I recently returned from Thanksgiving weekend in Kennebunk, Maine, the town I grew up in. For those unfamiliar, it’s a small upper- and owning-class town where the Bush family likes to vacation. We have our progressive enclaves, but the town is widely associated with the political right. So, when Bud Swenson showed up in our local library, we showed our true, conflicted colors.
Swenson makes art from American flags, and he aims to make a bold statement. His exhibit – inoffensively titled “Portraits in a Time of War” – has been the subject of some controversy around town. His open criticism of the Bush administration, evident in his work, prompted the Kennebunk Free Library to remove two of his pieces for violating “normative community standards.” The Portland Press Herald reports that the Library defines those standards as “the Bush family’s connection with the area” and two complaints from the public. And this after nearly canceling his exhibit before it was hung.
The caricatures of Bush and Cheney were returned after the library board had them reinstated. They now hang next to untitled pieces of Americana that look like unassuming folk art, but debate over the issue is still causing a buzz.
Mr. Swenson, who has lived in Kennebunk since 1982, distributed a statement by Bruce Gagnon by the guestbook. Gagnon writes:
Our nation’s history is a series of moments of conflict, recorded in time by courageous artists, and today a malaise has enveloped our culture fueled by half-truths, deception and lies.
How can people believe in democracy again? What does the flag stand for today? Can America survive when 70% of the people want the war to end but both parties ignore their longing for peace?
The artist raises these questions and many more. Without reflection and healthy debate a nation cannot claim to be a true democracy.
I find “What does the flag stand for today?” to be the most compelling question, since it actually invites discussion. So, should the symbol of a nation be allowed to be used in self-criticism? Is this desecration of a common symbol, or an invitation to a stirring debate?