The American flag

Seth_butler_photograph Seth Butler has put an exhibit on-line called Tattered.  It offers 51 photographs that investigate what Butler calls the "identity, misuse, commodification and desecration of the American flag."

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.

7 thoughts on “The American flag

  1. Carol Gee

    Grant, great post and great exhibit. I felt many of the same things you talked about, as I looked at each of the photos. Some of them were poignant, some were suffused with sadness. Some hint at a profound story about the circumstances of the occasion. A few were flat offensive.
    I believe that those people whose hearts were in the right place can easily be forgiven for the spirit behind their uses of the flag.
    I will link to your post, as I sometimes do, in a subsequent post of my own.
    Hope your holiday season is a great one, and that 2008 treats you well. Regards from a longtime reader, Carol

  2. Helen DeWitt

    “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.”

    I am not sure what to make of this. The kamikaze pilots died for a militaristic Japan. The suicide hijackers of 9/11 died for Islam. I may respect the courage of someone who is willing to die for his beliefs in this way, but it seems to me that I am free to decide that he was mistaken in his beliefs and that the thing he died for has no claim on my respect; death for a cause does not trump all other considerations. It would seem to me very odd to say that I have no choice but to treat jihad with respect because people gave their lives for it.

  3. jkh

    all with helen.
    put yourself in my shoes, grant. i am german.

    the self-righteous abuse of national symbols often goes hand in hand with its inflationary presence.

  4. jkh

    i better should have said:
    the inflationary presence of national symbols often goes hand in hand with its self-righteous abuse.

  5. botogol

    Grant – an intriguing and provocative set of the pictures. Thanks for the link.

    I think that to unpack [new word :-)] that project we need to compare the relationship that Americans have to their flag with that of other countries: how did the US Flag acquire a potent symbolism over and above that enjoyed in other nations?

  6. disappointed

    I have enjoyed reading your blog, but the reverence you show toward this “dying for the flag” nonsense makes me question your intelligence. “The flag” is simply a piece of cloth. As a free man, I should have the right to do as I please with it, as I would with any other fabric. Grow up.

  7. Jay

    I think Mr. Butler confuses the flag (as an actual object) with the concept of stars-and-stripes as a symbol of the US, and a lot of these pictures are of stars-and-stripey things, such as the propane container, which has too many stars and stripes to be an actual flag. As for wearing something with a flag on it, how else are you going to say “I am American?”

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