On Flag Day, the Flag as Art

Vexillologist — flag expert — Jim Ferrigan talkes about how Flag Day started, and why the American flag is such a powerful symbol.

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JOE PALCA, host:

Today is June Fourteenth, Flag Day. A day when we're told to proudly fly the stars and stripes, one of the most widely displayed symbols in the country. It's bold, powerful, and iconic. In a minute we'll talk about what's called Vexillologist - I'm glad, I don't think I'm, I mean that sounds like a spelling bee word - a vexillologist, or flag expert. He'll tell us where Flag Day started and why the American flag is such a powerful symbol.

Plus, we'll talk about the flag as an art piece. Is it visually pleasing? In an essay published in today's Washington Post, Blake Gopnik, the Post's chief art critic, takes a hard look at the flag.

If you have a question about the flag as a symbol of art or as a work of art, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, or e-mail talk@npr.org.

First, Jim Ferrigan is the protocol officer and former vice president of NAVA, the North American Vexillologists Association. He's also the curator of a large private collection of flags. He joins us now from his home in Reno, Nevada. Welcome to the show.

Mr. JIM FERRIGAN (Vexillologist): Thank you for having me. And Merry Flag Day.

PALCA: Well, thank you very much. Is there a song to go with that?

Mr. FERRIGAN: I don't believe so.

PALCA: Okay, well, it's probably not too late to make one up. So what is Flag…

Mr. FERRIGAN: Flag Day is kind of a forgotten holiday.

PALCA: Well, what's it all about?

Mr. FERRIGAN: Well, Flag Day really was created, it's really a rather recent development. It was only created in 1949 as a federally recognized day. It's not a legal holiday in the traditional sense of the word. But Flag Day commemorations really can be traced back to the 1870s.

It really was just a way to acknowledge the creation of the flag, June 14th, 1777, and try and make, mostly school children, more aware of it.

PALCA: And, I'm sorry, as somebody who is quite interested in words, where is, what is the root of vexillogoly that makes it a Flag Day?

Mr. FERRIGAN: Vexillology is a modern word. It was coined in 1957 by Dr. Whitney Smith, who, by the way, runs the Flag Research Center, outside Boston. And he wanted a word that would describe the organized study of flag separate from, say, heraldry or political science, or any of the other social sciences into which it had previously been lumped.

PALCA: So what are you supposed to do on Flag Day?

Mr. FERRIGAN: Well, really there's nothing specific you need to do. Most people just are encouraged to fly the flag. I have a 13 star flag out today. I also fly the California flag, since it's the only state flag that was also created on June 14th, even though I live in Nevada. But I honor our neighbors to the west.

And it's often an attempt - or there are - it's often a good time to perhaps dedicate a flagpole or dedicate a new flag, in anticipation of the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Anytime we're in a period of martial strife, such as the war in Iraq, it's also a time to maybe acknowledge or recognize those serving or those who have served, or perhaps those who are in the military, although that's not the intent of Flag Day. But we kind of lump those together.

PALCA: Now, I'm wondering, you said that you have a 13 star flag, flying outside your house now. Are there any rules about what kind of, what version of the flag you're allowed to fly?

Mr. FERRIGAN: No, any flag, regardless of the number of stars, that was ever a U.S. flag, is still considered a United States flag, and should be honored as such. So…

PALCA: Has anybody made a 51 star flag?

Mr. FERRIGAN: Yeah, we have. We've made 51 star flags. I was in the flag business for 25 years, and believe it or not, 51 star flags locally sold in northern California, in New York City, in the panhandle of Nebraska.

PALCA: And was this a joke so that people who didn't know there were only 50 states would be counting improperly, or was this a…

Mr. FERRIGAN: These were movements that had - had aspirations of creating another state. In fact, we sold them to, internationally. There was a similar group in the Philippines and we sold them to another group in Canada.

PALCA: Maybe if you put a star on a flag you're creating a state by fiat.

Mr. FERRIGAN: Well, that's what they call an irredentist flag. A flag with a star for a territory you don't control.

PALCO: Interesting. All right, well thanks for joining us today.

Mr. FERRIGAN: Well thank you. I was just going to tell you that there's a great Flag Day quote that Woodrow Wilson read at the first federal observance of Flag Day.

PALCA: Okay.

Mr. FERRIGAN: And if you, if there's time I'd love to share it with your listeners.

PALCA: Sure. Go ahead.

Mr. FERRIGAN: Woodrow Wilson said, “The flag which we honor and under which we serve is the emblem of our unity, our power, our thought, and our purpose as a nation. It has no character than that which we give it from generation to generation. The choice is ours.”

PALCA: Very nice. Jim Ferrigan is the protocol officer and former vice president of NAVA…

Mr. FERRIGAN: Correct.

PALCA: The North American Vexillologists Association.

Mr. FERRIGAN: And now I curate, I'm a curator for the Flag Center, in California.

PALCA: All right, thanks for joining us.

Mr. FERRIGAN: Thank you for having me.

PALCA: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now joining us is Blake Gopnik, the chief art critic for the Washington Post. Thanks for talking with us today.

Mr. BLAKE GOPNIK (Chief Art Critic for the Washington Post): Hi, Joe. How are you?

PALCA: You wrote that the flag is an impressive piece of modern art, but you also said, I hope this is an accurate quote, It's ugly and weird. Why?

Mr. GOPNIK: I, it sounds accurate to me. Why is it ugly and weird? Well, you know, I was walking down the street the other day, and living in Washington I saw a whole bunch of flags. And being an art critic my first thought was, what a strange-looking object. It really doesn't look like anything else in the history of art and design, at least, until you get to the 1950s, when you get artists like Jasper Johns actually making works of modern art that looked like the flag.

PALCA: Yeah, I was just going to say, I mean, I'm glad you said Jasper Johns, because for some reason Jim Dine was coming to my mind as an, as someone who did art around the flag as well. Am I right or wrong about that?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, that's possible…

PALCA: I shouldn't spring that on you.

Mr. GOPNIK: …I don't, I ought to know this. Yeah, boy. (Unintelligible).

PALCA: Sorry. I wasn't trying to show off there. I was just trying to get the right name. But you, I should've just taken the gift that, you handed it to me. So what bothers you about the design of the flag?

Mr. GOPNIK: Bothers me is a strong word. It works very well as a flag. What, I guess you could say, bothers me about it, is how different it is from anything else we normally think of as good looking in our society. As I said in my piece today, what's interesting about it is that it's hard to imagine someone actually choosing the design of this flag because it looks good.

It doesn't look like the other things that we think look good. What it looks like, of course, is other flags. And flags have a kind of weird set of internal rules that determine what they look like, and it doesn't have a whole lot to do with looking good.

PALCA: So are there any flags that you think look good, exclusive of, you know, of their flagness?

Mr. GOPNIK: You know what? The rules that govern flags are so different from the rules that govern the other things that we think look good in our society, that that may be a hard call. I happen to be partial to the flag of Canada, which I - where I lived for a long time.

And the interesting thing about the Canadian flag is it looks more like something you'd imagine being designed by a clever advertising agency. It's got the symbol of Canada. It's got a maple leaf in the middle of it. It's symmetrical. The symbol is right smack in the middle of the flag. Those are all things that you don't get in the American flag. The American flag is a stranger object, in a sense, than the Canadian flag.

PALCA: But, I mean, okay. So, does that make it a bad advertisement for the United States of America? Or is it, it just is, and people accept for being the American flag?

Mr. GOPNIK: You know what? It probably would have made it a bad advertisement for the United States of America, once upon a time. But now, of course, it has so much symbolic weight attached to it that it works just great. That's of course one reason that contemporary artists, pop artists in the 1960s, chose to make images built around it. Because it worked as a symbol of what the United States had come to mean.

Of course there were other people making art in the 1960s who made stuff that had some of the same weird energies as the flag, that in fact, didn't quote the flag directly at all. It wasn't about the flag, it just so happens that by the 1960s the kind of weirdness that you get in the flag, you also were starting to get in contemporary art.

PALCA: Okay. When did the, I mean - when did the flag take on a military sense, as opposed to some other sense, do you think?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, my impression is, I'm not a flag expert, but my impression is that that's where it started. That in fact, it started in the world of military signals, really, right? The function of a flag, almost the only function of a flag, was to tell us from them, to know who was fighting for who. And that's where the thing got started.

When you look at the records of the Continental Congress, on June 14th, 1777, when the flag was made official, our current flag that is, something like the Star Spangled Banner. It's quite clear that they're just conducting government business, that this is a relatively minor affair; it's just choosing a symbol that the army can fight under. It didn't, at the beginning at least, have the kind of popular symbolism that it came to have rather later in American history, when the country really needed a symbol to unite it, when symbols mattered, maybe, more than they did in 1777. When there was a clearer sense that it was a united country and not 13 separate colonies, then the flag becomes something that the ordinary citizen waves.

PALCA: Okay…

Mr. GOPNIK: Before that…sorry.

PALCA: Well, I was just going to say, I'm afraid we're out of time. But you were on a good roll there, I'm sorry to interrupt but I have to. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Mr. GOPNIK: Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: Blake Gopnik is the chief art critic for the Washington Post. He joined us from the Post studios in Washington, D.C.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Joe Palca.

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