Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958


NARRATOR: This painting by Jasper Johns, called Three Flags, was made in 1958. Todd Gitlin is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and a scholar of American culture of the 1960s.

TODD GITLIN: . . .he's neither celebrating the flag nor. . .stabbing it in the heart.  He's. . .to use a later term, deconstructing it. . .[A]nother way to put it is that he's inviting you to become innocent. He's inviting you to look at these things as if you were a Martian. . .And just to stare at them and to take them as natural artifacts.

[T]he question is not just why is Johns painting these flags and numbers and letters but. . .why are other people buying them, exhibiting them, find them interesting. . .

[T]here is an argument to be made that he is retailing. . .in the fifties

a sort of soft aestheticizing of the sacred national symbol in a way that. . .flatters or honors the nation. . .but without genuflection. That is, he's appropriating with. . .a frisson of individuality. . .an attitude of approval which incorporates a brief moment of disapproval and so he's sort of. . .signing on to Americanism. . .as a graceful dissenter.

And in a world that's increasingly cluttered by symbols. . .cluttered with. . .artifacts that are mass produced. Cluttered. . .with noise and. . .slogan. . .and so on.. .that the proper attitude to take toward all of that is a kind of. . .amused, distant, as Rolling Stone would later put it, cosmic giggle.

But in the meantime I think he's also saying. . .and it's part of his appeal to the zeitgeist that he's saying to the world of. . .intellectuality, shut up. Just shut up.  Shut up and look. 

Jasper Johns (b. 1930), 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. Art © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY