He was a raging satirist, attached to the view from over the top. Show him any kind of establishment and he loathed it. Almost from the start, his work was about social pain, madness, and estrangement. Even the silver GIs in his great piece The Portable War (1968 mixed media) have a spectral hop perish sadness as they raise the Iwo Jima flag on a patio table.
To the left, the patriotic singer Kate Smith, represented as a trash can on legs with a head sticking out the top, emits a continuously taped rendition of the unofficial national anthem, Irving Berlin’s ”God Bless America.” The GI’S are faceless – mere units in the military machine and behind them is the most famous of all American recruiting posters, James Montgomery Flag’s World War ? Uncle Sam with a bony finger pointing at you. To the right is a blackboard are scrawled the names of 475 nations that no longer exist because of wars. But beyond that, a couple eat hot dogs at a fast food counter, besides a Coke machine. Their hot dogs a killer, but they don’t even notice the GI’s.Kienholz is saying that America is so tied in a war mentality, a vast militarist economy that war can seem quite ordinary and just like business as usual, taken for granted5. This American crisis left its mark all over culture back in the 60’s and 70’s: predominately in writing, theatre, and film.
And yet, American art seemed to be unhindered by this, well at least the painting and sculpture being in the ”mainstream” from the studio to the dealer and hence to the museum collections of modern art.But as the 60’s moved swiftly into the 70’s there seemed to be a lot more activist art that was being produced. Nevertheless the larger mainstream works that enjoyed a mandate from the museum of modern art (MoMA) seemed to have remained oblivious to politics, obviously reflective of the unimportance of political art for a major institution, or one might say an ”outlet of culture”. Thus insinuating an alliance between the government and major national institutions, as its imperative we understand that they function as different parts essentially operating one machine.So inevitably affecting the credibility of one would have its repercussions on the later, thus emphasising the importance of unity and common ground especially when it involved the threat of communism, perceived as the greatest threat to western society. So major American institutions of power responded by systematically creating an immense hysteria and fear of communism and atomic war, which had become deeply rooted in American society.
This inadvertently effected the development of American culture, as it brought fourth this constant paranoia in American society. As for many Americans this struggle against communism was seen as a fight between good and evil, which brought censorship as the people in power presumed that these new modes of artistic liberation and freedom being introduced to the popular culture at the time would erode the values of young people.This very much lead to the censorship of questionable books and in retrospect art, major institutions such as MoMA that had been created by powerful capitalists such as the Rocker Fellas who stayed well away from anti American politicisation and promoted good all round home grown artists that were non political and stayed within the boundaries of high art and remaining true to its more traditional aesthetic nature. By then to be American was just not enough.Victory in World War ?? , possession of the bomb, and stupendous global expansion had all combined to confirm the long standing belief in exceptionalism that Americans were a unique and anointed people, enacting a scared history on earth, which had been of the motifs of American culture ever since the puritans arrived with in the seventeenth century. Exceptionalism required constant fuelling by paranoia to keep at boiling point.
Hence the apocalyptic anti-communism of politics in a country which, having defined its ideology of ”Americanism” in terms of individualism and private enterprise, saw its opposite in the Soviet Russia6. The atmosphere of super patriotism and fear of ”the enemy within” dumped an extraordinary excess of meaning into American public icons, most obviously the flag. Americans had always revered the stars and stripes as their prime symbol of national identity, but now they began to worship it.To burn or deface it was a supercharged political act, and right-wingers are always trying to create a constitutional amendment to punish such indignities. But on the other hand they made jeans, t-shirts, and under wear out of it, and use it to advertise everything from gas stations to hot dogs stands, some artists intrigued by this irony of this symbol, made paintings of it. The most influential and well known of them was by an artist called Jasper John’s (b. 1930).He wished to work with something that was not invented, something so well known, as he put it, that it was not well seen, hence the flag.
In real life, even after johns the flag continued to be the communal property of all Americans, the climax of their stock of public symbols. But in the art world it belonged almost entirely to johns; it became his sign. Other artists would include flags in their work in a spirit of protests and provocation. Johns never did; his flags had a beautiful and troubling muteness. They were cooler than the culture wanted them to be, in the midst of the cold war.