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Red, White, Black and Blue:  The Problem of Symbolizing America

MAEVE MILLER, Harvard College '22

THURJ Volume 13 | Issue 2


The purpose of this paper was to analyze a particular period in American icon imagery, specifically the use of the American flag in African American art during the Vietnam war. The author tracks the history of flag desecration legislation alongside artworks which utilized the flag in order to give a fuller picture of the discourse around the symbol at the time. ‘This was a period of increase politicization of the symbol abroad and at home. It was also of particular controversy in the African American community where the symbol was decreasingly able to symbolize them and their needs. The author looks specifically at three preeminent artists at the time: Faith Ringgold, Dread Scott, and David Hammons. Each artist reacted to the legacy of the American flag in distinct ways. Faith Ringgold is used to discuss activism around the American flag as a decidedly unredeemable symbol; Dread Scott shows us an example of how art can engage with law in fruitful ways by breaking it; and, finally, David Hammons frames the paper showing us how the flag can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Ultimately this final assertion reigns supreme: the flag as a polyvalent symbol unable to be defined and thus useless.

The American Flag has long been a contested symbol, abroad and at home. During the Vietnam War Era, however, the subversive quality of the emblem became a significant issue in American politics. While some burned the flag in protest, others sought to protect it in the courts. In both instances, such acts were in response to the multiple — and often conflicting - ideas the flag represented. To one, the symbol was of tyranny and violence while to another it was a patriotic symbol invested in American values like freedom. This controversy resulted in several high-profile court cases which sought to resolve the issue for the first time. Was flag desecration a form of symbolic speech? Was that protected under the first amendment? These questions arose from a public debate in which artists took an outspoken position, pushing the law by ripping, scarring, and redrawing the flag. The flag offered a kind of sacred ground to these artists on which they could debate larger issues. Flag art was invested in questions of censorship, of American values, and of representation itself.
Black artists were trapped at the nexus of these issues at the time. Not only were they engaged with the discourse about eitizenship and censorship prompted by the war, but also navigating their place in a post-Civil Rights America. Black people were beingsent to fight a war abroad when no one was fighting for them at home, a home of hyper- criminalization of blackness and rampant inequality. Amid a national debate about flag desecration, which spanned roughly from the late ‘60s until the early ‘90s, several black artists complicated the flag with their bodies, their colors, and their organizing. For them, the American flag was contested ground on which they might fight for their lives; increased national attention to the symbol only made its manipulation more powerful. Artists like David Hammons, Faith Ringgold, and Dread Scott utilized the flag to explore their critical versions of America, complicating the symbol’s claims of unity and neutrality. However, while Ringgold and Scott maintained the symbol’s representative ability, using its desecration to symbolically oppose the government, Hammons explored the flag as a symbol charged by an entire nation’s history. In engaging with the flag’s constructed nature.
Hammons proposes the symbol’s deconstruction, ultimately divesting the flag from its significance and making room for a more fluid view of nationhood.
Just as the flag was deconstructed in this period, it was constructed in another. The American Flag sprung out of several years of turmoil surrounding the Revolutionary War. Although it may seem a small point in the larger scheme of nation building, symbols like the flag were, and continue to be, of tremendous importance in constructing collective identity. They encourage unity symbolically, but practically they show one’s allegiances and subliminally guarantee loyalty (Boime, 4). David Fischer, writing about the polyvalent nature of the
American flag, insists that no other flag “carries such a weight of symbolic meaning” (Fischer, 152). The flag came from an
amalgamation of different flags from the revolutionary period, their colors and forms having varying meaning. After several years of inconsistent designs, the Continental Congress passed the first flag resolution in 1777. It read, “the flag of the United States be 13 stripes alternate red and white; that the Union be 13 stars, white‘ in a blue field, representing a new constellation” (Fischer, 162). Unlike the intentionally vague language of this resolution, today the colors and design are generally standardized: red for valor, blue for justice, and white for purity; the stripes recalling the original 13 colonies and the field of stars refers to states. This form is complex, made even more so by the layered associations Americans bring to it beyond those. The first flags after independence were used largely at sea, increasingly becoming synonymous with the protection of American seamen from the bombardment of European fleets (Fischer, 165). From this first example, the flag began to spiral, taking on different meanings at different moments in history. These charges, often contradictory in nature, make the flag an unstable symbol which struggles to meet its goal of uniting a diverse people. Having survived the 18th and 19th century, the flag entered the 20th. In the early 20th century, many states established laws which protected the flag from misuse. However, by the ‘50s, these laws had fallen into disrepair from lack of enforcement and the general cenception was that the flag was no longer controversial (“The Dispute,” 77). For Albert Boime, this shifted with Jasper Johns’ Flag series which he started in the mid-50s. The series, generally interpreted as an attempt combat blind patriotism with art's susceptibility to examination, started what Boime terms a “Patriotic Pop” (Boime, 3). This refers to a period of mass consideration of the American flag as a symbol in art. It began alongside the Pop art movement but lasted in various forms through the end of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. In early 1966, as the Vietnam War raged on, anti-war protesters started burning the flag as a form of “symbolic protest” (“The Dispute,” 78). This caused the first wave of proposals in Congress which sought to protect the flag nationally.
As protests around the country start utilizing the flag in the late ‘60s, David Hammons was just starting out. His body print series,
for which he first gain popularity in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, utilized the American flag over and over. Asa series, the prints asked a number of questions about America, about the black (male) body, and about the symbolic. The prints employed a visceral technique: Hammons would grease up his body, lay himself carefully down on a sheet in the desired position, lift up, and finally cover the greased area with black pigment. The resulting prints maintain an indexical relationship to their creator; at once implying Hammons’ presence in their creation, yet forever memorializing his absence (Wofford, 110).
Figure 1: Boy With Flag by David Hammons (1968)
Primary to these prints is the body, specifically the black body. ‘The prints emphasize Hammons’ wide nose and afro-textured hair in inky blacks which contrast a stark white background. In manipu lating his body in this way, Hammons subverts a long history of racial science, contorting his body to create forms that are some times only passingly identifiable as black. Afterwards, Hammons would often complicate those initial prints, using silk screening to add, for example, the American flag. Importantly, these flag prints did not maintain an indexical relationship to their referent. Instead, they are reduced to the purely symbolic, only gaining significance
in their cultural association for the viewer (Pierce, 102). Contrasted with the body prints which directly relate to a body that exists in reality, the flags lack such grounding. Instead, they recall the flag only in the purest, formal terms.
One such example is Boy with Flag (1968) which splits a sheet down the middle: the left half containing the stars and stripes, the right containing a body print (Figure 1). The side-by-side for- mat illicit comparison, begging the question: are these two forms alike or disparate? Purely formally, they could not be more unlike each other on the flat plane. ‘The flag is linear, the alternating red and white stripes evenly spaced. Flipped vertically, the stripes are unmoving like the bars of a jail cell. But, unlike bars, Hammons’ , body is not visible behind the flag. Instead, its central line harshly cuts Hammons’ soft form. Behind his outstretched hand, the flag’s red and white push through his “skin,” asserting their brilliance at the deficit of his wholeness. Hammons’ body print is in profile, almost spooning the flag with one hand grasping the stripes. His gesture is mockingly sexual, holding and gazing at the flag just as 2 it unemotionally exists. The positioning emphasizes Hammons’ human faculties while dehumanizing the flag. This recalls a common defense of the flag in Congress, where it was often - personified as the living representation American values (for examples see, The Flag Protection Act of 1989).
This revelation of apathy in the flag creates both a compositional and ideological tension between the two forms, due in part to the associations they illicit. For the black print, blackness and the black body are supplementary; for the flag, America and American values In the relation between these two forms compositionally, there is a representation of unyielding coexistence in the work, a mutually assured segmentation. Despite their differences, the two sides share one thing: neither, it seems, can exists entirely with the other, they are both halved. To read this compositional choice symbolically, it says something about the violent relationship between African- Americans and America. The black body must sacrifice in order to accommodate the flag while the flag, taken to be American values, is put in tension by blackness. In the artist's own words, “I don't know whether it’s the black skin against the bright colors or the irony of the flag being held by an oppressed people. I do use the flag to show the contrast between the American Dream and the American
Nightmare” (Boime, 21). Here, the American nightmare seems to be the doomed destiny of each form to remain in perpetual tension with the other.
While Boy with Flag interrogates the flag's claim of representing all Americans, Pray for America (1969), a later work from the series, interrogates the claim of protection under the flag (Figure 2). The American flag has a long history of symbolic protection primarily during wartime. Hammons is engaged with the long aesthetic tradition of protection using the flag, although he engages with such histories with a dash of irony, Juxtaposing his body with the flag in various poses recalls the protection offered to black bodies by the flag in the past. Specifically, we might compare the case of the formerly-enslaved children of the Cartes de Visite from the Civil "War. In these photos, distributed by abolitionists to gain white sympathy for their cause, white- passing children are wrapped in or sat beside the flag. As children, their posture and smallness implies a nonthreatening subservience to the flag, and by implication to the American values it represents. Because the flag represented different things to different people, the photos implied the agreement of these children ~ and by extension the larger slave population they they represented - to whatever values the viewer held to that flag. According to Mary Niall Mitchell, the photos played off the popular assumption of the innocence of white children as well as reassured the white viewer that the post-antebellum United States “would remain a white nation” (Mitchell, 399).
The charged connection made between the flag and whiteness in these photos is one that Hammons attempts to muddy in Phisray for America. In the work, Hammons is wrapped in a flag, reminiscent of postures taken by the children in the Cartes de Visite (Figure 3). The major difference here is that Hammons is both a man and a black man at that. His identity complicates the flag in a productive way by subverting the association the American flag has had with whiteness throughout the symbol’s history. The portrait-like oval around the work only further historicizes the piece, referring to portrait photography which gained mass popularity in the Civil War Era. Hammons asks a similar question to that of Boy with Flag: does this flag represent and protect a black body like his? Using the same silk-screening technique a Boy with Flag, Hammons laid the flag form after his body print, which consists here of only his face and hand. Unlike the other work though, here the flag is fashioned so as to drape over the body like a shawl. The draping implies Hammons’
Figure 3: Our Protection. Rosa, Charley, Rebecca. Slave Children from New Orleans (Mitchell, 400)
body in its curves, although his bottom half is missing. The lack of shadow or gradient in the blocked colors of the screen-print give the flag shawl a decidedly thin, two-dimensional quality. Unlike the massive flags that protect the white-passing children in the Cartes, here Hammons’ body is offered little protection. This particular body print is light, giving the face a ghost-like quality. His trans parency and stillness implies absence and even death as it contrast with the vibrant colors in the flag. The flag becomes just another empty gesture which actually offers no warmth or protection for
the oppressed black body. In his reuse of the flag symbol in this series, Hammons repeatedly shows the disappointments of the flag. Ultimately, the pieces suggest the emptiness of the American flag as a symbol while, at the same time, demonstrating the potency of its associations. The viewer is confronted by the meaning they project onto the symbol while also facing the harsh irony of a black body against the flag’s empty promises.
Such symbolic fascination in the art world with the flag was in
part spurred by its popularity in legislature. In 1967, the New York art scene was shaken by the arrest of Stephen Radich, a gallerist
in New York. Spurred by popular protest culture, Radich opened a protest-themed show in 1967 including a work by Marc Morrel which disfigured an American flag. Subsequently, Radich was for- mally charged for violating a NY flag desecration law and he would be fighting the case for years. This was just one case among many in this period; the Vietnam War Era saw more flag desecration prosecution than in all previous American history (“Prosecutions” 89). In 1968, responding to the plethora of state cases, Congress passed the first ever national flag desecration law: The 1968 Federal Flag Desecration Law.
‘The law stated:
“(a) Whoever knowingly casts contempt upon any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling upon it shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.”
The exhaustive language of the law included “any flag, standard, colors, ensign, or any picture representation” of part of or the full flag (“The Dispute,” 80). This was understandably daunting to the arts community and protesters alike. To many protesters, the flag was a symbol of oppression abroad and the contradiction between American values and the war called for the symbol’s removal. For artists, the threat to anyone who “casts contempt” on a symbol
rang censorship. Still, some took this law and the arrests under it as a sort of challenge.
For Faith Ringgold, also living in NY at the time, arrests like Radich’s were censorship in the purist terms. Ringgold spent much of her career in the late 60s exploring the flag’s betrayed promises in works like T he Flag Is Bleeding (1967) and Flag for the Moon: Die Nigger (1969). Her approach to the flag added text and figures, but most importantly it favored the manipulation of the symbol which had become suppressed by such government actions (Cotter). Amid the ongoing Radich court case, Ringgold organized The People’s Flag Show at Judson Memorial Church. Beginning November 9th of 1970, the show was marketed as “the people's answer to the repressive U.S. gov't & state laws restricting the use & display of the flag” (Figure 4). The only requirement for entry was that a piece in some way included the American flag. This call to action resulted in art from paintings to dance performances. In its survey-like manipulations of the flag, the show primarily raised questions about the legitimacy of the anti-desecration legislature while also opening a debate about the flag itself. The show was shut down a day earlier than planned due to the arrest of the organizers of the show, dubbec the Judson 3: Faith Ringgold, Jean Toche, and Jon Hendricks. They made headlines in New York alongside the Radich case as tensions between the arts and government rose (Glueck, 1970).
Ringgold made a series of prints about the show, including advertisement beforehand. Her prints engage with a larger poster culture at the time, a format often utilized by the Black Arts Movement with which she was associated. Works from this movement drew from non-European imagery and content to create a “black aesthetic”. outside of the framework of dominant white culture (Neal, 29). While the poster format had a commercial appeal, it also enabled consumers an avenue to show their political views, such as oppesition to the Vietnam War (Ensminger, 17). Ringgold’s Judson 3 is a prime example of the importance of design aesthetics in community organizing (Figure 4). Created after her arrest, the print conflates popular imagery to contextualize the incident. The design consists of “Judson” written in large, black block letters on top of a flag, with a small “3” in the middle. These
letters fill the entire page, their verticality recalling jail bars like those that imprisoned the Three. The flag is reminiscent of the American flag, used here to refer directly to the show at which they were arrested. This reference alongside their assumed group name gives the poster a decidedly political stance which aligns it with the aims of the show and against the censoring government.
The colors chosen here are not without significance. They are the red, green and black utilized in the Pan-African flag first imagined by Marcus Garvey in the early 20th century. Steven Knowlton, in his exploration of Black Nationalist Flags, identifies this flag and its colors as central to the development of black identity in 20th century America. Although he imagines the colors have many origins, he mentions the Rastafarian tradition where red was spilled blood, green was nature, and black was skin color (Knowlton, 39). As
they were transformed in African-American discourse, the colors became synonymous with a kind of unity among black people. Here, Ringgold utilizes this aspect of the colors to complicate the American flag. By rendering the flag with this palette, Ringgold aligns the Judson 3 incident with the black struggle; both here are united against the common enemy of the United States government as an oppressive white structure. The text’s prominence as well as the clear manipulation of the flag form directly contradict the enforced laws for which Ringgold was arrested. In this way, the poster acts as another form of protest by which Ringgold might accentuate the weight of the incident against the size of the forces it opposed symbolized here by the flag, Further, in framing herself (in the form of the “Judson 3” text) inside the flag, she proposes that protests like hers are a more authentic form of nationalism; she asserts herself as an unlikely patriot who might serve her community by opposing
the country’s unjust laws. The work is temporary, its fast, printed technique leaving ink smudges and some unevenness between th letters. However, in its imperfections, the work speaks to its temporal use. This poster exploits the flag’s symbolic associations to communicate an explicit political message in its design. The work
does not seek to deconstruct the flag but instead to defame it and,
in doing so, question the American values it represents.
The year after the Judson show, Radich was acquitted. His lawyer Richard Green argued that display of a manipulated flag was a form of free expression protected under the first amendment (Boime, 11). Despite the positive result in NY, the Supreme Court had yet to rule on a federal level about the legitimacy Green’s claim. Then, in 1984, Gregory Lee Johnson burned a flag outside the Republic National Convention. He was protesting the reelection of then-president Rea _ gan and was charged under Texas flag desecration laws. The case was heading towards the Supreme Court when Dread Scott presented his What Is The Proper Way To Display A U.S. Flag? at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 (Figure 5). It was a simple set up: above a cheap Taiwanese-made American flag on the floor was an open notebook for comments and a page-sized photomontage (Schmidt). The photo
was split evenly between a picture of flag-draped military coffins
and a South Korean student protest. Above the picture, the words “What is the proper way to display a U.S. Flag?” were printed. This question is seemingly innocent, but the images below it give it a decidedly controversial tone. The flag on the ground more readily compared to the coffins, suggesting the death associated with the symbol. However, the protest above problematizes that narrative of heroic death. Soldiers like those in the coffins fought in the Korean War and continued to be a pervasive presence abroad; discontent
ment with this state of affairs can be read in the sign “Yankee go
home son of bitch” which is being held by a faceless protester in the crowd. Cutting across their face and sign is the burning image of
the American flag. The images were high-contrast black and white prints, rather than color which would have showed more viscerally the likeness of the flag. The photomontage, alongside the actual lag in the installation, seems to urge a consideration of the flag as a polysemic symbol with varied uses. By placing the real flag on the ground, the
artist gives prime place to acts of desecrating the flag over the ritual celebration of it. This grounded flag is key in realizing the piece because its pres- ence reminds us that the flag is a tangible commodity as well as a symbol. We as individuals display the flag at certain times or agree to erect it in certain places and this creates a ritualized traditior of nationalism. The flag can be sold, it can be flown, but it can also be stepped on. To comfortably engage with the work (ie. to write in the notebook as one was invited to do}, one had to stand on the American flag. Some did so without a care, other cautiously, and still more refused. As one approached the flag, there was a moment of decision: are you going to step on the flag? Does that step constitute an act of disrespect again America or is it simply shifting onto a new texture of ground? The uncomfortable feeling of stepping on the flag illustrated its iconic, sacred status. Suddenly, stepping on a certain piece of earth made the viewer a target, someone with an opinion, someone who thought it was okay to disrespect the symbol in this manner. ‘The piece sparked national controversy, igniting ritual protests by Veterans; daily, they would pick up the flag, fold it in military fashion, and place it on the shelf (Schmidt). To Scott, “the super- patriot flag-wavers who marched on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago were nothing less than a howling white lynch mob who eaised the slogan: ‘the flag and the artist - hang them both high” (Scott, “Speakeasy,” 13). This troubling chant recalls the living nature of the flag in the hearts of many. The artist’ life was to be sacrificed for that of the lag. The notebook, which left space for an open dialogue, got a myriad of supportive and offensive responses. Scott's piece poignantly provoked a such responses and forced to the surface the underpinning controversy that had become the flag at this moment. t even provoked a response from President Bush who called the work “disgraceful” (Schmidt). Scott's confrontational piece came mere months befordexas v. Johnson ruled, for the first time in the Supreme Court, that flag burning was indeed protected by the first amendment in a close 5-4 decision. The court’s ruling was seen unfavorably in Congress. President Bush publicly called for a constitutional amendment that would override the decision, although that remained undefined (Schmidt). In the meantime, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act of 1989. This made it illegal to destroy the U.S. flag or any likeness of the flag with the excep- tion of proper disposal of a sullied flag, Italso expedited any cases, relating to flag desecration to the Supreme Court (Committee on the Judiciary). Scott hadn't finished with the flag yet. That same year he joined fellow member of the Revolutionary Communist party Gregory Johnson on the steps of the capitol to burn flags. In a triumphant photo, Scott pushes off police as he looks down at the burning flag at his feet (Scott, “What Is’) The incident showed the flag for what it had become: a potent form of dissent. The flag's mutilation in protest attempted to rupture the bond of loyalty between citizen and nation, inditing the witness with the nation’s many ills. Flag burning was an expression of anger at a nation that refused to see so many and fit readily with the goal of What Is The Proper Wayin encouraging free symbolic speech and actions. The burning was performed for passersby and press, causing the arrest of Scott, Johnson, and a third man Bichman. This led to one final case, U.S. v. Eichman in 1990, in which Scott was a defendant, (Scott, “What Is”), The case was considered with was considered with a very similar case from Washington, US. v. Haggerty. Having only just settled Texas v. Johnson 5-4, there was a precedent that the court would stand by their decision. However, now the court would need also to consider the constitutionality of the Flag Protection Act. On June 11th, 1990, the Supreme Court sided with Scott, striking down the Flag Protection Act on the grounds that there was no difference between burning a flag to dispose of it and burning a flag in protest. Or rather, that the difference here was based on the intention of the act which would interfere with first amendment right of free expression (“United States v. Eichman”). ‘This decision ended the decades of debate on flag desecration, at least in the courts. It was in the wake of this decision that David Hammons returned to the flag. While other artists like Faith Ringgold and Dread Scott were building a case against the flag, Hammons continued to work on the symbolic. Throughout his career, Hammons has been a symbol breaker. He complicates symbols, typically those in some way associated with representing blackness, by reusing and reconfiguring them over and over. ‘The result of such a project is the symbols ~ like a spade, a basketball hoop, or a flag - either lose meaning or reveal hidden, more potent ones in their place (Wofford, “Signifying Race’). In 1990, however, he created a new symbol African Ameri- can Flag (Figure 6). The flag combined the American flag form with the colors of the Pan-African flag to create a new national symbol ‘Some interesting equivalencies are made in the color switch here. ‘The blue of justice has become the green of nature, suggesting a more fluid and organic way of living which is not so set in the rule of law; the consistent red of blood has in the Pan-African colors a more violent and racial reading; the white for the black is a trade of purity for black: this last equivalency, we might read the equation of white skin with purity, recalling the projected innocence of the children of the Cartes. 

Unlike his body prints, where black body and American flag are separated, here they are brought together. However, the unexpected association of the form and color leaves the work with a dissonance: which betrays the unity it proposes. This disagreement makes the piece feel like a color negative, exposing a kind of reciprocal to American values which don’t entirely fit. The dissonance of this piece stems from a few places. For one, it is made sour by the irony of its allegedly cohesive message when we know that black people were far from a priority in the US. The whiteness of the flag here is replaced by blackness, suggesting a nation where blackness itself; again, this proposition has a opposite relationship to reality here whiteness is often taken as a neutral framework. Interestingly, ‘though, these new valiances of the flag exist within the unchanged form of the American flag. This consistency suggests an African- American identity that is inextricably tied to American history. The earthy tones of the colors also imply a deeper connection between this form and land. Black identity here is contextualized in the United States, rather than the Pan-African implications of the Garvey flag. This directly contradicts narratives of the African- American as an ungrounded subject who belongs nowhere (Finley, 16). Instead, black identity is grounded in the United States and black people are located historically and spatially in the lag form, implying their continued existence on this land throughout American history.
Hammons made several of these flags, which hung outside museums and his shows in the year after the symbol's creation to “demarcate a black symbolic and geopolitical territory” (Fusco, 47), This authentic use of the flag, in hanging it, gives it a complicated legacy that is both hopeful and harmful. A more hopeful reading shows how the flag imagines a potential new nation, one more conscious of African-Americans (“David Hammons”). This nation and its flag are similarly charged with values that we might imagine include the uplift of the black community in American society or racial equality. For these reasons, the flag has been taken up as a symbol of African Americans and continues to be worn on t-shirts and held at protests. However, might we consider this flag as just another failed national symbol? Knowlton argues that despite championing their specificity as a response to “polysemic national symbols” like the American flag, black nationalist flags of the 20th century ultimately failed to meet that goal. Instead, they were appropriated in popular culture and became charged with varying meanings, to a lesser degree like the American flag itself (Knowlton, 52). Because Hammons remains so conscious of the power of the symbolic, this intention may not be far from his own. The dissonance of the piece visually as well as its dual charge from both American and Black history creates a symbol full of obviously conflicting meanings. In this failed attempt to symbolize America, Hammons’ piece ironizes the idea of national symbolism. ‘The flag might propose a new nation onto which we can project our dreams, but we are also confronted with the impossibility of conflating these two ideologies. While blaspheming ideas of national unity in America, however, Hammons continues to engage the potency of the symbol as well as its fraught history for African-Americans.
So, where does this leave us? Today, 30 years after Hammons’ intervention, the American flag is just as charged as it was during this period. It continues to be manipulated by both the right and the left precisely because of the malleability of the symbol Protesters burn the flag at BLM protests to express discontentment not dissimilar to that of the Vietnam-Era flag burners; others continue to manipulate the flag form to express their own agendas such as in the Thin Blue Line flag; politicians from presidents and ‘mayoral candidates utilize the flag as a backdrop to their speech, demonstrating their patriotism without explicitly defining what that patriotism means. The incredible variety of the flag's use in contemporary visual culture directly recalls this period in the its history. Because of Supreme Court decisions like Texas v. Johnson and US. v. Eichman, we can enjoy the luxury of manipulating the symbol in art and beyond without fear of government censorship.

Artists like Ringgold and Scott demonstrated the effectiveness of the flag as a subversive symbol; their manipulation of the emblem exposed the contradictions of the flag and ultimately of America itself, Alongside these artists, Hammons destabilized the flag, furthering it as contested ground. His continued manipulation of the flag demonstrates its ultimate ineffectiveness as a symbol of national unity. In a new era, could there be a flag, or other symbol, that better represents America? Or, is it possible to move past symbolic unity all together? Freed from such symbolic loyalties, a new nation of individuals might enjoy their diversity outside of the forced unity of national definitions, ultimately opening the door for fuller individual expression outside of such structure.


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