The “Memorial Flag” Art of Dave Cole

In his 2005 work, “Memorial Flag (Toy Soldiers),” Providence, Rhode Island-based Dave Cole (born 1975) gives expression to just the kind of moral conundrums all great political art points to. Sometimes, such art adopts a powerful point of view towards the conundrum (think of Picasso’s fiercely anti-war “Guernica”), while other times it rests with merely noting a deeply troubling question or perspective while allowing viewers to grapple with it as they will.

Cole’s “Memorial Flag” painting strikes this viewer as decidedly more the latter.

Cole created what he considers an actual flag rather than an artistic representation by melting together and then painting 18,000 toy soldiers armed with their guns, the soldiers of the type that most every American boy learned to play and fantasize with growing up in the 20th century. (Collecting soldiers and playing “army” was a reliable alternative to honing one’s baseball card collection and playing backyard fantasy ball.)

Cole even checked with the Government Printing Office to ensure that his flag matches exact specifications for official flags (9.5 feet by 5 feet, in case you were wondering).

The varying shapes of the soldiers in different positions and holding different weapons gives the work its rough-hewn, notable texture when seen from a distance. The whole piece looks like a flag and nothing more, though.

It is only when viewers approach closer that the painting reveals itself en toto. “Oh!” one almost involuntarily exclaims. It’s not just a flag.

It turns out there’s no piece of the work that isn’t a toy soldier, adding up to a veritable army—melted, inert, encased in lifeless, mashed-together plastic. It’s a huge jumble of dead soldiers painted and arranged painstakingly in red, white and blue.

The inextricability of the flag from the countless soldiers who fight and die for some notion of it allows viewers to make their own associations with the subject at hand. There the soldiers are, fallen at odd angles, upside up, upside down, facing forward and backward.

What are you going to make of it?

 

 

On one side are those struck with extreme revulsion at the senseless sacrifice demanded by war, one conflict after another in a nearly unbroken chain stretching thousands of years, war’s clearest commonality being that it invariably sees old men sending young men off to fight and die. The cost of all those shattered lives and families stands as its own most powerful indictment against the ravages of war and the righteousness of peace-making.

But with its bright sheen of red, white and blue subtly harboring those who have sacrificed on its behalf, Cole’s work could easily fuel an upwelling of proud patriotic fervor in others. Those more poker and resigned to humanity’s war-making tendencies might gaze upon the soldiers from a closer distance and see the nobility and need for their sacrifice in a world still suffused with brutality and clear lines between good and evil. And now Cole has done those soldiers proud.

 

“Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead,” remarked American poet W.H. Auden in a New York Times column in 1971, in which he also claimed, “Nothing I ever wrote saved a single Jew from being gassed…it’s perfectly all right to be an engagé writer as long as you don’t think you’re changing things.”

Rather too dour of a view, it would seem, given how efficiently, with a serious measure of clear-eyed, goal-directed activity, totalitarian regimes start rounding up writers and artists as soon as the tanks roll into a city, then dispersing them to the gulag where their expressiveness usually goes mute or muffled at the prison walls. I think it safe to say they would not do so if what artists do and say didn’t matter.

For our purposes here, we need only ask of Dave Cole and others of his artist tribe—including gifted and gifting writers such as Auden—that they make us stop to think, and ponder, and struggle to understand and respond to the moral dilemmas and unresolved questions that life continues to throw in front of us.

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Auden’s fierce anti-totalitarian screed “The Shield of Achilles” is not for the faint of heart, but the effect of his own reading here is almost hypnotic, though as dark as the darkest bottom of the drink you may well want to lift up to your lips upon reading it. Worth it, though? Yes…

 

 

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Twitter: @AndrewHidas

Flickr:

Deep appreciation to photographer Elizabeth Haslam, for the rotating banner photos at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Small Cole flag art detail at top of page courtesy of Danforth Art Museum School, see more at: http://www.danforthart.org/dave_cole.html

Larger Cole flag art photo at middle of page from past exhibition at Cincinnati Museum of Art, see more at: http://www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org

Finally, “Memorial Flag (Toy Soldiers)” is currently on display at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina, where I was fortunate to take it in last week. 21c is an innovative, privately held small chain of (four) combination hotels-museums-eat/drink establishments dedicated to promoting freely accessible fine art in hospitable, conversation-promoting environments. See more at: http://www.21cmuseumhotels.com/durham/museum/

4 comments to The “Memorial Flag” Art of Dave Cole

  • lindapproulx  says:

    This is a powerful piece of art – bringing up for me so much sadness for the beautiful young men and women who are lost in these conflicts. And then there are those who come home and live on. My Dad, wounded on a European battlefield in WW II, still fell out of bed as an old man, carrying on the fight in his dreams. And my husband fell to his knees in front of the Vietnam War Memorial, unable to retrieve the names of his fallen buddies with the power of being taken back to those dark days in Vietnam. I heard on the news this week that with women now allowed to hold all combat roles, there is no longer a legal reason not to have a universal draft. Perhaps reinstating this will give pause to those so anxious to send the young to war.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Linda, thank you for this. Your comment takes me back to high school and playing regular pickup basketball on weekends with several returned Vietnam vets, who, during the kibbitzing time while resting between games, made a rather emphatic case to us kids along the lines of, “Stay in school, go to college! Stay out of that war!” All of them were fully functional and good guys, but they could not have sounded more urgent. It had an impact on me, as did visiting the Vietnam Wall years later and finding myself suddenly crying, too, not because I knew any names on the wall, but because of the specter of so many men down the rows, on their knees, weeping copiously with their arms up, fingers tracing along the names of their fallen comrades. The almost unbearable grief and waste of it all…I will never forget that sight.

      So when I heard the Republican candidates at the debate last week, none of them ever serving a day in the military themselves, blithely prattling on about how tough they’d be and how rip-roaring ready they are (Rand Paul excepted) to go bang heads and exterminate our enemies, it felt shocking and unsettling, knowing what we know all too well from Vietnam, from Iraq, from Afghanistan…And so we go back again to Pete Seeger: “When will we ever learn?”

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Oh, indeed Pete Seeger, when will we ever learn? I had the privilege of engaging with a most thoughtful family member recently about war cries against Islam, continued war and violence, et al. We played what my wife often refers to as the “what if?” game. What if a political leader didn’t need to worry about constituent retribution and get laughed out of office for saying “no more!” No more violence, no more an eye for an eye approach to violence and terrorist acts. What, we pondered, would that leader propose? Ignore global threats and safety in the vain hope that somehow peace would prevail in the long run? Not sure that there is any precedent for that; but, then again, likely no precedent for trying either. What if, we mused, an American or European leader convened a meeting of representatives from ISIS, et al and suggested that the world would like to understand their views, desires, and hoped-for changes to the world? In other words, what if the response to violence was a demonstrable effort to understand its roots and its hopes? Impossible, we decided. Too far out there; too reasonable, and perhaps too dangerous. Then again, too dangerous for what? So dangerous that attacks and mass killings might continue? So dangerous that well-intended, somewhat idealistic and hopeful people might move into positions of power? We need a moon shot or, as one of my pals retired from the corporate world refers to as a BHAG: a Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goal. Are there those to whom an appeal for reason and cooperation could trump (pardon the word!) violence to eradicate violence? Seems far-fetched, we concluded; but it was the most uplifting conversation I have had in ages. Throwing it in the Andrew blog mix, because I can.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jay, your comments remind me of a book here on my to-be-read shelf, by former Senator George Mitchell, “The Negotiator.” As you know, he went on to broker a lasting peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, did tireless Mideast shuttle diplomacy, etc. I heard him interviewed on Terry Gross months ago, and listening to him describe his lifetime of hard toil with often bitter and sometimes warring partisan factions, I was moved by what I can only describe as his cheerfulness, his refusal to live in anything less than hope. Notably, he did appeal to reason and cooperation in the service of big, hairy audacious goals, but I remember how much he emphasized small steps, small gestures of even minute agreement in pursuit of those goals, with the notion that you need something, anything, whatever it is, to build on. A small structure & framework for trust, and then you work toward another, and another. Always fragile, needing tender care, but you keep going, with the patience of a saint. How else are you going to get anywhere, and what better things could you possibly do with your time?

    That said, Mitchell operated in a world where self-interest and self-preservation mostly ruled the day. Where an appeal to naked self-interest could be paired with the other party’s equal interest in their own to wring concessions and agreements to keep peace and rapprochement moving forward. And this is the problem with the likes of ISIS, who regard opponents as apostates and of the devil. With a radical literalist religious factor in play, compromise in the service of self-interest is regarded as a sin, because one does not compromise with the devil. So this is where any kind of unilateral peacemaking, pacifism or trust-without-verification gets problematic. If ISIS considers us of the devil and not fit to live, and if their own ethos is suffused with righteous calls to the beauty of martyrdom, then rational self-interest, of the MAD (mutual assured destruction) quality that have kept us and the Soviets from blowing each other up through the nuclear era, doesn’t much apply. Violent religious fanaticism suffused with martyrdom changes all the traditional rules of the game.

    So thinking how Mitchell might view this (can we ask him to pen something for the New York Times?), I’m guessing he wouldn’t even approach ISIS, because they’re not negotiators in any typical sense, and he’d more likely be trying to engage the Saudis, the Iranians, Iraqis, Jordanians, et al, to ultimately change the conditions that have led to and continue to fuel ISIS and Al Qaeda, too, for that matter. Because ultimately, the solution for radical Islam will have to come from moderate modernist Islam, not from the Christian and pluralist West. We can contain them, but defeat has to come from their own tradition and region, when Arab/Islamic governments fully enter the 21st century—politically, religiously, with respect for human rights, gender equality, etc. Got a ways to go for that to happen, I fear.

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