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July 03, 2006

American Flag, Modern Art?

Three Flags by Jasper Johns, 1959
The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine

With the United States' Independence Day coming tomorrow, we thought it was a great idea to revisit an article The Washington Post ran just a few weeks ago, on Flag Day. Writer Blake Gopnik manages to show us a new way of looking at the flag, a huge feat considering the iconography of the stars and stripes is so ingrained and historic, we barely even notice it anymore.

But for a country that takes to modern design with all the excitement of a criminal to a hanging, it's quite strange that our symbol carries all the hallmarks of the avant-garde. Then again, doesn’t breaking from the artistic traditions of the time seem the perfect way to embody independence?

Blake Gopnik, Washington Post Staff Writer

The American flag is an impressive work of modern art.

You can tell, because of its asymmetries, awkwardness and almost grating energies. It is very nearly ugly. Ugly in the best sense of the word, the way Picasso's "Demoiselles d'Avignon" or Warhol's "Marilyn" -- or Jasper Johns's "Flag" paintings -- are more than a little ugly, too, and all the better for it.

Today, Flag Day, seems a fine time to look at Old Glory -- to just plain look, for a minute, without thinking at all about its history or what it represents -- and admire its strangeness.

The color scheme, for one thing, is more than a little jarring -- it's the kind of thing you don't see except in flags. "Red, white and blue" may have a jolly ring to it as a phrase, but when was the last time you saw someone dressed in those three hues, or with their living room done up in them, except in a burst of patriotic fervor? There's a reason why a town square bunted up for the Fourth of July has a memorable zing to it: No adult would combine those colors in one place without some good excuse. It's a mix a 5-year-old might think of wearing, as special party gear.

Then there are those weird stripes: 13 of them -- a prime number, such as isn't often chosen for a memorable design -- arranged in horizontal rows that stretch farther side to side than seems altogether natural. (Don't wear the flag. It'll make you look fat. It might also get you arrested in the District, under Section 4, paragraph (d) of the Federal Flag Code, Public Law 94-344 -- which specifically declares such "public display" in D.C. a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail.)

And let's not forget that small blue box with white stars scattered across it. The type of unstructured, all-over pattern those stars represent, pulling a single web of marks from edge to edge across a field, wasn't seen in the fine arts until Jackson Pollock's splats.

The stars themselves are strange: Instead of a symmetrical twinkle of points that seem to circle evenly around a central spot, each one looks like some kind of two-legged gnome with its arms akimbo. (George Washington, the story goes, was all for six points, but Betsy Ross showed him how a five-pointer could be folded, origami style, then cut out all at once with a single, thrifty snip of her scissors.)

Even the relationship between the stars and stripes is strange. The smaller field of stars (the "canton," in flag-speak), doesn't take up any likely proportion of the larger field of stripes, since it starts only six-thirteenths of the way up the flag, and then stretches two-fifths of the way over from the left edge of a standard flag.

Traditionally, in flag culture, a canton is used to graft one symbolic order onto another, the way the flags of many former British colonies still have a Union Jack stuck in one corner, on top of whatever symbols the countries have adopted as their own. But in our flag there isn't that kind of hierarchy between the zones -- any sense of a lesser "this" grafted on top of a primary "that," or of a smaller "that" superseding an expanse of underlying "this-ness." There's just a feeling of redundant additivity -- a sense of "this-plus-that" which, in purely graphic terms, seems willful and arbitrary. It's the kind of strange composition a modern artist might dream up, in rebellion against traditional ideas of how a surface should be turned into a winning pattern.

Think of the art and design of the Founding Fathers' time. It was all about elegant symmetry and harmony and clarity of form, with a strong dose of classical ornament and naturalistic representation thrown in. Now imagine someone raised in that tradition choosing a long oblong of red-and-white stripes, with a star-spangled patch of blue stuck in one corner. Sounds like the kind of brusque, four-square, functional design some military man might come up with.

Marilyn Zoidis, an expert on the flag at the Smithsonian, describes it as beginning life as "a military symbol with a very utilitarian function." It started to mean more than that only after Francis Scott Key published "The Star-Spangled Banner," and didn't really take off until the Civil War and centennial celebrations built a demand for symbols to unite the country -- however unlikely the flag's design may be to bear that kind of freight.

Of course, design aesthetics hardly mattered in the isolated world of military ceremonial and signals where the flag was born. It's a world where bold, recognizable geometric patterns have been the norm for centuries, justified only in historic and symbolic terms.

In the early days of the American Revolution, before independence had been declared, the so-called "Grand Union" flag of Washington's army had been the 13 "Liberty Stripes," one for each colony, in white and red. (In traditional heraldry, two colors can't abut. Only silver-white or golden yellow -- considered "metals" -- can sit beside a color.) And then on top of that there was, sensibly, a canton with the blue-grounded Union Jack, to make clear the colonies' original dependence on the British motherland.

When it came time to make a new flag for the more fully rebellious states, it made sense to keep the basic pattern and coloring intact. That provided some continuity between the old banners and the new, because the same troops would be fighting under them. The canton, however, clearly had to change: Washington described how his soldiers, flying the old British-tinged standard, were once mistaken for loyalists.

In the end, the canton's Union Jack was replaced with another revolutionary flag, already in use by Washington's troops, which reiterated the egalitarian thirteen-ness of the new nation's almost-separate colonies by portraying them as a "constellation" of white stars sitting on blue.

That final stars-and-stripes flag may be crucial in this nation's visual culture, but it doesn't have much in common with all the art and artifacts we've chosen for pleasure's sake. Maybe that's because the flag came about almost by accident, without a whole lot of choice involved. The Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777, is almost a casual thing, just four lines of messy scribble stuck into a page of other business at the Continental Congress.

The earliest surviving flags -- even the Star-Spangled Banner of Key's poem, which now lives at the Smithsonian -- are workaday objects, often with stars cut out without much care and stuck on any which way. They didn't seem to invite the fine artistry of their era's best needlework or tailoring. One of the official flags preserved at the Smithsonian, which flew proudly from Fort Hill in Maine during the War of 1812, is laughably crude.

It wasn't until the later 1950s that the flag finally began to take up room in mainstream art. The standard explanation is that artists began to riff on the flag's iconic -- and ironic -- charge, as a central symbol of America's new self-confidence and superpower status. That must be mostly right. But it could also be that artists were commandeering the symbol for more purely visual ends: The flag was a kind of readymade-in-waiting, sitting in the wings already costumed for the role of modern art.

A half-century of modernism had prepared artists, and their audiences, to enjoy the weird, off-kilter boldness of the stars-and-stripes design and coloring. At long last its patterns had started to feel natural instead of remote and were ripe for full assimilation into art. Plenty of rigorous abstraction from the 1960s shares the hard edges, asymmetries, unusual proportions and unlikely color combinations of the American flag; stripes and even starlike forms were big in pictures that made no explicit attempt to cite the country's central symbol. Think of the stripes, zigging angles and jarring color contrasts in the 1960s abstractions of Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland. In 1955, Johns, the great pioneer of flag-based art, for the first time made a painting that was just a U.S. flag, covering his canvas from edge to edge. He must have realized that, whatever else the flag might stand for, it also could stand as a daring modern picture -- even if he still chose to cut down its stripes to more standard artistic proportions.

We've come a way since then. Thanks to Johns and other modern artists, we've now become so comfortable with the flag's ungainliness -- even in its untrimmed state -- that it takes work to appreciate how promisingly ugly it really is.

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