POP ART AND THE COLD WAR I: Jasper Johns’ Flags

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One night I dreamed I painted a large American flag, and the next morning I got up and I went out and bought the materials to begin it. And I did. I worked on that painting a long time. It’s a very rotten painting— physically rotten—because I began it in house enamel paint, which you paint furniture with, and it wouldn’t dry quickly enough. Then I had in my head this idea of something I had read or heard about: wax encaustic.
— Jasper Johns, 1955,

Jasper Johns chose to paint the flag in a nation that has an entire Legal Code devoted the the proper display and handling of the flag and requires school children to swear a daily fealty oath to the flag, and secondly, “to the republic for which it stands.” He chose to paint the “living symbol” of the nation at the height of the Cold War, a historical period marked by government-sponsored inquisitions, witch hunts, blacklists, loyalty oaths, censorship, and espionage. The established careers and reputations of Elia Kazan, Dalton Trumbo, Lillian Helman, Ring Lardner and Herschel Bernardi, the voice of Charlie the Tuna, were destroyed on account of suspected Communist sympathies perceived in their work. Johns chose to paint the flag at the onset of his career, before he had savings and a professional network to support him should he be accused of un-American activity. To put it more directly, Johns risked much when he elected to paint the flag.

Johns’ dream about painting the flag is the artist’s explanation of his unusual choice in subject matter. In placing that choice in the  locating that choice  within an unconscious, passive, psychological context, as opposed to a conscious political one, Johns can deflect potentially risky questions about his motives. In the dream he doesn’t fashion the flag for any practical or ceremonial purpose, he merely represents it.

Johns wants the viewer to see the flag as an image and not as a symbol. The belabored design and overworked brushwork stress the flag’s status as a crafted image, while the, uneven, tactile, encaustic layer and applied to an unframed supports which makes the flag seem to project forwards into a third dimension, foregrounds the work’s status as object.  The image-ness and object-ness of Johns’ Flag ask the viewer to see the painting, and not see through it to a discursive symbolically-coded meaning.

Propaganda is structured around a reflexive, unthinking response to a simple, immediately recognized image. Insofar as Johns’ flags disrupt that process, they have a political function and should not be understood as empty ontological conundrums.
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