Odd how they tear at each other’s souls, like predators ripping open a carcass on the jungle floor. On one hand, there are those who call themselves patriots and who would rather sell their sisters to barbarians than desecrate the flag. On the other, there are those who call themselves artists and who would be delighted to sell their sisters to barbarians and desecrate the flag if they saw artistic justification in it. The two sides met this week in Valencia.
You know by now that a student at the California Institute of the Arts draped a flag on the floor of the lobby as an exhibit of, well, art, and as a show of support for an artist in Chicago who did the same. In both instances, notebooks were furnished for comment but it was almost necessary to step on the flag to write those comments. As newspaper photographs revealed, some did.
Hell broke loose. American Legion members picketed the Valencia school, the school’s staff was split down the middle and the flag itself was stolen, after which the exhibit was voluntarily called off. Now, of course, everyone claims victory in the skirmish: the artist for having made his point, the school for having allowed free expression, and the American Legion for having proved that you cannot with impunity trod upon mom, the flag or apple pie in L.A.
I was intrigued enough by the confrontation to drop by the American Legion post in Newhall, a place that smells of beer and cigarette smoke and whose bar that early afternoon was populated by good old boys from the last three wars: some stubble-bearded and bleak, others still wearing their badges of combat, a few staring suspiciously, if not ominously, at the journalist in their midst, tattooed muscles bulging under tight, short-sleeved shirts.
An hour earlier I had been in the ethereal atmosphere of academia, discussing art and the First Amendment with Dr. Steven Lavine, president of CalArts. He insisted that the exhibit by student Adam Greene was art, not social comment, and as such was allowable under the school’s bylaws.
When I suggested that it didn’t take a lot of creative imagination to put a flag on the floor, he said, “I didn’t say it was good art.”
We’ve all heard at least 10,000 times that art is in the eyes of the beholder, and forms of expression that involve sex, religion or the flag almost always stir the pious rage of those who, redeeming social qualities be damned, don’t like what they see. That was the case in Valencia.
CalArts suddenly became the center of a protest that left everyone stunned by the ferocity of events. We media people descended on the place like hungry buzzards, to use one student’s phrase. But not too many buzzards, I am told, descended on American Legion Post 507 behind a gas station in Newhall. This old buzzard was one.
I am no friend of the American Legion, having once been chased through the streets of San Francisco by thug conventioneers who believed that anyone who questioned the U.S. presence in Vietnam was a Communist, a traitor and a dirty little fruitcake. But they didn’t catch me and so, today, I remain relatively committed to balanced reportage.
A half-dozen Legionnaires gathered in a room off the bar in Newhall to talk about the kid who put the flag on the floor and the people who stepped on it. Not a lot of profundity was obvious here, because these are not men who celebrate thought or language, but who respond with emotion to situations that strike at the core of their memories.
There was never a question during our conversation that their feelings for the flag as a symbol of country and a metaphor for war’s remembered anguish were real. “Seeing someone step on the flag hurts deep,” one of them said, fumbling for comparisons, “like defiling the crucifix.”
“There are people walking around here still in pain from wounds they got on Omaha Beach or at the Mekong Delta,” another added. A third who had been listening silently said, “I lost a son in Vietnam and his casket was draped in our flag. No one’s going to step on it.” Then he left.
Men like these are easy meals for those who feast at a satirist’s table. In their efforts to debate free expression they almost always come off looking like children arguing astrophysics with astronauts. But, still, there is a kind of glory to their commitment, the way there is glory to standing for an ideal, or dying for a friend. If they don’t always understand art, art doesn’t always understand heroes.
Maybe the kids ought to get together with the vets in that smoke-thick, beer-reeking bar at Post 507 and talk about it. Then will a flag on the floor have served its ultimate purpose.