America Is Hard to See
Audio Guide Playlist

This audio guide highlights selected works by artists in America Is Hard to See. Curators, scholars, and artists provide additional commentary.

NARRATOR: This painting by Jasper Johns, called Three Flags, was made in 1958. Todd Gitlin is a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and a scholar of American culture of the 1960s.

TODD GITLIN: . . .he's neither celebrating the flag nor. . .stabbing it in the heart.  He's. . .to use a later term, deconstructing it. . .[A]nother way to put it is that he's inviting you to become innocent. He's inviting you to look at these things as if you were a Martian. . .And just to stare at them and to take them as natural artifacts.

[T]he question is not just why is Johns painting these flags and numbers and letters but. . .why are other people buying them, exhibiting them, find them interesting. . .

[T]here is an argument to be made that he is retailing. . .in the fifties

a sort of soft aestheticizing of the sacred national symbol in a way that. . .flatters or honors the nation. . .but without genuflection. That is, he's appropriating with. . .a frisson of individuality. . .an attitude of approval which incorporates a brief moment of disapproval and so he's sort of. . .signing on to Americanism. . .as a graceful dissenter.

And in a world that's increasingly cluttered by symbols. . .cluttered with. . .artifacts that are mass produced. Cluttered. . .with noise and. . .slogan. . .and so on.. .that the proper attitude to take toward all of that is a kind of. . .amused, distant, as Rolling Stone would later put it, cosmic giggle.

But in the meantime I think he's also saying. . .and it's part of his appeal to the zeitgeist that he's saying to the world of. . .intellectuality, shut up. Just shut up.  Shut up and look. 

More Audio Guides

Mary Corse: A Survey in Light audio guide
Nick Mauss: Transmissions audio guide
Between the Waters audio guide
Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables audio guide
Juan Antonio Olivares audio guide
Laura Owens audio guide