The Well-Hung Flag

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity (“I know it when I see it”) pretty much sums up art. One person’s artistic expression is another person’s irrelevant trash. I’m not sure if art is defined by the artist or the public (whatever public it may be that’s doing the defining).

Down in Florida, that bastion of sense and culture in America, a piece of work in a museum exhibit has the Sons of the Confederacy’s panties in a wad.

“The Recoloration Proclamation: The Gettysburg Redress” is part of a larger exhibit at the Schmucker Art Gallery at Gettyburg College. Artist John Sims has rendered the Confederate Flag in various forms and colors. One of these renditions, called “The Proper Way to Hang a Confederate Flag,” features a flag being lynched. (Sims, we should probably note, is black).

Now, the Civil War, Slavery, Jim Crow and all the rest are a part of our history. As some have said, our history is our history; there is no good reason to attempt to cleanse his history of its more unsavory elements. But the mere thought of an organization that claims 60,000 members and celebrates one of the major blemishes on American history seems pretty bizarre to me to begin with. But, at this point in time, to suggest that the Confererate Flag deserves protection and veneration seems just wrong on so many levels.

Quite apart from the surreal quality of it all, I’m not one for arguing protection for any flag. Protest and opposition to our government is one of our inalienable rights. Activities such as burning the American flag in protest are Constitutionally-protected speech precisely because they are so provocative.

I haven’t seen the exhibit (and if you visit Gettyburg’s web site, you won’t find images — at least not easily — of it). The gallery is sticking with the exhibit, despite the protests from the Sons.

I’ve long felt that art serves a lot of functions in our society. Sometimes it is uplifting. Sometimes it is a way to ease pain (like all those pieces that appeared sponataneously on fences around St. Thomas’ Church immediately after the September 11 attacks). Sometimes it’s to make you think. And sometimes the function of art is just to piss you off.

Whatever it is, we all know it when we see it. But simply dismissing “that isn’t art” (and then going on to suggest suppression and censorship) doesn’t make it so. The folks at the Schumacher Gallery seem to have agreed. Despite increased security costs to counter threats, the show will go on.

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