In 1970, at the Judson Memorial Church in New York, Jon Hendricks, Faith Ringgold and Jean Toche opened “The People’s Flag Show”, an art exhibition that made history not for what was to be seen but for what happened once the exhibition let visitors in. Shortly after its inauguration, police arrived at the show, which was itself intended to protest against the widespread practice of accusing people of desecrating the American flag amid the Vietnam War. In this case, the organizers would face these same charges.
Hendricks and Toche were arrested when police arrived at the church; Michele Wallace, Ringgold’s daughter, was also nearly arrested, but Ringgold intervened and called the officers to arrest her instead, as Wallace was underage. In 1971, the three were forced to pay $100 each. They narrowly avoided jail time, and although they scored what was technically a victory, they still used the opportunity to air some unpatriotic sentiment. “We have been convicted, but in fact it is this nation and these courts that are guilty,” they said.
As these events and the exhibition itself show, the American flag has been a poignant symbol for artists throughout the centuries. For many, it has been a way of awakening national pride and speaking of the country’s resilience in the face of adversity. For many others, it has been a way of critiquing the nation in times of war and a way of highlighting the long histories of colonialism, racism, sexism and homophobia that still unfold.
This list brings together 25 significant works that involve the American flag in all its forms. The artistic responses here range from the edifying to the astute criticism, from the beautiful to the ugly. They include a plea for Civil War-era unity, a dance performance in which flags become clothes, a classic of post-war art history, and a ruthless critique of the violence of this country against the Native Americans.
The 25 greatest artworks on the American flag follow below.