What does art tell us about our Flag?

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One of the state’s more intriguing spectacles has involved a grievance last month over art at the University of Kansas.

At issue was a cloth representation of the U.S. Flag splashed with black. It held a disturbing vision, two ragged blots of darkest interruption over the red and white stripes, the stark spine of a fence, the black lines in a child’s sock, among other bleakness in the work. The cloth flew on a pole near the University’s Spooner Hall on Mt. Oread.

Came the outcry. It was campaign season, moments before the August 7 primary election. Candidates for governor rushed to denounce a smear on Old Glory. Gov. Jeff Colyer and his chief antagonist, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, struggled to out-patriot one another. The governor pronounced the cloth work a “desecration” of the Flag, demanding that it come down. Kobach wrote a diatribe about the “left-wing tilt of college campuses.”

The flag-work was removed to a display inside the Spencer museum. The piece is not actually a Flag, but in the form of one. It is called “Untitled (Flag 2),” by German-born artist Josephine Meckseper. Her work was one in a public series called “Pledges of Allegiance” on display at KU and a dozen other locations nationwide. The work represents a Flag splashed with the darkest cross-examination, semblance of a United States divided.

Aside from the arguments about intrusion on free expression or threat to free speech, “desecration” of the U.S. Flag is often in the eye of the beholder.

The Flag sections of the United States Code are somewhat clear on how Old Glory should and should not be displayed. A quick reading may tell us that our Flag is commonly mistreated in more ways than any expression of art.

Kobach has campaigned in a Flag-colored Jeep. Politicians wear the Flag as a lapel pin, of which many are made abroad; the Flag is splashed on beer cups, sewn on team uniforms, put on hats and helmets to be tossed in the air or ground into the turf. The Flag is a seat cushion. It is worn on fishing caps and T-shirts, on Jeans front and back-side, stitched on sweaters and painted on shoes. No doubt, someone has put it on a gin bottle. On vehicles the Flag is ubiquitous as a window sticker, bringing it down to the level of an honor-student boast, the cause lobby, the parking pass. The Flag is routinely mistreated on stadium fields as giant renditions are unrolled out over or onto the ground – another no-no, among others. The Flag of the United States has become an instrument of political favor, of merchandising and product branding rather than an emblem for the Constitution, its power and heritage. In certain political circles, reverence for the Flag itself has become the strictest measure of patriotism, of loyalty without question, as though it would be “unpatriotic” even to ask, loyalty to what?

It should give us pause that an artist would speak to this in a way that may offend. What prompted her stark, even vicious imagery? Her work should tell us something – not about the Flag, but about what the Flag actually represents. It tells us some-thing about ourselves, and our country.

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