MAXWELLANDERSON: 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. Another 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.
The 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. There 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.