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Starring role

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Flags in the United States of America have assumed symbolic importance far beyond fabric, color and design. Just as the debate over the import of a Confederate flag rages on in many quarters, the Stars and Stripes — our flag’s nickname — has seen its image used, abused, misused and flat-out misunderstood over the centuries.

Multitudes of private cars, public vehicles and governmental vehicles of all sorts, for example, unwittingly display flag decals incorrectly in a well-intentioned attempt to demonstrate "support" for a government initiative. The field of blue with white stars should always be displayed to the left. The exception is flags on either side of a moving person or vehicle. The driver’s side would have the blue field on the left, but the passenger’s side should properly have the blue field on the right. The idea is to give the impression of a single flag moving forward.

The fact is many who assume loyalty to fabric analogous to loyalty to country fail utterly to "get" the basics of democracy and tend to give the flag a strange place in our social culture. Yesterday’s flag "desecration" is today’s discount store fashion. What you dared not burn in the last generation, you can wear on your buttocks today.

Taking a long view of the flag as a symbol is the theme of an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "Our Flag," according to the museum, "explores visual interpretations of patriotism and liberty in works drawn from the Academy’s permanent collection." It is certainly a fitting and challenging experience, both aesthetically and intellectually.

One of the more noble missions of museums is to provide this kind of reference for all of us. Informed and determined patriotism is the stuff of American heroes, while blindly jingoistic flag-wavers do the country, its principles and its symbols a great disservice.

Exhibits in "Our Flag," which runs through Jan. 4, range from a 1779 Charles Willson Peale to a George Beach image, Indivisible, created in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11. Many of the images are associated with military activities, such as James Conney’s 1841 Militia Training and Union Soldiers at Camp, executed by William Trost Richards in 1863.

Other pieces include a 1944 painting, Fourth of July by Constance Richardson, and a favorite — Horace Pippin’s 1940 West Chester Court House. Also of note are James Brantley’s Brother James and Rhapsody in Steel by Francis Criss, an undervalued artist whom the Academy featured in a major show several years ago.

"Our Flag" is complemented by a roster of tours, lectures, Art-at-Lunch programs and programs for children and adults.

The works are drawn from the permanent collection and are part of an ongoing series of exhibitions highlighting the Academy’s history, alumni and art holdings that will lead up to a grand celebration in 2005 as the Academy turns 200. The opening of the Samuel Hamilton Building, currently under renovation next door, also will mark the anniversary. The first of the commemorative series was an exhibition of the images of George Washington.

Another exhibition in the series is running concurrently with "Our Flag." The show is "Times of Change 1913-1945: Masterpieces of the Permanent Collection." This show runs through next April and takes a look at the changes in American art since the Armory Show in 1913, which introduced modernism to many Americans.

The three decades covered by "Times of Change" were just that for art, as any number of styles, techniques, technology and collaboration drove art into frenzies of fad and fashion. It was also during this time that Americans, freed by the ideas of European modernism, began to explore their own style of independence and art.

The show includes Academy alumni such as John Marin, Charles Demuth and Arthur B. Carles and works by Milton Avery, Isabel Bishop, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pippin and Florine Stettheimer.

Our Flag and Times of Change 1913-1945: Masterpieces of the Permanent Collection
Through Jan. 4
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
118 N. Broad St.
215-972-7600
$8 adults; $7 seniors and students; $5 for 18-under; free for 5-under and members

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