Black artist John Sims created the art depicted in the photo above, a Confederate flag hanging on a noose on a 13-foot gallows, and entitled, “The Proper Way to Hang the Confederate Flag.” He says that when he sees the Confederate flag, he sees “visual terrorism” and a symbol of a racist past, the flag acting as a rallying point for white supremacists. The exhibit is on display at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida, and also includes Confederate flags arranged in the shape of a cross, a Confederate flag over a voting machine, and a re-creation of the famous American painting “American Gothic” depicting the artist, John Sims, arms crossed, standing next to a noose with a Confederate flag behind him.
The local chapter of the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” is not pleased, calls the exhibit, “offensive, objectionable and tasteless,” and one representative, Bob Hurst, whose great-great grandfather committed suicide when the South surrendered (and undoubtedly owned slaves) calls the art a “gimmick” created by a no-talent artist. The organization has asked the museum to remove the exhibit, but the museum says it will stay.
I think that this is political art and activism of the highest kind, in the most brilliant revolutionary tradition. For Americans of good will and anti-racist sensibilities, the Confederate flag is an emblem of racism, slavery, lynchings, rapes, beatings, brutalities of all and every kind, perpetrated by white Americans on black Americans. It should never be flown. It should never be displayed, anywhere. It is no more acceptable to fly the Confederate flag than to display the Nazi swastika, and to turn the tables and illuminate either emblem as the hate speech it amounts to is right and just. As Sims says, “Nobody will ever think of the Confederate flag the same way again. It’s like getting an immunity shot. Now they have this visual antibody with them.”
Opponents of the exhibit have invoked a 1961 law, passed during the height of the Civil Rights movement, that makes it illegal to defile or “cast contempt on” the American flag, and have threatened suit.
I can only wonder whether pornographic magazines hanging from meat hooks in a museum exhibit might similarly immunize people against pornography, might render them unable to think about pornography the same way again. Then maybe “American Gothic” re-created, say, as a woman with her arms folded over her chest standing next to a disembodied wedding gown and veil, or maybe a wedding gown and veil on a faceless mannequin, with an open Hustler in the background. Or maybe a bride gown and veil hanging over a voting machine.
Social inequality is substantially created and enforced — that is, done — through words and images. Social hierarchy cannot and does not exist without being embodied in meanings and expressed in communications. A sign saying “White Only” … is seen as the act of segregation that it is, like “Juden nicht erwunscht!” … Elevation and denigration are all accomplished through meaningful symbols and communicative acts in which saying it is doing it. …
Racial and sexual harrassment, separately and together, promote inequality, violate oppressed groups, work to destroy their social standing and repute, and target them for discrimination from contempt to genocide. …Racial and sexual harassment function just as actively, separately and together, in social inequality; both need to be stopped. They are no different in the severity of impact on victims or in the degree of damage they inflict on equality rights.
Catharine A. MacKinnon, Only Words