A day with a complex history, as its origins are more uneven than Donald Trump’s hairline, Memorial Day is a national holiday observed on the last Monday of May in the US. The day not only seeks to honour those who died serving in the U.S. military, but is also an (unofficial) marker of the start of summer.
Images of the Star-Spangled Banner fill social media and news outlets across the States, as graves of fallen military personnel are adorned with American flags. Citizens indulge in cookouts across a cherished three-day weekend, or flock to the mall to splash some cash in the hard-to-ignore sales. The Stars and Stripes is a ubiquitous symbol in not only art, but also fashion, design and music. In the mid-1950s, however, one artist changed our concept of the American flag forever, pushing his viewers to rethink not only its meaning but also what it means to be American entirely.
The American flag is what you make it
Famously tight-lipped about his painting, Jasper Johns’ Flag holds no specific political value, it is merely an interpretation of America’s most used visual lexicon. Through appropriating and reproducing the American flag in a variety of styles, Johns relieves the flag of all its previous meaning; transforming it into an abstract image void of inherent value. The viewer is free to project their own interpretation onto the painting and discover what the American flag means to them.
Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55
The American Dream is just that, a dream
Jasper Johns’ painting of the American flag quite literally came to him in a dream, where the artist saw himself painting the USA colours. This Inception-like experience is heavily connected to the notion of the American Dream, a concept that promises freedom and equality through hard work. The intangibility of the dream is emphasised in Jasper Johns’ painting, and how unrealistic and unattainable this notion truly is. Johns’ flag serves not only to allow an open interpretation of what the flag means, but remind us of the foundations of the American dream.
Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955
Like the swathes of white paint that infiltrate his canvas in White Flag, America’s beginnings were born out of hordes of white settlers enslaving indigenous communities. The origins of the dream are heavily rooted in privilege and whiteness, where those who fall outside this paradigm feel the full brunt of the dream’s innate inequality.
Jasper Johns’ Flag is a powerful symbol in liberating interpretation and uniting American consciousness. Although Memorial Day is rooted in celebrating those who gave their lives for the freedom of others outside the United States, it also provides an important reminder of all those still fighting for freedom inside the United States.