The stars and stripes have ended up in some very strange places: eye glasses, coffee cups, lawn ornaments, pool filters, sports equipment, "I’m with stupid" t-shirts, wheel covers, beef jerky packages…it’s a long list.
I understand Mr. Butler’s concern for desecration. The rules of flag use are frequently abused in my little part of Connecticut. Flags are allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. They are even allowed to fly in tatters. They are flown at night without illumination. They are allowed to touch the ground. They are improperly folded and stored. They are treated as boat house decorations.
I’m always appalled. Even if we don’t care about the flag, the fact that it is something for which people have given their lives, leaves us with no choice. We must treat it with respect. And if we do revere the flag, well, maybe we can get off our butts and bring our flag in when it rains. I’m just saying.
But indignation is not the presiding emotion with which I looked at Butler’s exhibit. Eventually, I was filled with something more like astonishment. The stars and stripes in Tattered can be read as American exuberance, ingenuity, imagination, and irreverence. What can happen to the flag has happened to the flag. I couldn’t help wondering whether Americans were ever more American than when taking their flag, um, lightly.
Butler gives us an American flag not so much desecrated as busting out all over. Isn’t this apt? What better way to give voice to a country that says tradition that must bend to the user, that even icons will be malleable, that even sacred things must enter the secular hurly burly of everyday life? Reinvention, if there is a defining idea of and for American culture, I think this might be it.
Disrepair and neglect, there is no defense for these. But the rest, the hand warmers, book marks, and beach towels, we may think of these as the flag on shore-leave behaving irrepressibly, irresistibly, irresponsibly and satisfyingly in-character. Other nations insist on a more reverent approach, well, that’s their problem.
The Seth Butler Tattered exhibit can be found here.
The image above is photograph number 28 in the Tattered exhibit. I thank Seth Butler for permission to use an image from this wonderful exhibit.