Some years ago, artist Dread Scott presented a controversial installation titled "What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?" In one area of the gallery he invited visitors to write down their thoughts while standing on what he described as a real American flag spread on the floor. The entire exhibit was designed to pose the question of what a flag is, really. What’s an unreal flag? A fictional flag? When is its image "art" or advertisement or re-creation for the purpose of commentary or individualized expression? If it is iconic, then what is the representative American story embodied in its iconicity?
This year, the Fourth of July comes at a vexed moment for our national symbol; frankly, if I were the flag, I’d be completely tuckered out. The marketplace for patriotism has the Stars and Stripes working overtime—in the form of bumper stickers, T-shirts, wind socks and chest tattoos. The World Cup ushered in a healthy harvest of flag-emblazoned windbreakers, headbands, jockstraps and leather balls. One can find automotive dealers using the flag to sell trucks; Christian Identity churches using the flag to promote white supremacy; and supermarkets using the flag to push chicken breasts, swizzle sticks, tortilla chips and toilet paper.
When The New Yorker ran its controversial cover of the then-campaigning Obamas in radical drag, complete with an image of the flag "crisping" in the Oval Office fireplace (as editor David Remnick described it), many readers cited "bad taste." It is interesting that collectively we seem to have greater tolerance for bad taste when the flag is used in, say, a wrestling competition, wrapped around the fist of He-Man the Hulk as he punches Ruli the Russki repeatedly.
While I believe that every one of the uses cited above is in poor taste, I think the more interesting issue is that they are all technically against the law, as described in our Flag Code: the flag should never be used as "wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery." It should never touch "the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise." It should not be placed anywhere it could be "easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way," nor should it be "used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything." No part of the flag should be used in any "costume or athletic uniform," nor should it be "used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever" or "embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs" or "printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard."
I suppose it goes without saying that this implicates the propriety of a coffin encrusted with red, white and blue rhinestones arranged in the shape of the Stars and Stripes. (Who’s first to throw a shovelful of dirt on top of that entombment of the dearly departed?) But as we celebrate the birth of our nation with parades across America, it also indicts the inevitable aftermath—that litter of miniature paper flags on little sticks, stained with ice cream and children’s fingerprints, covering the ground like flower petals, like crumpled paper napkins, so symbolic one moment, so entirely disposable the next.