Yesterday, President Obama recognized civilians who "have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," by awarding them with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among the recipients were Maya Angelou and former President George H.W. Bush. But one recipient warmed my heart and gave me hope for the arts in our country. Jasper Johns, painter, was awarded for his works that deal "with themes of perception and identity." (whitehouse.gov)
Best known for his American Flag encaustic, Johns was (is) an Abstract Expressionist, working with Rauschenberg and others to push American painting to a quality and style that was easily on par with the greatest European painters. I've always loved Johns because he represents a time when things could be interpreted in new ways, could take on new meanings, and familiar icons could suddenly challenge thoughts and deeply held beliefs.
Sometimes art should be for us to enjoy and to give us the simple aesthetic pleasures we desire, but it should also at times reflect our humanity, our struggles, and tell a part of the human story. In the same way novels from a time period paint a picture of what life was like at a particular moment, so to does the work of Johns tell us about his perception of American life. Maybe we should be intensely patriotic. Maybe we should question what the flag means for us. Perhaps we should use the art work to examine deeper meanings about who we are. This is why I love art. Because it not only tell us about the artist, it tell us about ourselves.
Congratulations, Jasper Johns. I hope to see other visual artists recognized for their contributions to our society, and that as they are recognized the arts will continue to be funded and supported.
Image from National Gallery of Art. Numbers, 1966