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flags

From top to bottom: the Mississippi state flag, the third flag of the Confederacy, and the Confederate flag (photo by Ron Cogswell, via Flickr)

All flags bear the stain of conquest. We plant our flags over the dead to declare our newly claimed land or laws more valuable, an act declaring the deaths as less so, or worth it. I can’t think of one politically significant flag that does not have blood at the base of its pole. Today we are discussing the Confederate flag and monuments around it, a flag which grows out of bad blood, or rather, blood that came out on the wrong side of history.

Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates rightfully shows that the Confederate flag is the flag of Dylann Roof. It is a flag founded on the belief that the US is a chosen land for chosen people — Caucasians — who have every right to conquer and murder any other race for their benefit.

Now we can, and should, ask: What about the relationship of the US flag to Native Americans? What about all the monuments to Christopher Columbus? What about the slaveholding members of our forefathers? The list goes on.

The United States was built on the deaths of millions of Native Americans. Their blood is there deep down, fertilizing every state of our country’s pillaged land. If the Confederate flag embodies the enslavement and murder of Africans and African Americans for the benefit of whites, then the US flag must also stand for the murder and displacement of Native Americans. It’s bad blood that we’ve managed to ignore even more thoroughly.

There’s bad blood in most of our public monuments and flags, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t work to change them. Maybe it means it will take a longer time than we would hope, and that we need to have intensely honest and likely difficult conversations about these flags, one by one. It might also mean we need new flags and monuments.

Fred Wilson, “Metalwork 1793–1880” (1992) (image courtesy the Maryland Historical Society) (click to enlarge)

There are a number of artists whose work and experience with public space can provide meaningful lessons for this discussion. One is Fred Wilson, a forefather of institutional critique and master of digging through our muddy past and forcing us to look, saying: ‘This is here. What are we going to do about it now?’ Wilson’s perhaps most famous work, “Metalwork 1793–1880” (1992), simply places slave shackles next to lustrous silver vessels from the same region and time. He connects the dots between artifacts of power in a way that punches us right in the gut.

More recently, Wilson’s proposed public monument for Indianapolis, “E Pluribus Unum,” sought to reconstitute the one African American depicted out of all of Indianapolis’s many public works — an ex-slave — into a more powerful and uplifting figure, while also calling attention to the problems latent (or absent) in the existing works. The downcast slave was scanned and made into a confident man, holding a flag comprised of the flags of every African nation. Wilson uses an honest version of Indiana’s history to look toward a brighter future: one where African Americans are no longer burdened by racism stemming from their prior enslavement.

Many in the Indianapolis community, especially African Americans, rejected Wilson’s proposal. Following the outcry, the public statue was never realized. Who am I to say they were wrong? Many felt that reusing the only image that represented themselves — that of a destitute ex-slave — further shackled them to a past of which they hoped to be free.

Marc Swanson’s “Fits and Starts” (2005) being removed, documented in ‘Fits and Stars: A Deer Diary‘ (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

I recall Marc Swanson’s public sculpture “Fits and Starts” (2005), which was vandalized and nearly destroyed on DePauw’s campus in Greencastle, IN, the state of my childhood, after surviving a year on view in a public space in Brooklyn, New York. Many students felt that the rhinestone-encrusted, prancing deer was “gay.” The piece was moved indoors to prevent its continued or likely complete destruction. What began as a public artwork ended as a hidden-away monument to hate.

Coates writes that we must take the Confederate flag down: “Put it in a museum. Inscribe beneath it the years 1861–2015. Move forward.” In this case I agree. An encyclopedic museum is precisely the grounds on which a Confederate flag can and should fly: in a space of historical reflection and contextual consideration of our past.

Swanson’s deer, on the other hand, should have been kept outside, on permanent display, so that its shattered remains could’ve become a highly visible scar to the oft-ignored homophobia of that community. If the cruelty done to Swanson’s work had been made visible, it could have been a healthy step toward confronting the issue. Maybe, years later, after a lot of discussion and education, the deer could’ve been safely reinstalled. Maybe there is a way to make a new flag, as Wilson proposed, out of the old. The same, however, cannot be said for the Confederate flag.

How do we move forward without being blindsided by the past? What is our responsibility today to bear witness to the past, in public space? While hiding Swanson’s sculpture from public view allowed the student body to ignore its latent oppression, Wilson tied his monument so inexorably to the past that it didn’t address the realities of the present.

Antony Gormley, “One & Other” (2009) (image via Wikipedia)

Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth Commission for London’s Trafalgar Square, “One & Other,” (2009) is a perfect example of drawing on the past to create a space full of opportunity, complexity, and promise. Gormley orchestrated 2,400 people to individually stand on the plinth over the course of 100 consecutive days, all day long. Gormley writes:

The idea is very simple. Through putting a person onto the plinth, the body becomes a metaphor, a symbol. In the context of Trafalgar Square with its military, valedictory and male historical statues, this elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society. It’s about people coming together to do something extraordinary and unpredictable. It could be tragic but it could also be funny.

This was a monument for people — in all their flaws and likely some bad blood — and for their uniqueness. The monument had no conquest, no hierarchies to it. This was a flag for all of us because it was, in fact, an anti-monument, an honest work made for today’s world.

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Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

12 replies on “How Artists Can Help Us Conceive of New Flags and Monuments for the US”

  1. “Now we can, and should, ask: What about the relationship of the US flag to Native Americans?”

    That would be a good one to ask the Cherokee who fought for the Confederates and scalped the heads of dead Union soldiers. They lived in the East. The ones in the West you could ask about the Trail of Tears for which they hold Abraham Lincoln responsible. They got fucked during Reconstruction worse than those southern “racists”.

    “All flags bear the stain of conquest. We plant our flags over the dead to declare our newly claimed land or laws more valuable, an act declaring the deaths as less so, or worth it”

    That’s silly, and why say “we”? Does the Cherokee Confederate flag represent conquest, or does it represent defiance of it? Lots of flags are born of anti-colonialism, as was the Confederate flag. Not everyone wanted, or wants, land.

    The Navajo never sought land in their wars. They killed just to watch other Native American neighbors die, a cycle of pure vengence that you don’t see now because Europeans overtook them (and put them on a reservations).

    If all this seems fucked up, it’s because it is. You won’t read about it in The Atlantic’s moralizing cartoons of US and southern history, with fake villans and heros. This article’s link to that article is an example the feedback loop of perpetuated ignorance journalists often create when citing each other as authoritative.

  2. Flags not only “bear the stain of conquest”, they are guarantors of future conflict and death. All flags are supremacist and divisive inherently, even the rainbow for the LGBT community. It’s a very short distance between pride and oppression, and using that fist raised in celebration to beat on somebody. If we want to cut through all the semantic acrobatics rationalizing continued strife and actually change a human future which is doomed, or at least assuredly filled with mass murder if we continue on the same path, we had better realize it.

    1. “All flags are supremacist and divisive inherently, even the rainbow for the LGBT community. It’s a very short distance between pride and oppression, and using that fist raised in celebration to beat on somebody”
      ________________

      I Agree..some of the most racist white people I know are white homosexuals!! ..go figure???

      1. Yes, all issues cross all ways, and homosexuals who are right wing are puzzling too. One would think being discriminated against would indicate one would not do so to others, especially in this case – cooperating with those who tend to hate you, but many of we humans seem not to work that way. Some of us seem to have to pass on the abuse and oppression administered to us, maybe in part because we live in a culture in which everything, given the right excuse and a pandering, slavering media, seems to be tolerated. Also, some sort of “other” to oppress seems to be necessary for weak individuals to have an identity, which in a screwed up, brainwashed society is most of us. And perhaps in a perverse psychological sense, right wing gays are the other side of the coin to the preacher/demagogue types who rail publicly against what they spin as anti-biblical sin while privately abusing children, or some such truly sick behavior.

        1. I hear you .. what it tells me is that race trumps even there “GAYNESS” a few years ago white wealthy homos in San Francisco was demonstrate in wearing there birkenstock yelling N….ger at passerbys because blacks voted in large numbers against some proposition they disagreed with. Black people aint got nothing in common with white gays.. been black is not an aberration… we dont have a melanin deficiency or some thing unnatural about us as human beings.. .. Never could understand why people equate the black man struggles with gay people struggles. Hell Gay slave owners used to have grand ole time buying a black child and take him home and raping him to their perversion content, they had and have all the benefits and privileges of white skin. The previous Chair of the RepubliKKKan Party was a secret homo and no one knew about it. RACE trumps every thing in AmeriKKKa…its the Home of the depraved!!! and Sodom and Gomorrah all wrapped up in one

  3. “The Navajo never sought land in their wars. They killed just to watch other Native American neighbors die, a cycle of pure vengence that you don’t see now because Europeans overtook them (and put them on a reservation).”

    You mean the way European Neanderthals killed and lynched black people just to watch them die???… too bad we could not put Europeans on Reservations eh? ..the world would be a better place for sure!!

    1. Are you talking about the black people taken from their African tribes by other black people in African tribes and sold to white Europeans?

      1. LOL.. Black people selling Black people to Neanderthal savages from Europe is just the white man’s lame propaganda to deflect blame to others for his crimes against humanity and genocide. Satanic – subhuman Neanderthals and psychopaths always blame their victims. the Rapists always seek to rationalize his conduct by blaming his victim(s). Oh she was wearing a short skirt, she was giving me the eye, she really wanted it.

        That’s the narrative you white sickos want to perpetuate, that black people sold black people to us so its OK. Yeah there was a few African’s who played footsies with the devil, but most of them had there family held hostage by the white devils on the coast – they were forced to go into the interior to capture their brothers and sisters or THEIR family would be sold into slavery. Yeah we had a few TOMS!!!.. like Clarence Thomas and Tim Scott and Jason Riley of Wall Street Journal who have sold their soul to the devil, but to suggest that black people sold black people to the white savage from the caves of Europe, is to engage in historical revisionism that only today’s “Confederate Flag has nothing to do with slavery” wacko birds can match.

        Keep wacking off-bud…. if it makes YOU feel good!!.

  4. What BS. This is about your own sense of superiority and false idea that you would have done things differently. How little people understand history and people.

    1. NO BS here.. there are differences between the black man and white man. recent genomic sequencing has documented that European-Caucazoids have up to 10% Neanderthal DNA and black Africans are 100% Homo Sapiens. What does that mean? it means that Caucasians are not even fully human, they are in-fact subhuman and part beasts… its in your DNA to be the way you are, you are hardwired to be subhuman. Actually it was Black Homo Sapiens ( Humans 2.0) who came out of Africa and created Caucazoids Humans by engaging in bestiality sex I guess with the Neanderthals they came across in Europe. I guess after traversing 4,000 miles by foot and with- no women around – the brothaz would have effed a snake if they could have got down low enough. Yeah so we are different, the black man is a martial race and is no angel when it comes to war, but we have never engaged in the systematic genocide and wiping out of other races for hundreds of years and written books and manipulated science and scientific data to prove superiority and justification for wiping them out. We built the pyramids and has created Judaism and Christianity and had great empires but we never engaged in such conduct. Yes there was slavery before ..but nothing like commercialization of slavery like the Atlantic Slave Trade and the genocide of the North American first nations the pure evil and scale of it is unknown to the human race. Only a subhuman race could have perpetrate and continue to perpetrate these crime against humanity.. Yeah we would have done things diferently. The blackman was in North America before the Mayans and Aztecs.. Google the OLMECS of the Gulf Coasts, I know white folks dont like history and would prefer His-Story!, but the facts are there for those who want to learn the REAL Truth, not your LIES! . The black OLMECS fitted in with the other peoples of the Americas they did not seek to slaughter them and put a bounty on there scalps wiping out 70 million of them in few short years. Yeah we are different and we would have done things differently…. the white man has to examine him self and white culture and his genetic pre-dispositions for violence and treachery that makes him do the satanic and evil things that he has done and continue to do to others. Read the Book the “Iceman Inheritance” for some insights into your subhuman behaviour and tendencies. No false ideas or self- delusions here my friend!.. just straight talk and honest conversation!

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