Sunday, December 19, 2004

Emblems of national identity

Art historians tend to shy away from the simpler, stylized imagery of daily life. At one time semiotics, a promising discipline, took on the burden of studying business logos, traffic signs, and patriotic emblems. Now that semiotics is languishing in the doldrums, these designs have settled uneasily in the discipline of "visual studies." And good riddance, we think. For these jingles for the eye--memes, if you will--lack the complexity of True Art.

Still, as in the case of heraldry, such emblems have sometimes been constituent elements of more complex works of art. Moreover, the study of such motifs can benefit from the sophisticated techniques of analysis stemming from orthodox art history.

During the Middle Ages such regalia as the orb, crown, and coronation robes served to signal the potency of particular regimes and ruling houses, as those of the Holy Roman Empire.

A sequence of emblems in France affords a representative overview of this development. During the Middle Ages the fleur-de-lis and the oriflamme were closely associated with the ruling dynasty. (In some cases, such symbols may be ambivalent, as when the fleur-de-lis, rechristened the giglio, symbolizes the city of Florence.) The Gallic cockerel stems from a gibe first made by foreigners. According to the French constitution the only officially recognized symbol of the Republic is the tricolor flag, with its red, white, and blue bands. However, la Marianne, embodied in recent times by celebrities, is the human personification of the nation.

To those of us residing on these shores the current symbols of the United States are most familiar. The historical record provides many less well-known examples. Some of these appear in a massive new tome (851 pp.) by David Hackett Fischer, "Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas" (Oxford U Press, 2004). A respected historian, Fischer’s earlier book "Albion’s Seed" convincingly traced individual strands of the American character to four different waves of immigration from the British Isles.

Fischer’s new book covers such important emblems of the struggle for independence as the Liberty Tree and the “Don’t Tread on Me” serpent. A number of interesting permutations of Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty (before and after Bartholdi colossus) enrich the volume.

Given the current immature state of scholarship in this field, no such book could be complete. Still, there are some odd omissions. There seems to be no discussion of the Great Seal of the United States, which since 1935 has adorned every dollar bill. The Seal’s reverse shows an unfinished pyramid. At its zenith is an eye within a triangle, surrounded by a golden glory. As we know it, the pyramid of the Great Seal reflects the standard Egyptian type with straight sloping sides. Yet when the design first appeared in 1782, the pyramid had 13 steps, a design more typical of Mesopotamia (the ziggurat)—ironically, the country we have invaded and occupied. In the latter part of the 19th century, when there were many more than thirteen states, this design was no longer suitable. Then it received straight sloping sides. It seems that more research must be undertaken to clarify this pervasive emblem. The matter is not simply resolved by archly declaring it to be a Masonic symbol, and leaving it at that.

In the coverage of recent times, Fischer seems to lose his way. The symbols of the Civil Rights era and the Women’s movement are fairly well handled. Yet there is little on the rich imagery of the hippie and psychedelic movements, generating endless variations on Art Nouveau themes. The symbols of the gay and lesbian movement are scanted. There is only one tiny illustration of the rainbow flag, with no explanation. For the last twenty years or so gays have this flag in many US and foreign cities. Few realize, however, that the design was purloined (inadvertently or deliberately) from the emblem designed by the Frenchman Charles Gide in the 1920s for the world Cooperative Movement. From that source, it also migrated to Peru, where the rainbow flag is proudly displayed as the emblem of the highland people of Cuzco and environs.

Even though they may be destined to remain of little interest to art historians (and indeed to cultural and political historians), such emblems have protean qualities of survival and self-transformation. They have also played a vital role in shaping national identity in many lands.