William N. Copley, Think Flag, 2012, screen print.

Every political season, the legality of flag-burning arises among some political commentators, and I’m assuming it either has or will be in the coming months. It’s one of these perennial non-issues that help fill hours of political TV commentary. Art has explored the flag and its symbolism over the years, so I’ll offer my thoughts here.

david hammons african american flag_my version

David Hammons, African American Flag, 1990. Cloth

The assumption presented by some is that burning a flag somehow damages or disrespects the country as a whole. This is hard to quantify or justify, as flags have been burnt for decades with no appreciable harm to anything except the particular cloth of that specific flag. As a symbolic act, burning is meant to represent a ritual exorcism of whatever offends the person or people doing the burning. This is also an empty gesture, speaking as it does of unactionable emotion. Sure, they’re frustrated and unsure how to channel that frustration into substantive action. As a gesture of catharsis, it might be useful, but it does nothing for or to the world at large. Why ban such a harmless act? One of the standard procedures for a worn or damaged flag is to burn it.


Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955. Newsprint and encaustic. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Artists have used the flag to convey patriotism, and various twists on patriotism. The notable works of flag art, such as the examples above, are more general in their approach, less politically pointed. Even David Hammons’ African American Flag arouses little controversy after so many years. This is because the whole flag-burning or flag-desecrating debate is a manufactured one. Art is not above manufacturing content, but art exists within itself as much as in the larger world; for better or worse, no work of art has ever brought down a government.

There have been so many hot-button discussions in this election cycle that the flag-burning debate has been put away. With all the important issues in the world today, I’m hoping it will stay that way.


I couldn’t leave without throwing in another aspect on the flag, this one being a portrait of actress Hazel Dawn, circa 1916, in connection with one of the ultra-patriotic shows she starred in during the World War I years. Some people might be offended by this; it’s hard to find anything that someone isn’t offended by.

Update, November 29, 2016: President-Elect Trump has just disinterred the issue, threatening to strip flag-burners of citizenship of jail them for a year – a curious and, as usual, illogical, set of punishments. Curbing the public’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression is a terrifying omen for the coming regime. I am not a fan of symbolic acts, but I would never oppose flag-burning. It hurts the country, you say? How? Is America that weak? How strange that the strongest expressions of patriotism seem to be based in fear. “We can’t have opposition – the country will crumble!” Really?


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