At first, no one paid much attention to the American flag tacked to the floor in the main lobby at CalArts.
A few students paused to look at it. Steven Lavine, the school’s president, glanced at it and continued on to his office.
“When I first walked in,” Lavine recalled, “I didn’t think much of it one way or the other.”
But within a few days, that flag, the centerpiece of a student exhibit, unexpectedly drew CalArts into an artistic turmoil unparalleled in the Valencia school’s 21-year history.
The school received threatening phone calls from people who said the exhibit was unpatriotic. Staff members voiced similar protests, and the local American Legion picketed in front of the campus. Police advised school officials that the display might be violating state and federal laws.
“People keep misreading this piece,” said Adam Greene, the student who created it. “It’s about censorship, not about anything else. It’s about free speech. I’ve learned that a lot of people think symbols are more important than what they are supposed to stand for.”
On Monday, two men walked into CalArts and snatched the flag, in effect closing the exhibit. But they could not end the debate over the issue of art, free speech and the American flag.
“It began as an absurd situation that came to involve very real principles regarding what this country is about,” said John Orders, assistant to the president at CalArts. “It came to involve the principles that are essential to free speech and artistic expression.”
Greene mounted the exhibit 1 1/2 weeks ago as a show of support for another art student, Scott Tyler, whose similar work at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has been drawing vehement criticism.
Tyler’s piece, “What Is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag?,” included a flag draped on the floor and a ledger for comments. The exhibit made it difficult to offer comment without stepping on the flag.
As many as 200 veterans demonstrated at the Chicago art institute, and school officials temporarily closed the exhibit. There was a brief court battle over the artwork, and a visitor to the exhibit was recently arrested for felony desecration of the flag because she stepped on the flag while writing comments.
But that exhibit, unlike the one at CalArts, remains open.
The most common argument against both exhibits has been that defiling the flag is a political statement, but not art.
“I happen to be an artist; several members here are,” said Armie Trujillo, commander of American Legion Post 507 in Newhall, which picketed the work. “We appreciate art for art’s sake. I can take a set of keys and drop them on the table and say, ‘That’s art.’ But to us, anything that has to do with treading on the flag, well, we don’t consider it art.”
Yet people in the Los Angeles art community say aesthetic expression has become so varied in the 20th Century that virtually anything an artist proffers as art should be accepted as such.
“If you look at Marcel Duchamp, he basically took a toilet fixture and called it art,” said Thomas Rhoads, director of the Santa Monica Museum of Art. “It wasn’t art until he called it that.
“That’s what artists do,” Rhoads said. “They basically select something from their environment--they may put a frame around it or they may not--and they bring it to the public’s attention so that it takes on a greater import than it might have in everyday life.”
Furthermore, Tyler and Greene were walking a well-beaten aesthetic path when they chose to display the flag in a new or controversial manner, said Howard Fox, curator of modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“One thinks of the very important paintings that Jasper Johns did that were based on images of the American flag, or frequent appearances of the flag in pop art,” Fox said. “Many artists today are interested in the power of certain signs or symbols to evoke strong cultural reactions. Use of the American flag is an artistic expression.”
Last year, a New York artist named Ronnie Cutrone attracted protests of veterans with his show of cartoon figures, such as Woody Woodpecker, painted on American flags.
“If you can get beyond the cutesy Looney Tunes vocabulary of Bugs and Tweedy,” wrote Times critic Marlena Donohue, ". . . you find montages that elbow Americana (including the hallowed institution of art) in its most banal and self-important soft spots.”
But critical reviews and talk of art history don’t wash with John Callaway. The 22-year-old Canyon Country man took Greene’s flag from CalArts and turned it in at a nearby sheriff’s station.
“I found it extremely offensive that this gentleman defiled the flag,” Callaway said. “I have served in the military and I do believe in the principles on which this country is based. . . . I feel it was not only my right, but my responsibility to do what I did.”
Such sentiments were shared by others in the Santa Clarita Valley, a conservative, mostly Republican community. This is the kind of place where the local Brownie troop often stops by City Council meetings to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. The men at the American Legion hall were among the area’s most vocal protesters.
“You’ll have to understand that most of the people here are very patriotic,” Trujillo said. “We felt it was an affront to us as patriots.”
CalArts officials have tried to stay clear of the debate, but steadfastly stand behind Greene’s right to expression. The school has only three criteria for student exhibits: They may not break the law, damage or alter another student’s work, or jeopardize anyone’s physical well-being. Orders said CalArts has never otherwise restricted student work.
“We would have to have, in a sense, a censorship board to look at every project,” Orders said. “It would be a travesty to get to that point.”
Administrators admit that the recent uproar caused a goodly number of headaches and hassles around campus. But Lavine is pleased that Greene used his art to address a challenging subject.
“It has always been one of the functions of art to raise hard questions and to provoke discussion,” Lavine said. “This is a work of art whose real content is not the flag, but the debate.
“In fact, without the flag, the debate is still going on.”