The Changing Iconography of the American Flag and the Impact of Contemporary Art

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

By Daniela Miles


It was the day after the 2020 election in the United States when I realized the significance and fragility of the American flag. It was the shift that blew my mind, in one day, a matter of hours and one verdict later, the entire meaning of the flag, of red, white, and blue, suddenly, and all at once, completely changed. On November 6, 2020, the flag, for an underwhelming majority of Americans, represented one set of beliefs, beliefs rooted in hate, division, and authoritarian power. But on November 7, 2020, on streets where the flag had been desecrated months before, people waved and wore it proudly, celebrating exactly what it is the flag was meant to represent: freedom

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I don’t come from a very patriotic family, and so for me, my premature understanding of the importance of the flag started and ended with the Betsy Ross story in third grade. I never thought about the flag or where it stood with the people, I don’t think many people did -- until the last four years. The “Make America Great Again,” campaign utilized the flag as a rallying tactic for supporters, leading to what has played out to be perhaps the greatest iconographic dissonance since the Nazi swastika. While it’s true the Trump administration advocated for the utilization of the flag as something representative of his party rather than the American whole, this was not the first time the flag sat at the forefront of symbolism towards a national severance.


It is important to note that the desecration of the flag is merely a reactionary symbol of rejection towards the states’ status quo, and that can come from either the right or the left. The flag has always been a point of contention, after all, there is no feasible way that the ideals it is meant to represent are felt equally amongst a mixing pot population of over three hundred million people. At the outset of the Civil War, for example, the country was so divided that the southern Confederacy reimagined an entirely different version of the flag; the classic stars and stripes they once loved became representative of a federal government upholding values out of line with their own. In contrast, the northern Union used the flag as a symbol of unity, and for newly freed slaves it was a true symbol of freedom. A similar discrepancy took place during World War II when the vision of America as the defender of democracy was contested by the realities of racism and discrimination taking place on our very soil; ”the same flag that liberated Nazi camps in Europe flew over internment camps in the western United States, where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned by executive order…” Although they served to defend it, African American’s freedoms were not represented by the flag; G.I.s. overseas fought in racially segregated units and discrimination reverberated throughout the country. Yet, through all of these moments desecration of the flag was fairly rare, utilization of the flag in protest was rare, and appropriation and reclamation of the flag by contemporary artists was completely unheard of.


At the beginning of the 20th Century, the flag was, metaphorically, behind glass. It was not being used to the extent it is seen today but the respect for it was great - a sort of “‘cult of the flag’ was an almost religious feeling many Americans had towards the flag.” This primarily was due to an uptick in nationalism following the Spanish-American War in 1898. Yet still, the use of the flag in visual culture was limited, performance patriotism was bound to a flag on your porch, which nearly every suburban American home had at the outset of the century. In 1942, the United States Government established the Flag Code - a set of guidelines around the use and display of the flag. The code condemns the use of the flag on commercial items like clothing, costumes, and drapery, in advertisements, and on anything disposable. However, the code was unable to be enforced and by the 1960s the flag was in the hands of the artists, and immediately, it became accessible for manipulation in the public sphere.


In 1955 Jasper Johns painted his iconic Flag. The work itself was not politically charged, instead John’s choosing of the flag affirmed a breaking away from abstract forms and a motion towards the appropriation of common objects and symbols in art. In a formal sense, the flag proved to be an ideal subject as it innately holds many different connotations for many different people. In a conceptual sense, the use of the flag was an extraordinary step forward for the art world, and for the public - making the untouchable tactile. This was the beginning of what I recognize to be the undoing of flag gatekeeping - it was now a symbol to be interpreted by anyone and for anyone. This wave of subversion continued at full speed through the world of art and visual culture. In 1966, Fluxus artist George Maciunas’s completed his version of the American flag in a piece entitled The USA Surpasses All The Genocide Records. The piece “consists of a large American flag, with skull and crossbones in place of the stars, the stripes formed from lines of statistics detailing the international and domestic atrocities of the US in comparison to those various totalitarian and imperial regimes.” In the work, the USA’s percentages in the genocide of Vietnamese and Native Americans surpass that of Spain, Stalin, and Nazi regime. Fluxus artists typically strayed from politically charged work, as Fluxus was meant to be eccentric in its mocking of the seriousness of the art world. In this way, the creation of Maciunas’s flag was also symbolic in that he, a Fluxus artist, was the one to make it, as if to “cut through the falsehoods of the American Government’s propaganda machine, particularly regarding its escalating involvement in Vietnam.” Macinuas’s flag was not the first rendition of the flag in artistic protest, but it proved symbolic of the resistance that was to follow.


In November of 1970 artists John Hendricks, Jean Toche, and Faith Ringgold held the Peoples’ Flag Show at Judson Memorial Church in New York. The exhibition was an open call for artworks interpreting the American flag, as a protest towards laws limiting its use in the public, and consisted of over 150 pieces that were inherently political or incendiary in their manipulation of the flag. In one such performance piece, artist Yvonne Rainer and four other dancers performed Trio A With Flags, a symbolic, interpretive dance, wearing nothing but full size American flags tied at their necks. In an interview, Rainer discusses how she chose to explore censorship of the body in the light of an exhibition rooted in censorship, in that process she reflects her “normal proclivities about exhibitionism were trumped by the political implications of the flag and nudity.” The show continued for a week and many artists and activists spoke, including Abbie Hoffman, a co-leader of the Yippies (Youth Independence Party), who wore an American flag shirt as an act of patriotic protest. Years prior, Hoffman was arrested for defacing the flag by wearing that same shirt to a hearing of a House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Having been a leading anti-war activist throughout the 60s, Hoffman served as an icon to a young generation of hippie activists who began the reclamation of the flag in protest.


Perhaps the most profound and notarized events of flag defacement are the ones that occurred throughout the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Desecration of the flag by burning became a symbolic act of defiance and resistance. A universally understood way of expressing injustice became possible by burning the one symbol that promises liberty and justice for all. The list is exceedingly long and encompassing, with incidents spanning from the infamous burning on April 15, 1967, in Central Park that made headlines and led to the Anti-Flag Desecration act in 1968, to incidental rallies. In 1989, art student Dread Scott presented his work What is the Proper Way to Display a US flag? at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. The work took place in a gallery where Scott laid the American flag on the ground, on a shelf above it sat a book where he invited viewers to record their reactions to the piece - prompting them to stand on the flag as they wrote. To complement, Scott displayed a photomontage of the American flag draped over coffins of troops, and a group of South Korean students burning the U.S. flag. To Scott, the flag serves as a symbol of American sacrilege in its inability to uphold the freedoms it promises to everyone it promises them to. The exhibition caused bubbling outrage among critics, veterans, and politicians - there were protests and bomb threats, forcing the SAIC to shut down. Scott, fueled by outrage, participated in the 1990 Supreme Court case United States v. Eichman, where his work was used as a case example in a court discussion around the protection of national symbols and freedom of expression. Ultimately, the court ruled that the desecration of the flag as “symbolic speech” was protected under the First Amendment. The legislation allotted for even more free use of the flag in art and protest.


In 1990, David Hammons created the African American Flag for the Black USA exhibition at Amsterstand Museum Overholland. The work uses the design of the American flag reimagined with red, green, and black - the colors of the Pan African flag. Symbolically, the flag addressed the neglect African-Americans faced nationwide - the traditional flag we fly does not represent the freedoms of the black community. Additionally, the flag serves as a symbol of diaspora and signifies black identity and American identity are one in the same. The colors are also symbolic - red symbolizes bloodshed, black symbolizes skin color, and green symbolizes the lush and fruitful homeland. The work has become an incredibly important symbol for the black community and is still frequently used in celebration and protest. Red, green, and black American flags dotted the crowd at Obama’s historical inauguration in 2008, and in the last year have been used regularly at Black Lives Matter protests throughout the nation. Hammon’s work emphasizes the power of reclamation, making visual the visceral struggle of his community as to provoke conversation in the public realm. Similarly, in 1990, pop artist Barbara Kruger installed her interpretation of the flag entitled Untitled (Questions) as a mural on the side of the Temporary Contemporary - an extension of MOCA. The work reimagined the white stripes as a series of questions on the extensions of freedom in America. The work asks “Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose? Who does time? Who follows orders? Who salutes the longest? Who prays the loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?” As a rhetorical public work, the mural is meant to be thought-provoking, igniting discourse regarding the democratic institution, the structures of government and justice, and human rights. The site of the installation is also particularly significant. Ironically, the Temporary Contemporary was originally a warehouse space that housed police cruisers. It is also located in Little Tokyo, home to many Japanese-Americans who faced direct prosecution and imprisonment during World War II at the hands of the American government. Twenty-eight years later, in 2018, the work was reprised in time for the midterm elections to complement a series of voter registration efforts led by the MOCA. The reinstallation was a reaction to rising discrimination under the Trump administration, which has notoriously taken the flag hostage.


In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, the values of his campaign became associated with the values the flag represented. Over four years every administrative decision he has made has been, metaphorically, represented by the flag - making the flag representative of rescinding rights from marginalized groups, and saluting right wing extremism. Slowly, as liberals became reluctant to represent a government they don’t respect, and polarization between the two parties grew, the flag came to be understood as a symbol of the right, and more specifically, a symbol of the Trump supporting right. The radical Trump supporter in 2020 is associated with specific stereotypes - the gun-toting, flag-wearing, middle American who has been newly given agency, by way of the president, to use the symbol in the name of hate and exclusivity. In 2017, members of racist, anti-semitic, white nationalist, and white supremacist groups joined together at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia where they flew the American flag alongside Nazi and Confederate flags, two universally recognized hate symbols. The cultural impact of the flag as an iconographic symbol changed, again, under the reign of one man who claimed it as his own, rather than that of the unified nation. Yet, the meaning of the flag has historically moved from one meaning to another, and the end of Trump’s reign marks the beginning of a new shift for the flag once again.


On November 7, 2020, Joe Biden was elected president of the United States. On that day, hundreds of thousands of Americans flooded the streets, waving and wearing the flag they had shunned for four years. The shift was profound, and bipartisan, symbolic unity was restored to the flag. The most recognized symbol of democracy was reinstituted that day - the day democracy prevailed.


I do not believe the flag would have lived the life it has without the interference of modern art. Artists have consistently brought to light issues embedded in our understanding of the everyday, they have conceptualized and broken down symbolism, and they have forced us to look again. There is a reason that flag rights protests were organized by artists, there is a reason art became a point of contention in a Supreme Court case, and there is a reason an artist sat as defendant. Artists took hold of the flag and brought it into the public sphere to express what could not be expressed with words alone.



Works Cited


“Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions).” Home • MOCA. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://www.moca.org/exhibition/barbara-kruger-untitled-questions-2.

Cohen, Alina. “It's Legal to Burn the American Flag. This Artist Helped Make It A Form of Free Speech.” Artsy, July 25, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-1989-artwork-asked-viewers-step-flag-ignited-firestorm-raging.

“The Flag in WWII.” NMAH | The Flag in WWII. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/the-flag-in-ww2.aspx.

“George Maciunas Artworks & Famous Paintings.” The Art Story. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/maciunas-george/artworks/.

Glueck, Grace. “A Strange Assortment of Flags Is Displayed at 'People's Show'.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 10, 1970. https://www.nytimes.com/1970/11/10/archives/a-strange-assortment-of-flags-is-displayed-at-peoples-show.html.

Hammons, David. “David Hammons. African American Flag. 1990: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/222169.

“Jasper Johns Artworks & Famous Paintings.” The Art Story. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/johns-jasper/artworks/.

Jones , Johnathan. “Blaze of Glory: the Grand Tradition of Burning the American Flag.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 30, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/30/blaze-of-glory-the-grand-tradition-of-burning-the-american-flag.

Leepson, Marc. Flag: an American Biography. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006.

Storr, Robert. “Narcissism and Pleasure: An Interview with Yvonne Rainer.” The Paris Review, November 17, 2017. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/11/17/narcissism-pleasure-interview-yvonne-rainer/.

Teachout, Woden. Capture the Flag: a Political History of American Patriotism. New York: Basic Books, 2009.

Treviño, Julissa. “Your 'Patriotic' Stars and Stripes T-Shirt Is Technically Treasonous.” Racked. Racked, July 3, 2017. https://www.racked.com/2017/7/3/15879778/american-flag-clothes-code.

Williams, Paige. “The Changing Meaning of the American Flag Under Trump.” The New Yorker. Accessed November 18, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/the-changing-meaning-of-the-american-flag-under-trump.



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