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ACCORDING TO WHAT: JASPER JOHNS’S FLAG

IF THERE IS ONE THING that the past five years have taught us, it is that as both sign and image, the United States flag has staying power. It is not neutral. It provokes. Its display both transcends and summons party politics; it invokes the violence of history but still claims to survive the worst that history can do. Hence, to represent the flag is to convey the ambiguous powers of the nation-state. What the flag means is not obvious—it depends on how and where it appears. Does the Stars and Stripes mock its subjects? Veil them? Erase them? The flag did all this and more in The Americans, the famous suite of photographs taken by Robert Frank in 1955–56. These are the images in which, as Jack Kerouac wrote three years later, the “EVERYTHING-ness” of America is made visible—an everythingness based on difference, as Frank well knew.1

To image the flag is inevitably to open the question that

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