When it's a painting by Jasper Johns.
I took some photographs at the Met Museum of one of my favorite works by Johns, White Flag from 1955.
I think it's very beautiful in a chilly intellectual way. It's painted on 3 separate panels in encaustic, pigment mixed with wax. Johns built up the layers by applying not only paint, but also shredded bits of newspaper and cloth in the semi-transparent wax paint. He also mixed in some oil paint with various types of white pigment.
This is the largest of Johns' flag paintings and the first of his monochrome pictures. The flag in this country is a sacramental object with all kinds of rules and protocols for its handling. I remember being trained in Boy Scouts in the exact procedures for raising and lowering and folding the flag. Sometimes Torah scrolls and the Reserved Sacrament get less respect than the American flag.
Johns painted this at the height of the Cold War during those waves of anxious nationalism and paranoia that swept through the country when it found out it no longer had the monopoly on nuclear weapons. Johns knew that as an intellectual, an artist living in New York, a former Southerner, and (at the time) a deeply closeted gay man, he was near the top of everyone's list of suspects.
He responded by turning something that had a whole lot of meaning for people into something to be regarded aesthetically.
So what do you think? Is he subverting the flag and its meaning? Or might he be trying to re-examine and re-imagine our feelings about it and what it stands for?
Happy July 4th weekend!