There’s a selfless philosophy to flags. They raise others by allowing themselves to be brought low. By halting the hoist of a flag to ‘half staff’ (if in the US) (or ‘half mast’ if on a ship or elsewhere in the world), a community signals that, in mourning, an emotional wind has suddenly been sucked from its collective sails – that grief has so sapped its forlorn muscle, no further tug on the halyard, or rope, is possible.

The enduring profundity of the flag’s philosophy was on full display this week when the White House elected to lower, then raise, then lower again the Stars and Stripes following the death of US Senator John McCain – a former prisoner of war and Republican nominee for president. The vexing vexillology of the flag’s positioning and repositioning, like a slow-motion semaphore of conflicting emotion, captivated the world.

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The flag’s unexpected oscillation in the air space above the White House constituted a kind of provocative performance art that challenged observers’ understanding of the very meaning of the secular icon and its appropriate display. As a potent prop, the US flag has a long history of controversial appropriation by artists. Since its inception in 1777, the flag has routinely been seized upon by painters and sculptors keen to tap into its talismanic mystique. What follows are five of the most arresting embodiments of the flag in art history – astonishing works that have kept it firmly hoisted in popular imagination.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) by Emanuel Leutze

Some paintings are powerful in spite of themselves. German-American artist Emanuel Leutze’s dramatic portrayal of General George Washington’s stealthy nocturnal assault on the German Hessian forces at Trenton New Jersey in the wee hours of Boxing Day 1776, is one of those. Created 75 years after the event it ennobles, the famous painting refuses to allow historical or geographical fact to get in the way of a riveting tableau. Although the flag it depicts spooled loosely at its centre would not be designed for another year, few would deny the importance of Leutze’s work in stitching the symbol tightly into the American psyche.

What Is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?(1988) by Dread Scott

Few works of art have ever dared observers to approach them as audaciously as US artist Dread Scott’s multimedia installation What Is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? Any gallery-goer wishing to inscribe a response to that question in the ledger that comprises part of the work, or to get a better vantage on the collage of flag-draped coffins and flag-burning photos that is mounted above the ledger, must first contemplate walking across a flag that stretches, like a rug, in front of the installation. When displayed in 1989, Scott’s bold booby-trap of a work, which demanded observers decide what deference the flag deserves, caused a stir. Then-president George H W Bush described the installation as “disgraceful” while some outraged lawmakers insisted it justified changing the very language of US law to prohibit the desecration of what they believe is a sacrosanct symbol.

American Bog (Flag 1777) (2013) by Mark Alexander

Rot has a brutal beauty all of its own. That is the startling contention of British artist Mark Alexander’s grungy, gorgeous series of recent paintings that portend the future rediscovery of relics from a bygone America – as if salvaged from the sludgy depths of a prehistoric peat bog. Among the totems seemingly drudged from the curative acids of Alexander’s imaginary ‘American Bog’ is the original version of the Stars and Stripes, designed in 1777 – the one Leutze anachronistically wove into the centre of his famous riverscape, Washington Crossing the Delaware. By steeping that overly-familiar emblem of Americana in his iconoclastic soup, Alexander daringly dislocates a fatigued icon, forcing it to adopt a tougher second skin – one whose curdled complexion defies our ideas of slick ready-made beauty. This is a flag that overcomes the decay of its historical stains by becoming them – one that cannot be despoiled, because it already is.

White Flag (2015) by AA Bronson

Since antiquity, the waving of a white flag has signified surrender. In the hands of Canadian-born artist AA Bronson, that ancient archetypal symbol of capitulation has been redefined as an emblem of indomitable human fortitude. Recalling the appalling white veil of pulverised concrete and glass that shrouded the streets of New York in the days following 9/11, Bronson recreates a semblance of the lethal film that caked the city where he lived and worked. Using an age-old concoction of chalk, rabbit skin glue, and honey (historically employed as a canvas primer), the artist has turned the vivacity of the US flag’s rich colours to a ghostly low. At first glance, Bronson’s work may seem a pale allusion to Jasper John’s famous 1953 monochromatic Pop Art work by the same title. Look closer and one soon discovers that, unlike Johns’s painting, inspired by a dream, Bronson’s unsettlingly spectral vision is all too real in the palpable admixture of pain and perseverance it conjures.

Ghost Gun (2017) by Sean Scully

Haunted by the horror of recurrent shootings in US streets and schools, Ghost Gun by the Irish-American artist Sean Scully is a high-powered gut-slug of a painting. This is weapons-grade art. Known almost exclusively for his vibrant vocabulary of abstract stripes and abutting blocks of muscular colour, Scully, who lives and works in New York, has taken a courageous swerve into figurative art with Ghost Gun (part of a series of eight graphically-similar gun-wielding paintings) to chronicle anxieties about raising a child in a society where the right to bear arms is constitutionally absolute. By swapping traditional linen canvas for metal (aluminium) as the painting’s substructure, the artist unweaves the fabric of the flag, alchemising it into the material of armament. Here, the stripes are not so much red-and-white as blood-streaked and stained. The stars, once scintillating and symmetrical, are now shattered, crumpled in a heap, waiting to be swept away for good.

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