Sunday, December 6, 2009


"Flag" -Jasper Johns, encaustic, oil, and collage on wood, 1954-1955

Long about the 3rd bottle of wine, my pal D was chuckling at something or other I had just slurred. We were probably playing the Clash. Or maybe the Buzzcocks. Anyway, D was far less impaired than I was (that's typical), & her claim is that she then texted me, quoting what I had just said. You know, for posterity & for hilarity. So I could see in the morning what nobody would otherwise remember. Here's the message I found on my phone next a.m.:

"I think really hard about things that no one cares about, thats whats wrong with my life."

It was actually pretty funny at the time. In context, I mean. I had been going on for a while about (big surprise) music. Recorded versus live music, my view of certain substantial & critical distinctions between the two modes, and what I see as analogous developments in early-to-mid Modern-era visual arts. In America.

I know, I know, I can't help it.

I just get that way sometimes. True story: I really actually do think about this kind of stuff pretty much all of the time. I mostly try not to talk about it unnecessarily when people are trying to just have a drink & a little fun. But D's been to art school & so I figure she's more used to geeks of my particular stripe, & I guess I gave myself license to be self-indulgent that night. More than usual, I mean.

Anyway, what I remember is that we were jamming some old-school capital-P Punk, & I was talking re: Warhol, de Kooning, & Jasper Johns.

i.e., a painting is a picture, right? It’s a depiction, a virtual window into a “scene” that we, as viewers, have to agree to believe in, to some negotiable degree. Right?

A painting is a picture. It’s a picture of something, someone. Some where. Some when. It’s a representation. A re-presentation, as in setting forth an artificial “present” moment, & asking us to be complicit in believing it’s real, & in believing it’s now. That’s pretty much the pre-Modern consensus on Western pictorial art, yeah? When we look at the Mona Lisa, Mr. da Vinci is asking us to pretend to believe we’re looking through a window at that nice smirking lady, comfortably placed in the foreground of a receding perspective scene. & we’re saying Yes, sure we’ll pretend to believe we see Her (& see her There) & not just smears of crackling sepia paint here, on an old piece of wood.

Then, in the capital-M Modern era, capital-A Art fucks with that consensus in a big way, right? It says, Whoa, not so fast. Let’s do look at the paint on the board (broadly defined). Let’s no longer pretend the painting is a magically-frozen present moment of some OTHER when/where/one/thing. No. The painting isn’t a picture at all any more. A photograph is a picture, yes. A photograph is a documentary event. Of an actual past moment, frozen now in an eternal present. But a painting is a painting: it's a physical object existing nowhere but the physical space in front of your eyeballs. Here. & occupying no present moment other than the one you’re alive in. Now.

Except. Maybe we're not always willing to go along with that. Maybe just because we’re human beings &, as human beings, we’re (maybe innately) inclined to invest physical objects (particularly objects created by ourselves) with significance. With meaning, even. We don’t want the painting to just be painting, or "a" Painting, no; we want it to be a picture. We want it to mean something. We want it to stand for something, for something other than what it plainly just is. We want it to depict, we want it to represent, we want it to re-present. We're inclined to want all of that.

I think these are the ideas that Jasper Johns was exploring when he made this painting in 1954, and called it “Flag.” It’s a super provocative piece because: What the hell is it? Is it a picture of a flag? Is it a flag? Actually, functionally a flag? & what, by the way, IS a flag? (I mean, speaking of physical objects invested with significance & meaning?) So, is this painting called “Flag” supposed to have the exact same significance & meaning as that flag on the pole at the Post Office across the street? Um, no? First, this thing is just different –it’s constructed of different materials, & it occupies a different physical context. Ok, but just because it’s made of wax & paint & wood & it’s hanging on the wall at the MOMA, does that actually mean ipso facto that it’s a picture? &, if so, of what? & what does it depict/mean/re-present?

Just by way of comparison, this is not the picture of Marines raising “the” flag at Iwo Jima, right? We know what that picture is, & what it connotes, & how it’s supposed to make us feel & think about “the” flag. But this thing? I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what, if anything, it says. At least, I don't know what it says about its apparent subject matter: "the" flag.

Do you? I imagine you (reader), opening this page, seeing that picture, & forming immediate expectations based on that picture. & then I imagine you shifting your expectations as you understood we’re only talking about “Flag,” & not about “the” flag. Of course, by now what you’re really wondering is what ANY of this has to do with music, the stated subject matter of this blog.

& I will get to that.

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