What is American?

Explore what it means to be American

The flag in American art is both an emblem of national identity and a site of dissent. Ubiquitous and familiar in our daily environment, the flag can also be passed by, unnoticed. Additionally it can present ways to contrast the nation’s lofty ideals with its political realities. Jasper Johns’s Three Flags (1958) presents the flag as a flat, stacked object in a way that we don’t usually see it, while Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph depicts a windswept, tattered flag. By placing the flag in an unexpected context or using it in an unpredictable way, these artists question the meaning of the flag and what it represents.

 a. Discuss the American flag with your students.

Where do students usually see flags?

When they notice an American flag, what do they think of?

What does the American flag represent to them?

Is the meaning of the flag fixed or fluid? In what ways?

b. Compare how Jasper Johns and Robert Mapplethorpe have depicted the flag.

In what ways do their representations change the meaning of the flag?

For Johns’s work, ask students to consider the potential meaning(s) of the multiple flags, the shift in scale of three flags, the layering of the flags, and the quality of Johns’s paint application. For Mapplethorpe’s photograph, ask students to consider the potential meaning(s) of the lighting, the decontextualization of the flag, and its tattered quality.

Three American flags on top of each other.

Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958. Encaustic on canvas, 30 5/8 x 45 1/2 x 4 5/8 in. (77.8 x 115.6 x 11.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Gilman Foundation, Inc., The Lauder Foundation, A. Alfred Taubman, Laura–Lee Whittier Woods, Howard Lipman, and Ed Downe in honor of the Museum's 50th Anniversary 80.32. © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

American Flag Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), American Flag, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 19 3/4 × 15 15/16 in. (50.2 × 40.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Inc. in honor of Sondra Gilman Gonzalez-Falla;



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