Artistic Genius? Jasper Johns’ Flag (1954)

In Critique of Judgement, Emmanuelle Kant argued the case for the artistic genius;[1]which is defined as a member of society with God-given talent, almost always male,[2]whose unacceptable behaviour may at times be excused, but who otherwise exhibits an extraordinary creative gift.[3] This article will reflect on two texts that discuss this concept of artistic genius in relation to Jasper Johns work Flag(1954).  It will firstly consider the social construction of the artist using ideas drawn from New Historicism, particularly referencing Foucault. Through an analysis of an interview with the artist from 1965, it will then consider the value of Jasper Johns painting, as a system of signs, asking what value can be found there. Lastly, the essay will consider a Marxist methodology and it’s use to discuss value and intention in Fred Orton’s essay, On the Intention of Modern(ist) Art(2008).

In his lecture Why Artists Dislike Critics(2018), Donald Kuspit claims that ‘[Critics] are carping, sarcastic and envious of their creative betters. They spoil the fun, as though art was good innocent fun’.[4]Near the beginning of the interview with Johns, Sylvester fashions himself as an experienced reader of art by using terms like, ‘obviously’ – thus implying some shared knowledge. The critic then threatens Johns with recognising him as the ‘author’, whose unknowable genius must be picked apart. Sylvester presses Johns as the single source of meaning. By asking Johns to define what goes on the canvas, what the attraction is with content and mark making, Sylvester forces Johns to accept the role of author, which Johns seemingly evades throughout the interview. 

Kuspit argues that, ‘the critic may be the artist’s ideal self-object’, suggesting the artist/critic relationship is mutually dependent.[5]Although Johns needs the critic’s support to nourish self-fashioning, he also rejects the critic’s overtures, resisting prescriptive rules of the artist/critic relationship. The artist may know his fate is held in the interviewers hand because he has the power to recognise Johns as an artist. Perhaps it is this ‘power of recognition and reception’ that Johns seems to resent. As the interview progresses this is evidenced by his changing tone and defensive manner.[6]

Like Copeland’s observation that ‘there’s nothing that Johns does that isn’t full of contempt’[7], Johns shifts the focus away from himself,marked by his use of the term ‘one’, rather than ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘you’, which could be viewed as possibly arrogant or evasive.[8]Johns may be contemptuous, but this could be a tactic deployed to portray himself as the artist who refuses to be pigeonholed. There is evidence that Johns has worked hard to position himself as an artist ‘genius’, for example in his essay, On the Intention of Modern(ist) Art, Fred Orton comments that Johns dreams of painting a flag, as though Flagis the product of divine intervention. Similarly, he may have contributed to fashioning himself as an artist when he declared that he discarded his work prior to Flag. He stopped ‘trying to be an artist and became an artist’ suggesting a moment of birthing, or an epiphany.[9]Despite cataloguing a rich tapestry of influences that include Motherwell and Duchamp, and declaring that he always wanted to be an artist since he was five years old, Johns creates for himself, and the painting, a moment of inception.[10]  At times he displays an impetuous tone, for example when Sylvester asks him about certain processes outside painting, Johns says, ‘You said it’ with Sylvester replying, ‘I’m asking you.’[11]Without the benefit of audio recordings, it is difficult to accurately gauge the tone, but short, sharp responses do suggest a mood of tension that, when coupled with his birthing and the dream of painting a flag, come together to suggest self-fashioning, or a performance Johns believes might suit a public persona, which presupposes a pre-existing subject thereby ‘constituting the identity it is purported to be’.[12][13]

Foucault’s What is an Author(1969) can be useful to help understand the power dynamic at play in the interview. Sylvester represents himself as a figure of authority, reminding Johns about previous statements such as, ‘you were saying before…’[14]and this use of language (posing statements as questions) helps to express Sylvester’s power to create knowledge by ‘inventing’ or at best representing Johns as an artist. Foucauldian discourse analysis enables a better understanding of the power dynamics in the interview, where Sylvester needs solid answers to help express his dominance and to elucidate Flag’smyriad of possible meanings. The power and knowledge Sylvester attempts to take from Johns aligns with the ideology of the art market, which is to ‘enfranchise, baptize, or otherwise realize something as a work of art’.[15]

Sylvester presses for meaning throughout the interview in an effort to construct meaning from the variety of possible interpretations, and as an opportunity for Johns to construct his performance.  Although not explicitly mentioned in the interview, this effort may be driven by a need to commodify the work and the artist. The 1960s and 70s in American art was a time of feverish collecting of ‘bright young artists’ with dealers excelling at ‘getting their artists press coverage’.[16]When viewed through the lens of commodity fetishism, Sylvester’s attempt to interrogate Johns fits within the framework of capitalism where art objects have ‘magical’ qualities which exist over and above their use or exchange value.[17][18]By creating this type of value, Sylvester had to portray Johns and interpret Flagin a way that fits within the framework of capitalist ideology.

Yet Flag is, ‘value-laden with interpretations’, which differ depending on the cultural approach and the spectators prior knowledge.[19]Roland Barthes argues that there is little clear connection between the painting as signifier and that which is signified.[20]A post-structuralist approach supplants the author for the reader, where meaning and intention depend upon the viewer’s own cultural baggage. Barthes might argue that the painting has multiple interpretations and that Johns was not the author of the works ‘sign’ content. Therefore, as Sylvester eventually concedes, Flagcannot be ‘pinned down’.[21]In 1965 Flagcould be a sign of American patriotism, ‘satire, or irony; of disengagement, even nostalgia’ but could similarly reflect America’s bullish military efforts abroad, or its attempts to harmonise racial inequality at home.[22][23][24]John’s intention for Flag, if he ever had an intention, is as Barthes claims, in the viewer’s hands, utterly rejecting the myth that the artist’s brilliance presides over the meaning and reception of the work.[25]

Fred Ortondoes not appear to regard Johns as a genius, and measures the artists intention as something that fluctuates, and is unstable[26]Although he acknowledges Intentional Fallacy that states an authors meaning is of little importance, Orton does try to demonstrate initial intent by returning to Johns’ account of Flag’smoment of inception.[27][28]Having dreamt of painting a flag, the story of which is not without it’s own mythology, Orton asks if his intention was to paint a flag, or to paint a picture of a flag. The tone of Orton’s essay is unsurprisingly flat as he discusses the structure of the painting.[29]If Orton sees genius in Johns work, he disguises it very well by using phrases like ‘impatience or lack of competence’ as he describes Johns experimenting with materials like enamel, and then wax and collaged newspaper.[30]Nevertheless, Orton leverages an analysis of the construction of the painting – how it is collaged together – to equate it to the construction of the actual stars and stripes. Orton is suggesting that intention changed as the work progressed. Looking at the production process can reveal more about intent than simply asking the artist. Orton argues that asking the artist about intention is pointless, because the production process can distort, disrupt or adapt intention. Put simply, Johns dreamt of painting a flag, but in fact ended up making a flag. 

Johns refers to what objects are not, for instance he refers to the changing nature of coke bottles and the stars and stripes.[31]Here, sign systems can be referred back to, where meaning is fluid. This may indicate another action that describes Johns’ identity as an artist. He usefully gives signs of pop culture, and pre-made, Duchampean signs to identify with. This may set him separate rom the generation of American artists that immediately precedes him: the Abstract Expressionists. Johns is unlike for example Rothko, who famously said, ‘I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on’.[32]  Johns separates his identity from his contemporaries, fashioning his persona in opposition to these others, and does not identify signs in his work that the viewer should seek meaning from. 

Foucault discusses the idea of the author function, believing people are molded by various social conditions.[33]Johns is not a naturally born genius, instead he’s the happenstance of certain social organizations.[34]The function of Johns’ identity as an author is to unify his work under his name; connect him to questions of merit, and to hold him legally accountable for his work. By thinking about Johns in this way undermines the assumption of genius and that the artist is the guiding authority in their work. Johns seems to agree and although he accounts for the direction of a work, he also claims that he is not ‘concerned’ with the result of the art and denies that he imbues meaning upon the painting, saying that meaning comes from ‘looking at it’.[35]The value of the artist is constructed by the art world in order to sell the image of the artist to a wider public. Johns work is culturally constructed and dependent upon Sylvesterand his relentless questions regarding Johns intention or consciousness. Clearly Johns sees the value of the work as a variable that can shift depending on who, or when the work is viewed. 

When Orton writes his treatise on intention, variability in value is taken as a given.[36]In fact, Orton argues that the value in Flagisonly discernable once the work is complete. At this point the work can be identified as the beginning; the start of Johns’ career; the beginning of Johns’ performing as an artist; the beginning of Johns’ intention for both the work and his trajectory as an artist – even if that is to deny intention, and even if that intention, as Orton has expertly pointed out, is flexible and changed over the course of the painting.  

Value in terms of meaning and intention is certainly a part of Orton’s analysis which at times takes a Marxist approach, particularly when he discusses Flagas part of the system of exchange value, use value and it’s role in supporting ideology. Orton argues that the intention of any artist is to make art, but he suggests that the artist must support him/herself by selling their labour, specifically selling the art they have produced in an art market. Orton does however qualify the work of an artist as separate from other types of labour, such as a person making a table.[37]Although both are alienated from their labour, indeed Marx and Engels argued artists are the result of a capitalist division of labour, Orton claims that artists make the work for themselves, enjoying a period self-reflection and self-understanding.[38][39]For young artists on the verge of success, this period of introspection presumably comes before the artist’s work is resold by ‘speculators and profit-seekers’.[40]Nonetheless, Orton continues to argue that the artist’s labour in not forced, and therefore not alienated in Marx’s original sense – the labour is directed by the individual and has additional value in offering a vision, or a ‘glimpse’ of an ‘unalienated self’, Orton’s hopeful, and possible overly optimistic future where social divisions cease to exist.[41]

In conclusion, the article by Fred Orton, and the interview between Johns and Sylvester both point to Johns performing a role of the artist in line with old historicism’s idea of genius. Johns played a role that is at times insolent with Sylvester but simultaneously seems to acknowledge the importance of the interviewers role. Johns created a myth around the beginning of both the painting and his career, which Orton easily identifies. Orton also understands the importance of the role in creating ideological value of the work in the wider art market by drawing upon ideas from Marx and Engels. Semantic value is flexible, understood by both analysing Johns reluctance to discuss meaning and intent, and by thinking about the work with a post-structural approach. Similarly, intention for Johns was shifting and fluid as he laboured through the process of making Flag. The fabrication of collaged elements echoes the manufacturing of an actual flag, clearly shifting his dream like intention of making a painting.

References

Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, 2nd edn (New York: The Noonday Press, 1988)

Barthes, Roland, The Death Of The Author, 2018 <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018]

D’Alleva, Anne, Methods & Theories Of Art History, 1st edn (London: Laurence King, 2005), p. 140

D’Alleva, Anne, Methods & Theories Of Art History, 1st edn (London: Laurence King, 2012), pp. 48-59

De Antonio, Emile, “Painters Painting (1973)”, Youtube, 2016 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCnvrNfrUGg&t=3599s&gt; [Accessed 13 November 2018]

Gaut, Berys, The Routledge Companion To Aesthetics, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 480

Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, Art In Theory, 1900-1990(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 721-726

“How The 1965 Immigration Act Changed America”, Youtube, 2018 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU-D6b40WX0)> [Accessed 10 November 2018]

Jasper Johns (B. 1930) Interview With David Sylvester – 1965, 2018 <https://learn2.open.ac.uk/pluginfile.php/2383029/mod_resource/content/3/A843%20TMA%2001%2018J%20Johns%20Source.pdf&gt; [Accessed 10 October 2018]

Johns, Jasper, and Riva Castleman, Jasper Johns(New York: The Museum, 1986)

Kedmey, Karen, “Mark Rothko | Moma”, Moma.Org, 2017 <https://www.moma.org/artists/5047&gt; [Accessed 13 November 2018]

NEAD, L., “Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies Of The Artist And Artistic Creativity”, Oxford Art Journal, 18 (1995), 59-69 <https://doi.org/10.1093/oxartj/18.2.59&gt;

New York School of Visual Arts: MFA Art Criticism & Writing, “Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=1Okqdp6iguk”, Donald Kuspit – Why Artists Dislike Critics, 2006 <https://itunesu.itunes.apple.com/feed/id424611204&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018]

Siegel, Jeanne, Artwords(New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 107

Silah, Sara, On Judith Butler And Performativity(Georgetown Press, 2006), pp. 55-68 <https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Salih-Butler-Performativity-Chapter_3.pdf&gt; [Accessed 14 November 2018]

Smith, Paul, and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), pp. 229-242

Sussman, Anna, “How A Single Auction In 1973 Changed The Art Market Forever”, Artsy, 2018 <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-three-ways-single-auction-1973-changed-art-market&gt; [Accessed 24 November 2018]

War, President, Johns University, and White Trip, “Reel America: President Lyndon Johnson On The Vietnam War (1965)”, C-SPAN.Org, 2018 <https://www.c-span.org/video/?153274-1/reel-america-president-lyndon-johnson-vietnam-war-1965&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018]

Wimsatt, W. K., and M. C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”, The Sewanee Review, 53 (1946), 468-488 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/27537676&gt; [Accessed 12 November 2018]


[1]E. Kant, Critique of Judgment, 1987: Sections 47 -50, in Berys Gaut, The Routledge Companion To Aesthetics, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2010), p. 480.

[2]L. NEAD, “Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies Of The Artist And Artistic Creativity”, Oxford Art Journal, 18.2 (1995), 59-69 <https://doi.org/10.1093/oxartj/18.2.59&gt;.

[3]M. Boden, ‘Creativity’, in Berys Gaut, The Routledge Companion To Aesthetics, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2010), p.p.477-488.

[4]New York School of Visual Arts: MFA Art Criticism & Writing, “Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=1Okqdp6iguk”, Donald Kuspit – Why Artists Dislike Critics, 2006 <https://itunesu.itunes.apple.com/feed/id424611204&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018].

[5]New York School of Visual Arts: MFA Art Criticism & Writing, “Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=1Okqdp6iguk”, Donald Kuspit – Why Artists Dislike Critics, 2006 <https://itunesu.itunes.apple.com/feed/id424611204&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018].

[6]ibid

[7]John Copeland (date unknown) in  New York School of Visual Arts: MFA Art Criticism & Writing, “Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=1Okqdp6iguk”, Donald Kuspit – Why Artists Dislike Critics, 2006 <https://itunesu.itunes.apple.com/feed/id424611204&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018].

[8]Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, Art In Theory, 1900-1990(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 721-726

[9]Emile De Antonio, “Painters Painting (1973)”, Youtube, 2016 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCnvrNfrUGg&t=3599s&gt; [Accessed 13 November 2018].

[10]Jasper Johns and Riva Castleman, Jasper Johns(New York: The Museum, 1986).

[11]Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, Art In Theory, 1900-1990(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 721-726

[12]Sara Silah, On Judith Butler And Performativity(Georgetown Press, 2006), pp. 55-68 <https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Salih-Butler-Performativity-Chapter_3.pdf&gt; [Accessed 14 November 2018].

[13]Judith Butler in ibid p56

[14]Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, Art In Theory, 1900-1990(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 721-726

[15]Anna Sussman, “How A Single Auction In 1973 Changed The Art Market Forever”, Artsy, 2018 <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-three-ways-single-auction-1973-changed-art-market&gt; [Accessed 24 November 2018].

[16]Anna Sussman, “How A Single Auction In 1973 Changed The Art Market Forever”, Artsy, 2018 <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-three-ways-single-auction-1973-changed-art-market&gt; [Accessed 24 November 2018].

[17]ibid

[18]Anne D’Alleva, Methods & Theories Of Art History, 1st edn (London: Laurence King, 2005), p. 52

[19]ibid p. 140.

[20]Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 2nd edn (New York: The Noonday Press, 1988).

[21]Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, Art In Theory, 1900-1990(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 721-726

[22]President War, Johns University and White Trip, “Reel America: President Lyndon Johnson On The Vietnam War (1965)”, C-SPAN.Org, 2018 <https://www.c-span.org/video/?153274-1/reel-america-president-lyndon-johnson-vietnam-war-1965&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018].

[23]“How The 1965 Immigration Act Changed America”, YouTube, 2018 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU-D6b40WX0)> [Accessed 10 November 2018].

[24]Jeanne Siegel, Artwords(New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 107.

[25]Roland Barthes, The Death Of The Author, 2018 <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf&gt; [Accessed 10 November 2018].

[26]Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), pp. 229-242.

[27]ibid

[28]W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”, The Sewanee Review, 53.3 (1946), 468-488 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/27537676&gt; [Accessed 12 November 2018].

[29]Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), pp. 229-242..

[30]ibid

[31]Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art In Theory, 1900-1990(Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 721-726.

[32]Karen Kedmey, “Mark Rothko | Moma”, Moma.Org, 2017 <https://www.moma.org/artists/5047&gt; [Accessed 13 November 2018].

[33]Foucault, M. (1979 [1969]) ‘What is an author?’, in Lodge, D. (ed.) (1988) Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, London, Longman, pp. 196-210. 

[34]R. Wicks, ‘Foucault’, in Berys Gaut, The Routledge Companion To Aesthetics, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2010), p.p.477-488.

[35]R. Wicks, ‘Foucault’, in Berys Gaut, The Routledge Companion To Aesthetics, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2010), p.p.477-488.

[36]Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), pp. 229-242.

[37]Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), p232

[38]Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), p232

[39]Anne D’Alleva, Methods & Theories Of Art History, 1st edn (London: Laurence King, 2012), pp. 48-59.

[40]Anna Sussman, “How A Single Auction In 1973 Changed The Art Market Forever”, Artsy, 2018 <https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-three-ways-single-auction-1973-changed-art-market&gt; [Accessed 24 November 2018].

[41]Paul Smith and Carolyn Wilde, A Companion To Art Theory(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2016), p233

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