Art Fart: On the Confederate flags of the Dundalk Heritage Fair

This morning, the Confederate flag was removed from the state Capitol grounds of South Carolina, a day after Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill calling for its removal, with passionate support from both Democrats and Republicans.

This comes almost two weeks after artist and activist Bree Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole outside the South Carolina State House, removed the flag, and was promptly arrested along with fellow activist James Tyson and charged with defacing state property. The flag was remounted shortly after Newsome's badass performance, though not for long. The act was exalted as a powerful work of art, as well as a political statement.

Later in the week, back in Maryland, what seemed like (but probably isn't, unfortunately) every Confederate flag in the state flocked to Dundalk for the Dundalk Heritage Fair, celebrating Independence Day weekend and, of course, Dundalk heritage.

But many of these flags weren't just your grandma's straight-up stars 'n' bars. They had more character, as if the drunk, karaoke-ing fairgoers proudly displaying them didn't have enough character to begin with. The intersections of the bars in these flags were covered by another symbol. One featured the stoic profile of Robert E. Lee; another, the unabashed redneck emblem of the black, stylized silhouette of a nude woman. With flames, of course. The third was embellished with four wolf heads encircled by a wheel of baby Confederate flags.

These three need no explanation, but in the spirit of the Art Fart, some analysis is in order. First of all, thank god the Flaming Trucker Boob Lady (FTBL) not only graces our highways, but now also makes an appearance on our country's symbol of racial hatred and the losing side of a century-and-a-half-old war. Now, we can be reminded of the South's attempt to keep human beings enslaved, and that dehumanized female bodies can be symbols (and the impetus) of transit masturbation—two great American pastimes. On the flag, the FTBL appears like a classic online meme, with the bars radiating around it—the only thing missing is some weak joke in the bold white font. The juxtaposition is even more awkward than when the FTBL is stuck on the back bumper of a pickup with swinging truck balls—a kitsch feat that puts the Baltimore Police Department to shame. It's so over the top, you'd think (and hope, to a degree) that the flag was self-mocking, like a caricature of Confederate pride.

The image recalls those nerdy T-shirts ironically appropriated by "hip" white dudes that have since, thankfully, gone out of style. This flag is a different brand of kitsch, one more dated than the timeless FTBL. It's the kind of image you'd expect to see in a dusty, WiFi-less tavern where rifle-wielding hunters would gather after a long day.

The Lee flag is a little more tasteful, if you can call honoring the Confederate Army taste. As if he were the face on one side of a nonexistent piece of currency, Lee's profile appears like a monochromatic etching, haloed by a wreath. Lee's pointed beard—one of the far better facial hairstyles of the painfully unstylish Civil War, so there's that—follows the diagonal line of one of the intersecting bars. Compositionally, it's simple, but effective in contrast to FTBL. But it's so austere that really, we'd rather see it somewhere more surprising, like creeping up from the bottom or one of the corners, like a groundhog popping out of the ground. Better yet, we'd love to not see it at all—Lee or the flag.

A fourth flag left us initially bewildered. The stars and bars are almost entirely covered by a puddle-shaped cloud depicting a Native American chief on horseback in a rocky, snow-blanketed landscape. How this figure ended up on a Confederate flag, we had no idea. But after further research, we were reminded of the complicated history of Native Americans during the Civil War that we'd forgotten from our high school American history class. Long story short, though many tribes remained neutral during the Civil War, other Native Americans were split between the Union and the Confederacy. While many Native Americans were enslaved by whites, a few Native American tribes owned black slaves. So it's not totally random that they’re featured here on the Confederate flag.

The highly romantic painting consumes the flag, drawing questions to what's really going on: Is the painting spreading to conceal the flag, to silence it? Or is it coexisting with the stars and bars? And, more importantly, who's responsible? Is this design the product of Confederate-sympathizing Native Americans, or the act of white people using the image of a Native American chief to blindly brand the Confederate flag with a symbol of nature and American ancestry, in the grossly sentimental spirit of the outdated concept of the "Noble Savage," free from the corruption of (in this case, Northern) civilization? This flag, in particular, points not only to Maryland's complicated history in the Civil War, but also that of the first Americans.

As Bree Newsome demonstrated last week, the Confederate flag can be used as an element of artistic expression. If conservative Marylanders insist on waving the Confederate flag—even though many South Carolina conservatives have rejected it as a symbol of racial hatred—they need to step up their game and spruce it up, like these fine examples from Dundalk. Throw on some Lisa Frank stickers. Glitter-bomb it. Instead of putting the flag on bikinis, put bikinis on the flag. Fingerpaint on it. Tear it up and use the pieces for collage. Burn it. Or put it in a museum so that it can be preserved as a part of history—like so much of the world's massive collection of problematic and embarrassing art—one that should be condemned but not erased.

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