This is not the American flag. When those words lit up the Spectacolor billboard in Times Square in 1987, superimposed on the stars and stripes, many American citizens were appalled. Even depicted by a grid of low-resolution lights, the image of stars and stripes has sparked patriotic fervor supercharged by decades of Cold War rhetoric.
Yet the claim was irrefutably true. Although people in the United States regularly call their country America, most of the American continent never belonged to them. Americans flew many different flags, the majority of which were not red, white and blue. With his animated Times Square billboard, commissioned by the Fund for Public Art, Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar sought to set the record straight. As he explained in an artist statement, referring to the United States as “America” was tantamount to verbal aggression, an assertion of power that illegitimately co-opted “the ‘other’ countries of the American continent”, including his South American homeland.
Little has changed in the past three and a half decades. Many Americans – or rather American citizens – still use Monroe Doctrine language when talking about the United States. The so-called American flag is still used to claim foreign territory under false pretenses of unity and to advance unwarranted claims of national inclusiveness, often backed by violence and oppression.
A new exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles takes Jaar’s title as its title and features documentation of his work alongside critical perspectives on the Star-Spangled Banner by more than twenty other artists. The work is eclectic, but the subject is important.
At the heart of the exhibition are some of the most famous depictions of flags in modern art: two Flag paintings by Jasper Johns, one from 1960 and the other from 1967. The latter is particularly interesting thematically because Johns painted the stars and stripes on a collage of newspaper clippings documenting the Vietnam War. Previously, Johns had probed the ontological status of the flag, investigating whether there was a difference between a flag and its representation, and had shown that the flag’s purported authority was an optical illusion. With his 1967 version, Johns bases illusion on reality, paradoxically giving more substance to his image than to his subject. Held responsible by the artist, an emblem of national glory was made to bear witness against himself.
The importance of this work – which was transformational in the development of Pop – becomes even more evident when considered outside the museum in a political context. The symbolic power of a flag can be deployed to incite, compel or subjugate while distracting from the consequences with its conceptual abstraction. While he can’t neutralize these effects on his own, Johns gives viewers a basis to see through the controversy.
Other artists have recognized that the flag’s grand symbolic power is its greatest vulnerability because the symbol can be reversed and the reversal can become as powerful as the original. In 1990, David Hammons showed how effective this maneuver could be by creating a version of the American flag with the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag designed by Marcus Garvey in 1920. Hammons’ african american flag defamiliarizes the most iconic of national emblems just enough to destabilize everything we are told it stands for. The subtle otherness of african american flag visualizes the racially compromised background of the Stars and Stripes – which once united free and slave states in a hallucinatory star field – and draws attention to the fact that this flag bearer of liberty and justice soars above a nation where those values are still unevenly distributed at best.
Some works in the exhibition develop Hammons’ tactics. For example, Hank Willis Thomas has created versions of the flag that turn the stripes into a maze or award stars to victims of gun violence. (The latter is 452 inches long.) These subversions of well-known tropes are best understood as satire. The original flag is needed to make sense of them. In other words, they fulfill an essentially critical function, close to Alfredo Jaar’s words of negation.
One question raised by the Broad exhibit is whether we should start over, if the flag of the United States is so tainted by its past that a whole new design is needed. None of the artists on display take up this challenge, which may be a wise move given the risk of fixing the flag without fixing the nation. It is premature to claim victory over the ugliness of the past. A new flag might evoke new ideals — and has the potential to rally us on their behalf — but the aesthetics of hope might also distract us from real issues as often happens with agitprop. If a new flag is to be hoisted, it must be incomplete. Or it should be ambiguous like Johns optical illusions Seasons – and like the so-called American dream.
On the other hand, there are ways in which the flags could do a real job, fostering a more perfect union. Even though Johns is correct that the flags are illusion items, the illusion is delivered materially. By making flags together, people can weave new relationships, bridge historical divisions.
Sonya Clark explored this possibility convincingly during a residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum several years ago. Clark (who is pictured at the Broad with a flag painted on the gallery wall in shades of white) sought in this earlier work to replace the famous Confederate battle flag with another Confederate flag: a white rag that has was flown by General Robert E. Lee to signify his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. To effect the change, she set up looms where Fabric Workshop visitors could take turns handcrafting Confederate truce flags. All were the same. Each was unique.
The participatory nature of Clark’s Fabric Workshop project can serve as a model for future flags that showcase what they symbolize. They could even be unified by their diversity.