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