Thursday, November 02, 2006

Star-spangled banter

So I’m rushing to class last night. It’s 5:25 and I have five minutes to get from my office through the heart of campus to the building where I teach, when suddenly I hear a sound that makes me mutter curses under my breath. From the outdoor speakers atop every building come the four trumpet notes and drumroll that signal the start of the national anthem.

I don’t know if this is customary at every university, but they’ve done it at mine since I was a student there. The anthem is piped through the whole campus twice a day while the R.O.T.C. students raise or lower the flag in front of the administration building. Everyone within earshot stops what they are doing and pauses – mid-stride if necessary – to listen. Honestly I think it’s a great, heart-warming tradition. Unless I’m late for class. And then it just frustrates me and launches me into a treacherous internal debate…..

Almost-late-for-class me (still walking): Drat! Why can’t they do this at 5:35?

Patriotic me: Stop walking you heathen. It’s your own fault you’re running late.

Rebel me (walking faster): I don’t have to stop, you know. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean I have to. In fact, this great country was founded on the principles of freedom and independence from tyranny. I’m just invoking my God-given rights.

Patriotic me: Look around at all these other loyal citizens. Stop walking! You’re embarrassing us.

Hippie me: Aha! You’re more concerned about the shame of nonconformity than a true sense of national pride. Fascist pig.

Patriotic me: Think of what this anthem and that flag represent. People have died for the cause and you aren’t willing to be a little late to class?

Should-have-been-a-lawyer me: People have died for the ideals represented by those things. Ideals like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Being late to class will make me un-happy. Besides, there’s no law that says I have to stop when I hear the national anthem. And if there were a law, it would be unconstitutional. Look – there’s another guy who’s still walking too.

Patriotic me: He’s probably an international student. Or a terrorist.

Defensive me: Hey, I’m a good person. I vote every single year. I know all the words to all the verses of the national anthem. I helped my son memorize the entire Declaration of Independence last year. Both my father and father-in-law are veterans. I’m a true American.

Patriotic me: Then WHY are you still walking???? You ought to be deported.

I arrive at my building and quickly duck inside, pulling the door closed behind me so as to mute out the music – the soundtrack to my act of treason. Oh, I’m in a fabulous mood to teach a class. What’s the point of being on time if I’m overwhelmed with civic angst?

Too bad we were talking about Romanticism last night and not Contemporary art, because I could have put up a slide of this work and really sealed my fate.

In 1989, as a part of a student exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Scott Tyler created this installation entitled “What is the proper way to display a U.S. flag?” On the wall he hung a collage of different images of flags (some on coffins, another on fire at a protest rally). Beneath the picture was a shelf with a book for visitors to record their opinions. The installation’s controversial part – the part that caused protests, a lawsuit and got the Art Institute’s federal funding slashed from $70,000 to $1 the next year – is the way the American flag was placed on the floor so that in order to write in the book you would have to stand on the flag.

Tyler’s message is fairly obvious. Which do we value more? The powerful national symbol that is the American flag or the freedoms (including the First Amendment that got the lawsuit thrown out of court) that this flag stands for? I show the work in my class to spark a discussion (and it always does) about how art can provoke cognitive dissonance and healthy discourse.

If I had been in Chicago in 1989, I think I would have visited the exhibit but avoided desecrating the flag by straddling it while writing my comments. Yup, that’s me all over. I like to raise the big issues but then straddle them to avoid offending anyone. Let’s see, where was I in 1989? Oh yah, I was still in school – no doubt running late for class.


allysha said...

I would have done the same thing with the exhibit. And I hear you about the Nat'l Anthem. I don't know how many times I got stuck walking somewhere on campus during that time. Sometimes I kept going. Sometimes I stopped. It's all about the priorities of the day!

Radioactive Jam said...

At least you won the argument; that's one of the benefits of internalized conflicts.

Probably you knew this but - according to "United States Code Title 4 Chapter 1 — The Flag" sec. 8b, just having the flag on the floor was a problem in itself:
"The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise."

Never mind stepping on it.

Julie said...

Aha, so that was you?

actually I didn't know this. I mean I knew there were guidelines but not actually laws against it. Obviously I need to brush up on my United States Code Title 4 reading.

The Lazy Organizer said...

I think if I were to see that exhibit today I would pick up the flag, fold it, and put it away. Because I love this country and respect the flag and because I'm a Mom and I like things neat. Actually I'd be more likely to look around and say, "Who did this? Get over here and pick this up! Did you think I was going to do it for you? It's not my job to pick up after you!" I'm so patriotic.

meno said...

I'm having a good laugh at your internal dialouge.

Julie said...

You totally make me laugh! You're such a mother.

I probably talk to myself too much. No I don't. Yes I do.

allysha said...

Yes, Julie, that was me, only SOMETIMES. I also have an internal dialogue that wavers between strict conformity and well, okay, not quite wild abandon, but at least the ability to subtley rebel.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I would step on anything lying on the floor, be it a flag or a shirt or a pair of pants, etc. But I understand the point.