How Is This Art: Stars and Stripes

The red, white, and blue shapes were not neutral

Jasper Johns, Three Flags, (1958) 

With The American Dream: Pop to Present showing at the British Museum and Jasper Johns’ birthday next month, it’s likely that arty twitter feeds will be full of flags. The Pop Artist created art using the American flag, provoking ideas about patriotism and nationality. But at what point is it art and what point is it just a reproduction of a flag? What makes Johns’ work worthy of Tate Britain, the Royal Academy and the MOMA whilst a postcard with a flag on it can be bought for a pound?

Jasper Johns rose to fame during a period dominated by the Cold War. The red, white and blue shapes were not neutral. The flag provoked a huge reaction and imagery of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. The stars meant the moon landing. The stripes meant the fight in Vietnam. 

Engaging with this, artists questioned how these shapes and colours had become so synonymous with a whole country’s history. It is in fact an abstract object, but one that means American identity. Johns wanted to spin this on its head, manipulate the image so it was no longer the flag we have come to know and expect.

Three Flags (1958) is pretty much what it says on the tin. Three canvases are painted with hot wax, all showing the same American flag. They are then stuck one on top of the other. The painting was acquired by the Whitney Museum in 1980 for $1 million. So what’s the fuss about? The reproduction of the flag could relate to the new ideas of consumerism that so intrigued Pop Artists. Everything was now being printed and mass produced on a larger scale than ever before. Here, the very symbol of the Western World was being given the same treatment as any object or poster, reproduced until it became meaningless, like saying a word over and over again.

Jasper Johns, White Flag, (1955) 

Another version, his White Flag (1955) relates to another issue in American culture. This flag has been drained of the red and blue we have come to understand. Instead, it is an off grey colour. It is not simply white, but a sickly pale as if the colour has been sucked out of it. It most likely relates to segregation and the civil right movement. It is perhaps a simple idea at first, paint a white flag to show white dominance in society, yet it is more than that. Johns understood how powerful this would be for Americans in a time when they were pretty proud of themselves. America had just gone into Vietnam where they saw themselves as heroes, but they had their own issues at home. Of course the very term ‘white flag’ also has connotations of surrender and peace, but passivity and submission.
So, yes, many may still argue his work doesn’t differ from a postcard. But what Johns managed to do was stand back from a well-known emblem and pull apart its very meaning to portray new ideas. And he didn’t just print these flags, but painted them. He knew when a piece needed more of a smooth finish (like Three Flags) or more of a coarse texture (like White Flag)

It is interesting to think now what the American flag might mean to different people. Many of the issues Pop Artists addressed are still relevant. What do flags mean today? What might the Union Jack mean? Or the European Union flag? All abstract colours and shapes that can be such powerful tools.

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