In this respect, Johns’s flags have become pertinent again for the present political moment, which in many ways is not so different from that of their making and early reception. Questions about the relations of individual and state were certainly pressing in 1955, when the House Un-American Activities Committee fought the Cold War by ruthlessly prosecuting internal subversion in every corner of the culture and society. Artists were among those being forced to identify one another as current or former communists and traitors to the nation. Like anyone called before the HUAC, or anyone fearing such a summons, each would have had to evaluate her/his personal relation to the country and its actions. Empathy is easy in the present moment, when the “War on Terror” has filled the vacuum left by the dismantling of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War, and when WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and Bradley Manning are ubiquitous in the news media.
If this insidious “ideological invitation” is how hegemony works, it must be a mistake, a blindness to militarism, racism, consumerism, and other well-known features of American hegemony. Such an invitation won’t be expression in the sense valued by Abstract Expressionism, for instance, as a vehicle for real meaning; it will be at the best a sales pitch, a rationalization, or a seduction. The unanswerable question—whether Johns’s Flag is a painting of a flag or a painted flag—opens an ontological uncertainty that may leave no room for meaning. Wagner notes the crux—the uncertainty about whether Johns belongs to modernism or postmodernism—but discovers a Johns who buys his centrality to the project of postwar American art at the risk of exemplifying a literalist sensibility (that rigorous, tautological relation of image and object that excludes expression and questions signification) and a mendacious, theatrical one (that uses its sensuous presence to seduce, to distract, to bamboozle).
Flag of the United States - Wikipedia
Rachael DeLue’s area of specialization is the history of American art and visual culture, with particular focus on intersections between art and science and the history of African American art. She is the author of George Inness and the Science of Landscape (2004) and the co-editor, with James Elkins, of Landscape Theory (2008). She has also published on the French painter Camille Pissarro, Spike Lee's Bamboozled, Darwin and the visual arts, and the relationship between art writing and medical diagnosis in America circa 1900. Her most recent publications include an essay on art and science in America and an essay on beauty and stereotype in the work of the contemporary artists Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles. She is currently writing a book about the twentieth-century American abstract painter Arthur Dove.