Editorial: Flag art puts KU in a bad light

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Officials were right to take down what appeared to be a desecrated American Flag flying at Spooner Hall on the University of Kansas campus.

On Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Jeff Colyer insisted that Chancellor Douglas Girod and the Board of Regents take down the flag, which has flown since July 5 as part of a broader months-long public art project. KU officials removed the flag around 4:30 p.m.

This so-called art should never have been raised on a flagpole at the university, especially without clear explanation.

The flag was the last in a series of flags displayed at KU as part of “Pledges of Allegiance,” a nationwide public art project. The Spencer Museum of Art described “Pledges of Allegiance” as “a serialized commission of 16 flags, each created by an acclaimed artist to reflect the current political climate.” The Spencer Museum and The Commons at KU partnered to bring the display to the university.

The flags have been flying one at a time outside Spooner Hall since the art project was launched last year. Previous flags contained messages such as “Think Peace, Act Peace, Spread Peace, Imagine Peace,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Angry,” and “Fear Eats the Soul.”

But the flag that went on display July 5 stood out from the others because the artist — Josephine Meckseper, a German artist based in New York City — used the American flag as her canvas.

Meckseper’s flag had two distinctive black masses painted over the Stars and Stripes. She said the black masses represented a “deeply polarized country.” She painted a black and white sock in the lower left corner of the flag.

On July 5, The Commons sent a tweet that included a photo of Meckseper’s flag, saying, “So powerful to recall all the partnerships and events that have come of this 8-month experience at this morning’s raising!”

The flag drew sharp criticism, particularly from conservatives like Colyer. “The disrespectful display of a desecrated American flag on the KU campus is absolutely unacceptable,” Colyer said shortly after discovering that it was flying on the campus. “Men and women have fought and bled for that flag and to use it in this manner is beyond disrespectful.”

The governor’s comments were on target.

Universities should be bastions of free speech, and displays of art that provoke thought and discussion should be encouraged. But in this case, there was no clear explanation that the flag was part of an exhibit. Passersby didn’t see a work of art commenting on a divided America; rather, they saw a raised American flag desecrated with black paint. Displaying it on a traditional flagpole inadvertently communicated KU’s endorsement.

Meckseper has the right to use the American flag in her art and to wave it in public spaces if she wants. But KU certainly didn’t have to run her art up a flagpole on campus, and someone at the university should have exercised the good judgment to take the flag down long before the governor demanded it.


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