Flag Art Is Censored at Kansas University, Warhol Foundation Weighs In [UPDATE 2]

Josephine Meckseper’s flag was created precisely to comment on the vast canyon of political division in the United States, but it may soon split the state of Kansas across party lines.

Josephine Meckseper, "Untitled (Flag 2)" from the Pledges of Allegiance project (photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli) (image courtesy of Creative Time)
Josephine Meckseper, “Untitled (Flag 2)” from the Pledges of Allegiance project (photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli, image courtesy of Creative Time)

A flag created precisely to comment on the vast canyon of political division in the United States may soon split the state of Kansas across party lines. Bowing to political pressures, University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod agreed to remove Josephine Meckseper’s “Untitled (Flag 2)” artwork from flying above university grounds after Governor Jeff Colyer and other Republican candidates running for election in November had complained that it was an unpatriotic symbol.

Now, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts has waded into the controversy, releasing a statement on behalf of its president, Joel Wachs, that affirms the institution’s support for Meckseper’s work and the larger Creative Time project, called Pledges of Allegiance, which asked artists across the country to make their won flags that could be flown across the country.

In a letter addressed to Girod and the university’s interim provost, Carl W. Lejuez, Wachs stated:

We stand with the National Coalition Against Censorship, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kansas in our belief that it is crucial that the work be seen as the artist intended and not be censored as a result of political pressure … Artists play a unique role in our culture, igniting through their work difficult, but necessary, conversations that promote empathy and propel social change. These voices must not be silenced by those who find them threatening or distasteful.

Initially, Girod said that Meckseper’s outdoor display was moved inside the school’s art museum because the political debate had “generated public safety concerns for our campus community,” but the chancellor failed to elaborate on those concerns.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is running against Colyer in the Republican primary for governor, added that: “The fact that they call it art does not make it any less of a desecration of our flag. I call upon the university to take down that flag right away.”

The flag’s relocation has also triggered a statewide debate over freedom of speech. Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr told ABC News that, “It was disrespectful to have something like that on permanent display on campus.” He added that Colyer’s demand for the flag’s removal was simply an assertion of the governor’s own right to express his displeasure.

The Warhol Foundation’s letter acknowledges its strong ties to both the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and Creative Time. (Additionally, the Foundation tells Hyperallergic that it is working with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the ACLU of Kansas.) Wachs also notes that the Kansas University’s Spencer Museum of Art received a substantial grant from the foundation as part of its Regional Re-granting Initiative.

“We respect the museum’s position as a prominent platform for artistic voices within a major research university, and appreciate its support of Meckseper’s work and the thoughtful and engaging discussions it has provoked,” the letter continues, “However, restoring the work to its original location is imperative and we would further suggest that it remain displayed through the fall semester so that students coming to campus can see and discuss it.”

In a statement made exclusively to Hyperallergic, Wachs added a broader commentary on how America’s intensifying political discourse has endangered the arts:

Freedom of artistic expression and the ability to voice dissent are fundamental aspects of our democracy. That is what is at stake here. The chillingly divisive response to Meckseper’s work, and the attempt to shut the dialogue down by removing the flag from open public view, are illustrative of the current political climate. In our desire for unity and positive social change, we must support artists who confront cultural and political urgencies head on, however challenging those conversations can be.

UPDATE, July 25, 2018 at 4:40pm EDT: Creative Time has released it’s first official statement about the flag censorship incident:

Art has a responsibility to drive hard conversations. Pledges of Allegiance was begun to generate dialogue and bring attention to the pressing issues of the day. The right to freedom of speech is one of our nation’s most dearly held values. It is also under attack. We are proud to stand by artists who express themselves. Today’s events illustrate the same divisions in our country that the series has confronted head-on. —Creative Time

UPDATE, July 27, 2018 at 16:24pm EDT: The artist has released a statement regarding the controversy on the Timothy Taylor gallery website. Here is the statement in full:

Josephine Meckseper’s statement regarding Untitled (Flag 2),Josephine Meckseper, 27 July 2018
I believe art should speak for itself and that it is rarely beneficial for artists to over-explain their works. But since my artwork for Creative Time’s “Pledges of Allegiance” project elicited such strong reactions, I feel that my voice as the artist should be heard. The way in which the piece was made speaks to my intent, which until now has not been discussed.

Untitled (Flag 2) was conceived in the spring of 2017 for “Pledges of Allegiance,” a project in which sixteen artists were invited to create artworks in the shape of a flag for Creative Time’s annual fundraiser, without specific public locations in mind yet.

There is a long tradition of artists working with the iconography of the flag, creating new perspectives and interpretations of aesthetics, but also addressing the paradoxes inherent in politics to enter a collective discourse. My contribution to “Pledges of Allegiance” comes out of this tradition. It is a conceptual work that engages with forms of representation, and is not intended to be read as an actual desecrated American flag.

Rather than using a real flag, I employed the technique of collage, superimposing multiple images. The most prominent element of the work is an image derived from my abstract drip painting from 2015 entitled “Goodbye to Language,” which resembles a map of the United States and includes a single striped sock, which was superimposed onto a graphic design of a flag, creating a collage. “Goodbye to Language” takes its title from Jean-Luc Godard’s 2014 film “Adieu au Language,” a fractured, experimental work involving two couples both coming together and growing apart. The word “adieu,” in the French-speaking area of Switzerland, can mean both “hello” and “goodbye,” depending on the context of its use.

Untitled (Flag 2) is a metaphorical artwork. I hope that within the public contexts of the organizations with which Creative Time has partnered to display the work, it can contribute to a necessary discussion about art’s role in society, who we are as a nation, what divides us, and what brings us together.

Josephine Meckseper, 27 July 2018

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