This Is Not America’s Flag. When these words illuminated Times Square’s Spectacolor display board in 1987, superimposed on the Star-Spangled Banner, many US citizens were aghast. Even represented by a low-resolution grid of lights, the image of stars and stripes stirred patriotic fervor superpowered by decades of Cold War rhetoric.
Yet the assertion was irrefutably true. Although people in the US routinely referred to their country as 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, the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar sought to set the record straight. As he explained in an artist’s statement, referring to the US as “America” amounted to a verbal assault, an assertion of power that illegitimately co-opted “the ‘other’ countries of the American continent” including his South American homeland.
Little has changed over the past three-and-a-half decades. Many Americans – or, rather, US citizens – still use language befitting the Monroe Doctrine when speaking of 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 inclusivity domestically, often backed by violence and oppression.
A new exhibition at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles takes Jaar’s headline as its title and presents documentation of his work alongside critical perspectives on the Star-Spangled Banner by more than twenty other artists. The work is eclectic, but the topic is important.
At the core of the exhibit are a couple 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 of particular interest thematically because Johns painted the stars and stripes on a collage of news clippings documenting the Vietnam War. Previously Johns had probed the ontological status of the flag, investigating whether there was any difference between a flag and its depiction, and shown the flag’s purported authority to be an optical illusion. With his 1967 version, Johns grounded the illusion in reality, paradoxically giving his picture more substance than its subject. Held accountable by the artist, an emblem of national glory was made to testify against itself.
The importance of this work – which was transformational in the development of Pop – becomes even more apparent when considered outside the museum in a political context. The symbolic power of a flag can be deployed to incite or coerce or subdue while distracting from the consequences with its high-concept abstraction. Although he cannot neutralize these effects on his own, Johns gives viewers a basis for seeing through the polemic.
Other artists have recognized that the grandiose symbolic power of the flag is its greatest vulnerability because the symbol can be inverted, and the inversion can become as potent as the original. In 1990, David Hammons showed how effective this maneuver could be by making a version of the US 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’re told it represents. The subtle otherness of the African-American Flag visualizes the racially compromised background of the Star-Spangled Banner – which once united free and slave states in a hallucinatory field of stars – and calls attention to the fact that this standard bearer of liberty and justice flies over a nation where those values are still unevenly distributed at best.
Some works in the exhibition expand upon Hammons’ tactics. For instance, Hank Willis Thomas has made versions of the flag that turn the stripes into a labyrinth or that assign stars to victims of gun violence. (The latter is a staggering 452 inches long.) These subversions of well-known tropes are best understood as satire. The original flag is required to give them meaning. In other words, they serve a function that is essentially critical, akin to Alfredo Jaar’s words of denial.
One question provoked by the Broad exhibition is whether we should start over, whether the flag of the United States is so tainted by its past that an altogether new design is needed. None of the exhibited artists take up this challenge, which may be a wise decision given the risk of fixing the flag without repairing the nation. It’s premature to claim victory over the ugliness of the past. A new flag could evoke new ideals – and has the potential to rally us on their behalf – but the aesthetics of hope could also distract us from real problems as often happens with agitprop. If a new flag is to be raised, it should be incomplete. Or it should be ambiguous like the optical illusions in Johns’ Seasons – and like the so-called American Dream.
On the other hand, there are ways in which flags might do real work, fostering a more perfect union. Even If Johns is right about flags being articles of illusion, the illusion is delivered materially. Making flags together, people can weave new relationships, suturing historical divisions.
Sonya Clark compellingly explored this possibility during a residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum several years ago. Clark (who is represented at the Broad with a flag painted on the gallery wall in shades of white) sought in that earlier work to replace the notorious Confederate Battle Flag with another flag of the Confederacy: a white dish towel that was flown by General Robert E. Lee to signify his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant. To make the change, she set up looms where Fabric Workshop visitors could take turns making Confederate Flags of Truce by hand. All were the same. Each one was unique.
The participatory nature of Clark’s Fabric Workshop project can serve as a model for future flags that enact what they symbolize. They might even unify through their diversity.