State of the Art: Activism in art: The lie behind American flag symbolism

Catherine Yang | Daily Trojan

I remember I was in fifth grade when I decided to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Maybe the words lost their meaning after I’d been rotely reciting them every morning for nearly six years. Maybe it was due in part to the hyper-visibility I felt every time someone asked where I was from, despite the fact that I’d been born and bred in the States. Maybe it felt too disingenuous to avow my dedication to a country that doesn’t completely feel like home.

Although my passport has always bore an American seal, my nationality has always felt up to contest and questioning. There were the neighbors in my cul-de-sac who didn’t want to play with “the stupid Chinese kids” and the teachers who assumed I wasn’t fluent in English. There were the cashiers and waiters who talked down to my parents because of their accents and the constant pressing questions about my heritage. Somehow, these inquirers never seemed satisfied with me merely saying I was American or offering up my hometown; they would persist until I begrudgingly admitted that my parents were from China. I was always careful with my words but it always felt like I had to tread the delicate line between the answer that was expected and the objective truth about my citizenship.

For the record, after nearly 20 years of growing up here and speaking only this language, yes, I am an American citizen. Aside from cheering on our athletes in PyeongChang, South Korea and loving the cities I call home, I still feel largely alienated from this country that is supposed to represent me. I feel uncomfortable in crowds chanting “USA!” like mindless automatons. When I see people’s hands on their hearts, beaming with pride, I can only think of the ways this country has told me I was different and unwanted, and how I don’t feel enough of a connection to the flag to venerate it. Much of the intended symbolism behind the stars and stripes of our flag — whether it is nationalist pride or the American Dream itself — I take with a grain of salt.

It is art that has taught me I am not alone in this experience. In art, the American flag is more than just a symbol of patriotism — more often than not, it is a symbol of dissidence and a blatant subversion of hegemonic values. Art history and politics have been inextricably intertwined in the remediation of flag iconography, often with a heretical twist. In both art and politics, the flag is a rare and sophisticated motif, rife with symbolism. The fascinating dichotomy central to many of our contemporary debates surrounding the flag — including President Donald Trump’s 2016 declaration that anyone who burns a flag should be stripped of their citizenship and his condemnation of  NFL free agent Colin Kapernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem — have been evident in art for countless decades.

Art by Elizabeth Gu | Daily Trojan

Most famously, out of the crux of Cold War America came Jasper Johns’ Flag — a seemingly mundane rendition of an everyday object created with painted shreds of newspaper pulp dipped in encaustic. It is meek and unassuming on the surface but carries a whole host of connotations specific to the artist’s experience. And for Johns, a gay man living under a McCarthyist regime, that meant a closeted critique on the lie manifest in the American flag: Imperialism disguised as nationalism, oppression masquerading as freedom under a deceitful banner of red, white and blue. Johns endured backlash from patriots who deemed his work disrespectful due to its unorthodox and messy medium but, amazingly, deflected controversy by claiming he meant nothing by it.

Similarly, African American artist Dred Scott created a flash point for conservative scorn when he displayed an American flag on the floor of an exhibit as a doormat on which patrons walk on. It was a move that President George H. W. Bush called “disgraceful” and culminated in Scott and three other protesters burning the flag on the steps of the Capitol that same year. Scott’s provocative statement led to a landmark ruling in freedom of expression that protected the right of anyone to reinterpret the flag as they chose — but most importantly, it exposed a highly sensitive spot in the American psyche that our current socio-political landscape seems determined to tap into again.

Johns and Scott, among others who saw their differences metastasized and ostracized here at home, saw right through the star-spangled facade of everything the flag represented — or rather, everyone it excluded from representation. Throughout art history, the genre of American flag art has refused to celebrate patriotism but has used the symbolism of the flag to say quite the opposite. In Johns’ case, as an artist known for his mass flag reproductions, he ridicules the ironic absence of emotion in perpetuating an image to the point that it is meaningless.

I feel the same way. When we talk about the flag, we cling to its metaphor and create constant discourse surrounding how flags, as symbols, should be treated and revered. But to many, the nationalist attachments of the flag motif are a double-edged sword and to these artists, they are a goldmine for renegade art. In art, activism takes precedence over blind love of country.

I pledge allegiance to the flag and to the wholly inclusive America that doesn’t yet exist, but that of which Johns and Scott wanted so desperately to be a part.

Catherine Yang is a sophomore majoring in communication. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “State of the Art,” runs every other Wednesday.