A Grand Old Flag And Very Modern Art

Two Flags, Jasper Johns
"Two Flags," by Jasper Johns. The artist is best known for his series of paintings of the American flag. (Reuters)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

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.

Besty Ross, American Flag
Starmaker: Betsy Ross shows her first flag to George Washington. Legend has it she suggested five-pointed stars.(Courtesy of Photo Wide World)
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.

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