Transform a Symbol
Jasper Johns said that the American flag is something “the mind already knows.” In 1954 when he began making paintings of the flag, he also realized that it was “seen and not looked at, not examined.”
a. View and discuss Jasper Johns’ Three Flags. How is it different from an actual American flag? What does this painting make students notice about the American flag that they may not have paid attention to before?
b.Tell students that this flag has forty-eight stars because it was painted in 1958, before Alaska and Hawaii were admitted into the Union in 1959. Ask students to discuss what was going on in society and politics during the 1950s such as the Korean War, McCarthyism, the space race, the Cold War, television, and the rise of consumer culture.
c. While Johns has shifted emphasis away from its symbolic meaning, the flag is nevertheless a potent symbol. Discuss how the symbol of the flag connects to the time when it was made. How does it resonate with students today? What does it mean to them?
d. In this painting, Johns repeated and stacked the flag image three times. This is one of several images of flags that he made. Ask students to brainstorm an image whose composition and symbolism is meaningful to them. What symbol would they choose to experiment with? Why? Ask your students to find multiple images of that image/symbol, and if possible, in different sizes in order to make a collage using the symbol. They can experiment with shifts in scale, composition, overlapping, and orientation. View and discuss students’ collages. What did they discover about their symbol in the process of making their collage? What message does their collage convey?