Politicians Blasted Josephine Meckseper’s Stained American Flag as ‘Beyond Disrespectful.’ So a Kansas University Took It Down
The altered flag was part of Creative Time's nationwide "Pledges of Allegiance" project.
Under pressure from local politicians, officials at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, have taken down an American flag artwork by German artist Josephine Meckseper that was flying on campus. The piece, which Republicans denounced as a desecration of the Stars and Stripes, was the last in a series of flags commissioned by New York’s public art nonprofit Creative Time for a year-long project titled “Pledges of Allegiance.”
Meckseper’s work, Untitled (Flag 2), combines a printed graphic of the American flag with an abstracted image of the US split into two parts to symbolize the deeply divided state of the country. The university removed the work at around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday after a barrage of criticism from state Governor Jeff Colyer, a Republican currently seeking reelection; his primary challenger Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach; and Kansas congressional candidate Steve Watkins, also a Republican. The flag was scheduled to remain on view through the end of the month.
Creative Time is standing behind the project. “‘Pledges of Allegiance’ was begun to generate dialogue and bring attention to the pressing issues of the day,” the nonprofit said in a statement provided to artnet News. “The right to freedom of speech is one of our nation’s most dearly held values. It is also under attack. We are proud to stand by artists who express themselves. Today’s events illustrate the same divisions in our country that the series has confronted head-on.”
Soon after it was erected on July 3, Meckseper’s contribution caught the attention of right wing news outlets, including the Washington Examiner, CampusReform, and Fox News. Some students and alumni also expressed their disapproval of the work. Before long, local politicians rallied around it as a distasteful attack on a sacred American symbol. “The fact that they call it art does not make it any less of a desecration of our flag,” Kobach said in a statement to the Associated Press.
In a statement, Colyer said of the work: “Men and women have fought and bled for that flag and to use it in this manner is beyond disrespectful. I spoke to leadership to demand that it be taken down immediately.”
Following the governor’s complaint, KU chancellor Douglas Girod agreed to remove the artwork, which was flying at the university’s Spooner Hall. It is now being relocated to an exhibition inside the school’s Spencer Museum of Art, according to the Lawrence Journal-World.
“Over the course of the day, the conversation around this display has generated public safety concerns for our campus community. While we want to foster difficult dialogue, we cannot allow that dialogue to put our people or property in harm’s way,” Girod said in a statement on the university’s website. The nature of these safety concerns has not been disclosed.
Meckseper’s flag is still flying at 12 locations across the country, including the roof of Creative Time’s headquarters in New York. Other venues include the 21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina; the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Texas State Galleries in San Marcos, Texas.
The Spencer Art Museum and the university’s liberal arts hub the Commons had been participating in the project since early November, and had flown flags by 10 artists without issue. Although the University of Kansas is a public institution, the installation was privately funded.
“Pledges of Allegiance,” according to Creative Time, was “conceived in response to the current political climate” and often tackled Donald Trump’s policies head on. The project kicked off on June 14, 2017—Flag Day and, appropriately enough, the president’s birthday—with the raising of Marilyn Minter’s Resist flag at Creative Time’s headquarters. Altogether, 16 artists have participated, including Yoko Ono, Trevor Paglen, and LaToya Ruby Frazier.
“We saw bringing these flags to Lawrence as a unique opportunity to model support for democratic exchange, allowing the community to come together over a range of topics,” said Joey Orr, the Spencer Art Museum’s curator for research, in a statement announcing the university’s participation in “Pledges of Allegiance.” Orr did not respond to artnet News’s request for comment.
In a statement about the work, the artist explained that it fuses one of her own dripped paintings, Goodbye to Language, and a printed graphic of an American flag (as opposed to a real flag of sewn together stars and stripes). “I divided the shape of the country in two for the flag design to reflect a deeply polarized country in which a president has openly bragged about harassing women and is withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol and UN Human Rights Council,” Meckseper said.
Some free speech activists have been quick to criticize the university’s decision. “The First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect politically popular speech,” Peter Bonilla, vice president of programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told Inside Higher Ed. “It exists to protect the speech likeliest to stir controversy, and it is a crucial check against the power of the state to silence dissenting voices.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship also criticized Colyer and Kobach for pressuring the school to remove the artwork just because they found the piece personally offensive. “We urge you to immediately encourage KU to restore the flag to the location where it was intended to fly as a public artwork,” wrote the organization in an open letter, citing free speech concerns.
“Your repeated assertions that desecration of the American flag is an illegal act are erroneous,” the letter continues. “The use of US flags in artworks is a form of speech that enjoys full protection under the US Constitution. Rather, it is the removal of this work that threatens our closely held civil liberties. As government officials, it is your duty to uphold the First Amendment, which protects controversial or unpopular speech, including works of artistic expression. ”
Meckseper was not immediately available for comment, but given her artist’s statement about the work, it’s easy to imagine what she might have to say: “It’s about time for our differences to unite us rather than divide us.”
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