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Chicago Salutes Flag Art in Its Special Ways

Times Staff Writer

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 say, desecrates the U.S. 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.”

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.

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For the last 2 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.

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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.

“I have a right to put it down,” the man protested.

“You made your point,” the veteran snarled.

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“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 money 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 flag on a 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.

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‘It’s Highly Political Art’

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.”

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.

The exhibit will end Saturday.

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