Patriotism in Art

Jasper Johns, Three Flags via the Whitney Museum of American Art

Feature image: Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 1958 via the Whitney Museum of American Art

Patriotism in Art

There often seems to be confusion between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is the concept of supporting one’s own country’s interests, even when those interests could be to the detriment of other nations; it’s what helps drive things such as war and xenophobia. In contrast, patriotism is a feeling of love, pride, and attachment to one’s country. Patriotism can be loving your country's culture, ethnicities, and traditions. 

Something admirable about America is the boundless unique identities that exist within one country. It is truly a melting pot of cultures and stories unlike anywhere else in the world. When we can admire the infinite stories and beliefs around us, we can find true beauty in our country. Patriotism is a theme in art that is just as diverse as America. For years, artists have applied this concept to their own definitions and lived experiences of what being an American means to them. 

We have gathered a collection of images that capture the many unique iterations of what we define as patriotism. During this 4th of July, we encourage you to take a moment to consider the sheer amount of culture that exists in our country and the many ways you can find beauty within it.

Wendy Red Star, The Soil You See, 2023

Wendy Red Star, The Soil You See, 2023
Wendy Red Star, The Soil You See, 2023 via Monument Lab

Wendy Red Star is a member of the Apsáalooke tribe and a prolific Native American artist whose work centers around her identity as a Native American woman and uplifting the voices of those who came before her. Her work is often poignant and critical, and “The Soil You See” is no exception. In 2023, she, along with six other artists, was commissioned to create an installation for the National Mall in Washington, D.C

Red Star created “The Soil You See,” the sculpture is a memorial to the former Apsáalooke leaders who had been forced to sign treaties with the United States, signing away their land. The piece figures Red Star’s fingerprint in red propped on a granite boulder. The names of the Apsáalooke leaders who had signed these treaties are inscribed on the fingerprint. The piece clearly calls into focus her identity and effectively calls out the unjust treatment the Apsáalooke have suffered. She reminds the viewers that these people still exist and persevere. 

Judy Baca, Mi Abuelita, 1971

Judy Baca,  Mi Abuelita, 1971
Judy Baca, Mi Abuelita, 1971 via Wiki Images

Judy Baca is a Mexican American artist renowned for her large-scale public installations and murals. Among her most famous works is the mural titled “Mi Abuelita.” This warm-colored project envelopes three walls on the outdoor stage of Hollenbeck Park in Los Angeles. The mural depicts a Mexican American abuelita (granny) outstretching her arms as if she envelopes all who view it. It is a universal statement reminding us all of the matronly love we’ve experienced throughout our lives, no matter what form that may take. The unifying ideas of the mural don’t just end with its subject; part of Baca’s goal in creating this piece was to use a collective process of deploying art to act as a middle ground for the gang violence in the city at the time.

The mural was created with 20 youths from the surrounding area, some members of various rival gangs. Though Baca was warned not to instigate such potential trouble, she defied these orders and continued with her vision. “Mi Abuelita” not only combines the cultural idea of family, but its very creation recognizes a unity we can all share through the concept of art. 

Christine Sun Kim, The Star-Spangled Banner (Third Verse), 2020

 Christine Sun Kim , Star Spangled Banner (Third Verse), 2020 via Simthsonian American Art Museum
Christine Sun Kim , Star Spangled Banner (Third Verse), 2020 via Smithsonian American Art Museum

When Christine Sun Kim was asked to be the American Sign Language Interpreter for the 2020 Super Bowl, creating a piece of tangible art to go with her visual performance might not have been at the front of her mind, but later that year as a reflection of the event the artist created this charcoal score drawing that showcased her process for her performance. Looking closely at the piece we notice the specific words Kim has chosen to highlight on this sheet, words such as home, mine, brave, flag, colonial, army, marines, and more. It is not only a reflection of her mind during the performance, but perhaps a step further as a reflection of her position as an American.

Kim had mixed feelings about accepting the Superbowl invitation, as though it would be an opportunity for disability representation. She also knew that perhaps some of the ideas she would be promoting were not actual realities for most citizens. These large-scale pieces invite the viewers to consider what it means to be an American and what that experience could look like from different perspectives. It’s an evocative piece that does not shy away from the dual ideas of pride and hope for further progress. 

Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964

 Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964
Norman Rockwell, The Problem We All Live With, 1964 via Wiki Images

Perhaps no artist is more famous for depicting Americana life than Norman Rockwell. His vast imagery covers the many crevices of what America was at his time. Though he is perhaps best known for his idyllic, white suburban families, he did not shy away from the opportunity to show greater issues in our country at his time. One instance is in his piece “The Problem We All Live With.” This painting depicts Ruby Bridges, one of the leading faces of school integration during the Civil Rights movement. 

Six-year-old Bridges is shown in this painting walking to school, where she had to be accompanied by four deputy U.S. marshals. Behind the figure depicting Bridges is racial slurs and the letters KKK. What Rockwell does with this painting is draw attention to the fact that this is ultimately a child receiving these vile threats and having to go through her day-to-day life reminiscent of a prisoner. He directly calls this a problem we all share, which was a powerful statement at the time of this piece. His direct eye view on the problem also serves as a call to action, challenging the viewers to recognize the wrongs of this image and reflect on how they can resolve the problem. Rockwell’s vision of America was not just a white-centric middle-class daydream but a real-world representative of us all.

Georgia O’Keefe, Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931

 Georgia O’Keefe, Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue,  1931
Georgia O’Keefe, Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931 via Georgiaokeefe.net

We choose to end on this image by Georgia O’Keefe. With its straightforward Americana coloring and depiction of a jagged cow skull, this image captures a deeper spirit of America with homage to the country's sprawling landscapes and resilient spirit. O’Keefe constantly found beauty in our land, and in a sense, you could argue her work serves as a love letter to the country we all share. The deliberate color choice here shows O’Keefe’s recognition of the skull, the artistic value she sees in it, and its deeply Americanness.

It reminds us all to stop and appreciate the vast natural wonders we are surrounded by each day and perhaps even think of how we can protect this beauty as we continue to live. It can be easy to forget how powerful nature can be, but it is one of the easiest things for which we can all share a deep admiration and love.

Patriotism can take many forms, but at the end of the day, it comes down to our shared experiences trying to make our country a better place for anyone wishing to live here. Finding pride here at home can inspire us to find more ways to become the changes we wish to see. This 4th of July, we encourage you to reflect on what patriotism means to you and how you can take what resonates with the concept and apply it to your everyday world.


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