Teaching guide: Benny Andrews, Flag Day

Does the figure emerge from the flag, or does it imprison him?

Benny Andrews, Flag Day, 1966, oil on canvas, 53.3 x 40.6 cm ©The Benny Andrews Estate (The Art Institute of Chicago). Speakers: Robyn Farrell, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and Beth Harris

 

Benny Andrews’s Flag Day (1966) will be useful for the study of:

  • Postwar United States History
  • History of the 1960s
  • Civil Rights movement
  • History of activism in the United States
  • Race and national identity
  • African-American artists
  • Politically-engaged art

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Discuss Benny Andrews’s Flag Day as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the Civil Rights movement.
  • Understand how biography can inform our understanding of a work of art
  • Apply the tools of visual analysis to support their own interpretation of the artwork.
  • Identify and elaborate on certain key issues related to American and national identity, prompted by an example of American art
Benny Andrews, Flag Day, 1966, oil on canvas, 53.3 x 40.6 cm ©The Benny Andrews Estate (The Art Institute of Chicago) (photo: Dr. Steven Zucker)

Benny Andrews, Flag Day, 1966, oil on canvas, 53.3 x 40.6 cm ©The Benny Andrews Estate (The Art Institute of Chicago) (photo: Dr. Steven Zucker)

1. Look closely at the painting

Look closely at Flag Day by Benny Andrews (zoomable images, available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask:

  • What are your first impressions of this painting?
  • Describe the flag. What details of the flag seem most notable to you?
  • How does this look different from the typical image of an American flag?
  • What words would you use to describe the man in the painting? Which details of the figure lead to your choice of words.
  • What do you think the man’s relationship is to the flag?
  • Look closely at the surface of the painting. How did the artist construct this image using paint and pencil? What choices did the artist make?

2. Watch the video

The video “Identity, Civil Rights, and the American Flag” which features Benny Andrew’s Flag Day is only six minutes in length. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of Flag Day are provided to support the video.

3. Read about the painting and its historical context

Actually, in my case, racism was just one of the many problems I had. I had a class problem, too, you see. My family (was) probably one of the poorest, especially when we were sharecroppers in the country—and I’m just talking about Morgan County now. We were probably as poor as could be considered in terms of money or any kind of things like that….We also had a problem of living in the country; we were not included in the tokenism thing of going to high school, for example. So there were so many things—it was not just to fight being a black person in a white society; it was also fight being a poor person in a total society—being both black and white.

— Benny Andrews, as quoted in I. Richard Gruber, American Icons: from Madison to Manhattan, the Art of Benny Andrews, 1948-1997 (Georgia: Morris Museum of Art, 1997), p. 131.

This quote from Andrews reminds us that skin color is just one of many reasons that people in the United States have suffered discrimination: class, gender, sexual orientation, and religious and cultural background have also often been grounds for prejudice. Decades after the great civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and the LGBTQ community continue to struggle for visibility, equal rights, and opportunity. The Black Lives Matter movement is an important reminder that this struggle (and specifically the violence done to African Americans) continues. Discrimination against other groups, for instance Muslim Americans, are on the rise.

A sincere style

In this painting, Andrews intentionally avoided using the highly polished technique that was understood as “good” painting. Beginning in the nineteenth century, artists like van Gogh painted in a style that could be seen as naive and childlike in an effort to create a sense of the immediate and the personal and to heighten the sense of sincerity. There are many reasons why Andrews may have chosen to paint in this non-academic style and it is possible that Andrew’s felt this style was well suited to the political events that were then taking place.

The civil rights movement and the flag

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States made great progress in the 1950s and 1960s with judicial decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) which ruled that “separate but equal” facilities were inherently unequal and mandated the desegregation of schools, legislative victories like the Equal Pay Act (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Other efforts, such as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) fell short and were not enacted.

The flag was an especially potent symbol during this period. For example, in 1971 John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran and later congressman and presidential nominee, spoke on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, and said this:

We saw firsthand how monies from American taxes were used for a corrupt dictatorial regime. We saw that many people in this country had a one-sided idea of who was kept free by the flag, and blacks provided the highest percentage of casualties. We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs and search and destroy missions…

— John Kerry, Statement of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 1971, from The American Yawp Reader

A continuing struggle

Despite the landmark legislations listed above, after centuries of slavery and discrimination, it should come as no surprise that people of color continued to struggle for visibility, equality, and a greater voice in American society. Benny Andrews, an African American artist who grew up a sharecropper’s son in Georgia, had firsthand knowledge of the Jim Crow south, along with the social and economic structures that enabled racial inequities to persist. Moving to New York in 1958, he found that similar types of discrimination were also common in galleries and museums, restricting African Americans’ access to the art world and hindering their careers.

These exclusions were made clear in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition “Harlem On My Mind,” which featured large, wall-sized photographs of the neighborhood over the first half of the twentieth century. Organized in the manner of an ethnographic display, the show did not include any painting or sculpture at all, and rejected the participation of Harlem residents themselves in the planning of the show. This controversial show led Andrews and others to establish the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a group that fought for museums to include more by African American artists and curators.  Significant discrimination in the art world continues to exist today.

These concerns of visibility, equality, and voice are present in Andrews’ Flag Day from 1966. By placing the figure at the center of his composition, Andrews draws our eye toward him and his engagement with the American flag. Yet, the relationship between the man and the flag remains unclear. It is a complicated depiction that not only reflects the artist’s own struggles for recognition, but one that relates to broader questions of racial, national, and individual identity during the height of civil rights activism in the United States.

4. Discussion questions

  1. The 1960s was an era of protest by many different groups, many of which used art in their campaigns. For an artist involved in activist causes, why do you think Benny Andrews left the meaning of Flag Day so unclear?
  2. Can art be an effective tool in tackling large social or political issues?  What are some pros and cons of using works of art to promote change?
  3. Think of other examples of how symbols (such as the American flag) are used and transformed in order to make a political point.

5. Research questions

  1. The flag of United States serves as a potent visual symbol of national identity, and many controversies have revolved around its use as a sign of protest and political critique. Like Benny Andrews, other artists such as Jasper Johns, Dread Scott, Faith Ringgold, Sonya Clark, David Hammonds, and Barbara Kruger have created provocative artworks focused on the flag. Compare and contrast two of these works — how are they similar? How are they different?
  2. What is Flag Day? Why do you think Andrews chose this as the title for the painting?

6. Bibliography

More about Benny Andrews (from his estate)

The Civil Rights Act from the Library of Congress)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (from the Digital Public Library of America)

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition archives at The New York Public Library

Photographs of sharecroppers

The Second Great Migration after World War I (from The New York Public Library)

Life in the Jim Crow South (from the American Yawp)

The 1960s (from the American Yawp)

Bridget R. Cooks, “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind(1969).” American Studies, vol. 48, no. 1, 2007, pp. 5–39.

Holland Cotter, “What I Learned From a Disgraced Art Show on Harlem,” The New York Times (August 19, 2015)

Richard Gruber, American icons : from Madison to Manhattan, the art of Benny Andrews, 1948-1997 (Morris Museum of Art, 1997).

Miranda Lash and Trevor Schoonmaker, eds., Southern Accent : Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art (Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2016).

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.