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April 16, 2007

America Decomposed


In the hands of the media, art can be a powerful distraction vehicle.

I was particluarly interested in the lead-in to this week’s NYT Mag cover story: The Greening of Geopolitics.  It reads: What does America need to regain its global stature? Environmental leadership.

It’s great that geo- and now petro-political seer, Thomas Friedman, can so easily conceive catchy metaphors to describe, imagine and connect-the-dots to an American-led, world-wide green revolution. There’s only one problem, however.  It’s called denial.

Ultimately, the crisis here — as telegraphed by the lead line — has far less to do with energy or economics or petronomics or flatonomics than it has to do with the basic and non-complicated toxication of America’s political environment.  That’s why the commissioning of artists to envision an “environmentally-cleansed” — and therefore, more stature and leadership-friendly — American flag is ultimately a self-deluded and even collusive one.

By equating the problem with stature, the compulsion to re-envision the American flag serves as little more than distraction from the fact that we have so fundamentally soiled the actual one.  What’s the message?  Those colors do run, so we must also?

Well, we don’t need to re-envision the flag so much as we need to compost the people who poisoned it.  And, as much as we should embrace environmentalism, God knows we should not have to jump on it or plug it in simply as a transplant or “do over” for a failed commitment to the world community.

Of the various flags offered up, I found the one above particularly suggestive.  Beyond its earthiness, it seems to embody the extent to which America has been stripped (or bleached) of its stature, strength and authority.

Actually, it looks like surrender.

You can see four of the flags at the beginning of this NYT video; three on the article’s lead page; and two more on the second page of the article.  Either click through, or try here and here.  (I found the last one, by Casey Reas, particularly unusual.  …Weeds The People?)

(image: Dwight Eschliman for The New York Times.  flag: Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.  April 11, 2007.

  • weisseharre


  • Mad_nVT

    That white flag is washed out, frayed, and out of shape.
    Looks like pretty good material though. Strong and tough?
    At least that whiteness provides the opportunity to start over and put some real color and life back into the flag. Any chance that it could be green, and generous- giving good to the environment and the other nations that the US has despoiled in the past decades?
    Or is it likely to go green, the color of American money and American greed?

  • donna

    How many Friedman units will the Friedman green revolution take?

  • tardigrade

    Well, the white material kinda, um… reminded me of underwear.
    I though the origami was beautiful, but drab compared to the incredible sculptures of animals.
    I thought the grass growing between the cracks of cement nice, but sparse.
    I thought the stripes boring.
    The landscape of green stuff was also boring.
    What does all of that say about the US?

  • tinbox

    Friedman’s work is really pretty good–if you read it as a tribute to Martin Lukes of Financial Times fame.

  • ummabdulla

    I almost stopped reading at the mention of Thomas Friedman, because I cannot stand that guy. But I’m glad I went on and got to that origami video, and Robert Lang’s website. Some amazing pieces! I couldn’t bring myself to actually read Friedman’s article, though I did notice this statement: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles”.
    Environmental leadership would be welcomed around the world, I’m sure, but America is hated for a lot of other things, so it wouldn’t have that much impact.

  • Cactus

    I wonder who Friedman’s REAL bosses are. Probably the same ones who keep the comedian Rush on the air. I hear Friedman blowing hard all over the air and TV and he STILL doesn’t have anything to say. He has a knack of picking something in the news and grabbing it’s coattails, taking over the subject and trivializing it. Actually, one of the ‘flags’ says it all. “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson was the canary in the coal mine thirty years ago. Where was Friedman then? Or Gore. Or Kerry.
    The only way to read Friedman is as a tribute to Friedman. He’s so full of himself there’s room for naught else. That won’t stop Charlie Rose from interviewing him, however.

  • Rafael

    Looks like an uniform patch flag, either from a soldier or a boy scout. Either one would be highly ironic.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    No Old Glory
    i remember not 24 hours after the ground invasion of IRAQ, Marines at the tip of the spear fought a bloody battle for a port terminal near Basra, at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab. There was then a spontaneous, un-ceremonious raising of an American Flag over the building that only an hour before had been the climax of that battle. As soon as the image was broadcast by ‘embedded journalists’, while most Americans at home were cheering on their troops ~ the Officer Corps ordered that Old Glory be pulled down; all “non-regulation” symbols, including flags ~ were to be confiscated; and, Iraqi flags were provided to all assault troop units. “This is a liberation, not an occupation,” General Franks explained, to the stunned Marines.
    And of course, there is no Old Glory ~ and there never will be ~ because it is an Occupation; we cannot even liberate ourselves from this Hell.
    no, there is No Old Glory : just New Shame

  • Aaron Fein

    Yes… Surrender.
    From the perspective of a visual artist, my only criticism of the Friedman piece and its presentation was that there were no descriptive passages accompanying the flags by their creators regarding their conceptual intentions.
    I say this because the white flag by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec is strikingly similar to a re-design of the flag I myself undertook and developed in the year after 9/11. Because the article failed to unpack the intentions and visions of the accompanying artists, I found myself lamenting that readers were not privy to a possible world of symbolic richness that such an image can embody. As a purely personal matter, I’d like to expand on the idea of a white American flag and its implications for myself.
    In the year following 9/11 I joined in to rally behind the enduring symbol of the red white and blue. It seemed instinctual: They can tear down mountains of concrete and steel, but our flag will persevere. But time passed and through a prism of rubble and grief I couldn’t help but notice a small but undeniable fact about all those flags…
    They were fading.
    After that I couldn’t see our flag as it once was. I could only wonder: What happens when the fade is complete? What happens when red and blue no longer define the neutral ground that is every much a part of our country’s symbol? What would it be? And more importantly, who would we be?
    I set out to create such a flag with very simple operating principles – join white stripes to white stripes, apply white stars to white ground. What I found as I worked was not a new flag per se, but rather a flag with a dual reading that varied entirely with the light. It was still our flag, the stars and stripes persevering through in silhouette, but within it there was another symbol, the white flag of surrender, quite literally a shadow self.
    To what?
    To the forces that brought down the towers? No. Simply to change; because whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the inevitable catastrophes that befall us continually serve to reinforce the reality of our mortality, as individuals as nations, as a race.
    And if I am right that the impermanence of all things is at the core of such an image, how, then, can this interpretation be limited to the Stars and Stripes alone? Indeed all people, of all nations and all flags are subject to the same forces and are subject to the same fate… Ashes to ashes.
    This has been my personal vision of Surrender; an installation of the flags of all nations rendered entirely in white. Hanging together in monochrome, the idealized emblems of stripes and stars, crescents, suns, animals — all of the national symbols that define us and demarcate us – begin to yield to the collective as shared language and history. Gently rotating in the light, varying in translucency, the silhouettes of nations, large and small, rich and poor, old and new, fade away to white.
    You write that the flag in the New York Times photo looks like surrender, as if that’s a bad thing. To me, this gradual fade is actually a surrender to one another. To time and to change. To the planet.
    Surrender as the basis for World Trade Center Memorial competition entry:

  • ummabdulla

    Thanks, Aaron. I didn’t really give much thought to that white flag, but your post gives a lot of insight.

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