue to kill Black people with relentless impunity.
Dread Scott faced his own government crack-down over the participatory installation What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, 1988. The work remained on view in Chicago, but politicians got involved. Scott’s installation included powerful images of Vietnam War-era protests and flag-draped coffins, and visitors were confronted with the flag-etiquette taboo of a flag spread out on the ground. They were invited to stand on the flag and add their answers to the question in the work’s tile in blank books that filled up as the exhibition progressed. There were protests; the Chicago city council and the US Congress tried to pass laws “protecting” the flag. New President George H. W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole went out of their way to respond in public with deep stupidity—this was the height of the culture wars. Scott and several others responded by burning American flags at the Capitol (amazing photo here). There was a Supreme Court case! Scott has published a fascinating, by turns beautiful and disturbing, selection of audience answers to the work’s question, available here.
Johns’ Flag was, and is, a big deal in the artworld. The painting made a dramatic splash when Leo Castelli showed it in 1955, and it caught the attention of Alfred Barr, the director of MoMA. Barr was enthusiastic about Johns, but was afraid to buy the painting because he was worried the museum’s trustees would find it unpatriotic. He ultimately coordinated Philip Johnson’s purchase of the painting and its eventual donation to the museum. No protests, no raided exhibitions, no condemnation by Senators and Presidents, no lashing out with unconstitutional legislation, Johns’ Flag was suspiciously unpatriotic, but he still sold it and three other paintings into the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art from his first gallery show. It must have been nice to be a white male painter in mid-Century America.