How Artists Can Help Us Conceive of New Flags and Monuments for the US

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).
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.

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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 Gormely, "One & Other," (2009), image via
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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