The Indiscretion of Flags :
A dive into the political side of national symbolism
“The image is always political, whether it is art, cartoons or a news media illustration”.
But how on earth is it in any way connected to flags, or art for that matter? For be not mistaken, flags, as we will come to learn, is as important an artwork as any other. And by using the word art, we mean art as in artwork. Flags in the world of men balance on the delicate line between art and symbol and are sometimes ruled out as one or the other. But in order to understand the attributes of a simple piece of cloth flapping in the wind, we have to understand the politics behind vexillology, or the study of flags. Consider this: How are flags portrayed? Why and where are flags portrayed? When are they used, misused and what sort of political signal do they send out? What meaning do they carry and what relation do they have to contemporary art?
“Every piece of art is a political statement […] If you want to know who and what a society celebrates, look at its public squares.” – Helen Lewis
The Philippine mistake
On 12th of June 2016 Facebook had to publish a written apology to the nation of Philippines after a much failed attempt to wish them a happy independence day. On Sunday morning the opening Facebook tab read as follows “Happy independence day! Here’s to all of the Philippines health, happiness and prosperity” while portraying a Philippine flag being waved in the air. The only issue with this imagery was the angle of the flag, unknowingly being flown upside down with a red stripe facing up instead of blue, indicating the country was at war (picture above).
A similar mistake were made at a UN meeting in 2010 where the Philippine flag were portrayed upside down in the background of Barack Obama and president Benigno Simeon Aquino III .
According to the Section 10 Philippines Republic Act 8491 states: “The flag, if flown from a flagpole, shall have its blue field on top in time of peace and the red field on top in time of war. If in a hanging position, the blue field shall be to the right (left of the observer in time of peace, and the red field to the right (left of the observer) in time of war.”
However, while the “unfortunate” incident of the EU assembly flag was overlooked by the Philippine foreign affairs as an “honest mistake,” the penalty for disrespecting a national flag could earn you up to one year of imprisonment.
Meaning and symbolism
New communities, such as states, need their members to develop a sense of common identity to firmly establish their legitimacy. Identity is not a ‘private matter’ or a ‘private worry’ but rather the fellowship of our society. The meaning of a flag has a lot to say for how a country or group is portrayed and celebrated, and is in every way seen as a political statement. It is the fight against identity discourse. Flags are a simple visual way to convey a message of loyalty, power and communication. Flags are seen as the symbol of a nations delivery from pain and war. It is a promise of freedom and national development.
In Syria the black and white ISIS flag symbolises the fulfilment of prophesy and faith as the text reads “Muhammed is the messenger of God” and “There is no God but God”. The Times described the rougher edges to the font used on the flag reveals a purer more martial oriented side of Islam. The Israel flag portrays the star of David, associated with Judaism, while the largest star in the Chinese flag stands for a long history of communism. The Danish flag represents Christianity and is said to be the oldest flag in the world. From this cross aspired the Norwegian and Swedish flag with very similar design due to their common religious development. The flag of Mozambique were originally flown in the revolution against Portugal, but were slightly altered to fit in a AK-47 and a bayonet. It is today one of three UN nations to portray firearms on their flag as a national symbol.