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How flags shape our identity

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


Photo: The Verge/ Facebook
Photo: The Verge/ Facebook


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.


Source:: Tilman Piesk, Barcelonas
Source:: Tilman Piesk, Barcelonas

The Estelada, also known as La Senyera Estelada, is the unofficial flag used by Catalonian protesters marching for independence. Originally it was designed after the Puerto Rican and Cuban flag, who gained independence from Spain in 1898 and 1902, waving the same star striped triangle. Today its design has become a symbol of political protest and achievement. It was primarily the star that was added to the already existing La Senyera, yet compared to the Chinese symbolism of a star and colour there is little they have in common.   

The importance of city flags 

Though not representing a whole country we shouldn’t undermine the meaning of city flags either. Chicago’s star striped flag is a great example. The blue striped maps out the city’s layout and two rivers. White is usually known to symbolize peace (yet not mentioned for this particular flag) and the 4 red stars represent 4 major historical events for the city, including the Great Chicago Fire in 1871New York goes to great lengths to make sure their flag policies are upheld, as they recently announced all flags be on half-staff in regards to the shooting in Sutherland Springs on November 5th 2017. Thus requiring all flags, the American flag, New York state and all city flags, to follow this requirement until further notice. Above all, city flags are a symbol of solidarity among its citizens upheld under the same law. 

Controversies: the ideological tool 

With the portrayal of flags follows a history of statements and controversies. In an interview with the Telegraph in 2015,  Nikita P. Soklov, historian and editor, states that  “History is being used as an ideological tool.” For the supporters of the confederate flag, it symbolises the “representation of states’ rights against what they see as over-bearing federal jurisdiction”. To others, it is the representation of slavery, hatred and white supremacy. Even if history defines a country, the confederate flag is a good example of how our past symbols in contemporary flags set new tracks for our current state of mind as well. Mississippi has for a long time struggled with their White radical attitudes as shown in the state flag, with the top left corner containing the 13 stared confederate flag. Through the uproar in policy issues, with most Americans condemning the flag for its rebel background, the supporters argue the confederate flag represent a long history of heritage. The Mississippi state flag have since its creation in 1894 stayed the same (except for a brief four year period from 1861-1865). It was not until the Charleston shooting that the issue of the flag were to be taken under serious debate. On 18th of June 2015, Dylan Roof, who was one of the Americans identifying with the southern flag, gunned down nine black people in a the Emanuel African Episcopal Methodist Church in South Carolina. In his manifesto of a website he is seen spitting on the American flag as well as posing with a pistol and the Bars and Stars.

Flags across borders

Russian Federation flag ashore in Dublin. Photo: Sunniva Batalden
Russian Federation flag ashore in Dublin. Photo: Sunniva Batalden

By examining the relationship between the Russian federation and England we see how flags work in a representative state. Terrorist attacks and diplomatic fallout set a stop for English Lions fans as they in April 2018 were denied the use of the St. George flag at the World Cup, due to its ability to cause an uproar that could potentially lead to excess violence. To be fair, yes, people like their flag alot. But does that necessarily mean they would take up arms to defend it come any little quarrel? After a study on the implications on exposure to the US flag researchers found citizens with a higher nationalist sense were less hostile when exposed to the flag in foreign environment. Those without a high nationalistic impression showed little to no difference. It also revealed that the subjects upon exposed to a flag showed more egalitarian tendencies and outgroup hostility. The football fans have been known earlier to sing provocative highly patriotic songs on events like The World Cupand were on this occasion warned by the Yorkshire police not to wave any flags. I’m sorry England. Badass flag or not you would face difficult times waving it in front of Russia. The embassy, apparently, would very likely face problems getting anyone help after “staff were kicked out of the country in retaliation for Britain reducing the number of Russian staff here over the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripa and his daughter Yulia. 


Artistic influence 

Taking the issue of flags further, it is perhaps most bypassed art in history, and yet it is the most commonly used as well. No one would walk up to a museum and expect to find flags in it. Yet should you come across an appropriation of a flag it will be surely condemned. Flags would be closer described as design rather than art, and yet the similarities between this particular type of design carries such a value of symbolism it is almost considered art. There is no clear line describing weather or not a flag as a national symbol can be used as an expression for artists. For appropriation artists it is the perfect place to start a debate, given the range of historical influence and controversies a flag carries. Yet it is not considered with the same value as art.  

African-American flag (1990) by David Hammons. Photo: Pablo Enriquez and courtesy of
African-American flag (1990) by David Hammons. Photo: Pablo Enriquez and courtesy of

But it is time after time left abundantly clear how much people actually care for their flags. In 1979 Jean-Michael Basquiat used the American flag in his own artwork. His roommate, Alexis Adler, Basquiat always saw the flag as “American art”. A few years later David Hammons gave the world his version of the African-American flag, examining the contentious radical politics. The Belskie Museum of Art and Science in New Jersey previously had to reinstate five artworks by Renny Molenaar after his paintings were removed for violating U.S. flag code. In his exhibition “The American Dream: The Latino Experience in America” he portrayed the words “SEX” painted over the American flag. Two days before the exhibition opened Molenaar got the message that his works had been taken down due to being “Disappointing Patriotic Sex Paintings” in violation of the United Stated Flag Code. As it is, there had previously been two other US Supreme Court cases that ruled the flag desecration law in some states “unconstitutional”. Molenaar himself added the anti-censorship pieces made the whole thing ironic. Taken the worth of national flags protection and highly patriotic ownership into consideration it is perhaps the most valuable art there is.

To sum up the correlations at play, national flags quickly become an important symbol in any community. It forms a sense of common identity that is carried with the people and is very much the base of their values. The flag represent something important to them and through it portrays the history of their country. Throughout revolutions, wars and victories it has become an iconic part of their lives and is perhaps the first thing we should think of when we hear the word “political symbol”.  

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