Call it performance art, Chicago-style.
About 3,000 protesters, many of them veterans, flocked to the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago on Sunday to protest an exhibit that, they charge, desecrates the American flag.
Some did it by desecrating the Soviet flag. Others carried patriotic signs and flags as they sang and chanted. Some railed against the “satanic communists” they held responsible for the “travesty” inside.
The object of their scorn is an art installation titled “What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” If art is supposed to provoke emotion, then the exhibit is a resounding success.
For the last two weeks the simple, stark installation has stirred passions, causing angry protests and confrontations and sparking a debate that has stretched from City Hall to Congress.
Flag on Floor Under Ledger
The ruckus is over a piece by Scott Tyler, a student at the School of the Art Institute, consisting of a photo montage depicting images of the flag, a shelf with ledgers for viewer comments and the flag draped on the floor, directly beneath the ledger. The installation appears to invite viewers to step on the flag.
But the flag has spent as much time off the floor as on it.
Angry veterans and politicians have gone to the gallery daily to pick the flag up off the floor. Usually they fold it respectfully and place it on the shelf, but last week a state senator put it in a red, white and blue envelope addressed to President Bush.
The piece has turned into participatory art on a grand scale. One day last week, a patron offended by the interference with the exhibit tried to put the flag back on the floor. But a veteran snatched it out of his hand as soon as it touched the floor.
“I have a right to put it down,” the man protested.
“You made your point,” the veteran snarled.
Beyond Original Conception
“The performance aspect of it has extended beyond what I originally conceived of,” Tyler said. “But that’s fine. . . . How they’re interacting with the flag is fine.”
Last week, Chicago aldermen lambasted the artist and the institute, passing a resolution calling for the institute to remove the display.
The Chicago Park Commission threatened to cut revenues to the museum, which sits on city property. And Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.) introduced a bill in Congress that would make it a crime to display the American flag on the floor.
Several veterans groups went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to halt the exhibit. And a California Institute of the Arts student, in a show of support for Tyler, displayed a similar work in Valencia. That display was removed less than a week after opening.
Many of the work’s detractors question whether the display is art. “It’s highly political art; nonetheless, it is art,” Tyler said. “Why would it be posed that it’s not art? . . . A lot of the people that are saying that, not that I wish to be elitist at all, but possibly those people never go to art galleries.”
Support From ACLU
Tyler has found an ally in the American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully fought to keep the exhibit open. “It clearly is artistic political expression,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director of the ACLU of Illinois. Grossman said the right of artistic expression should also extend to people who “interact” with the artwork by stepping on the flag.
Nevertheless, a sixth-grade schoolteacher from Virginia was arrested by Chicago police last week for stepping on the flag during a sightseeing trip to the gallery. She was freed on $2,000 bond and will appear in court April 10. Desecration of the flag is a felony in Illinois that carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Still, the Circuit Court of Cook County on March 2 refused to order the dismantling of the display. “This exhibit is as much an invitation to think about the flag as it is an invitation to step on it,” Judge Kenneth Gillis said.
Dominates Local News
For the last two weeks it has been difficult for locals not to think about what the flag means to them. The exhibit, and the controversy it caused, has dominated the local news.
“You step on the flag, the whole nation feels something,” said one of the veterans who stand guard over the exhibit daily to keep the flag off the floor. “This may be the best thing that ever happened to the flag.”
This is the second school exhibit in less than a year that forced the institute, and the city, to deal with the freedom of expression issue. Last May, aldermen removed a painting that showed Chicago’s late Mayor Harold Washington dressed only in lingerie. Police impounded the work, charging that it might incite rioting. The painting was not rehung.
The current exhibit, composed entirely of work by minority artists, was staged partly to salve feelings hurt by what many blacks took to be a slur against Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. The exhibit will end Saturday.
Bill of Rights Cited
This time, the School of the Art Institute is not buckling under the pressure. In a press release, the institute said it “defends the educational and artistic process, and has the clear responsibility to uphold the freedom of artistic and political expression embodied in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.”
The institute’s position displeases many veterans.
Carrying flags and signs, they picket the institute daily. Many stand in line to write angry comments in the ledger provided by the artist. Many of the comments are made up of obscenities and threats. One book is already filled.