Flags are no joke. They are not just bright colors and shapes; not just medieval pag- eantry or 20th-century royal theatrics. They can signify fierce allegiances, profound sentiments, or dangerous warnings.
Flags can mark the achievements of space travel, the conquering of mountain peaks, or the heroic exploration of antarctic regions. Planted in such remote reaches, they also symbolize a claim to the surrounding ground on the basis of first-come, first-served.
Given the deep-seated seriousness that even the most sophisticated modern cultures can attach to their flags, it always seemed strange to me that when the American artist Jasper Johns made the stars and stripes the subject of some of his paintings, there was not more outraged protest at his treatment of this sacrosanct image as Pop Art.
Not that he desecrated it in any way. He even might be seen as respecting it by representing it as art; though, in fact, he treated the flag as though it were an object with little or no meaning. He equated it with other subjects out of which he made drawings and paintings: targets, maps, numbers, and letters. By turning all these into paintings, he treated them as form, shape, or even objects, rather than as signs or functions.
Turned into art, they had less meaning, not more. Johns has described these subjects as being ``pre-formed, conventional, depersonalized, factual, exterior elements ... things that can be dealt with without having to judge them: They seem to me to exist as clear facts, not involving aesthetic hierarchy.''
It would appear that he saw a flag, like a number or a letter, as a kind of repeatable, dead-pan, common property that, in itself, was not aesthetic at all, and therefore ideal as material out of which to make art without pretension or historical precedent.
Perhaps it is a comment on Western attitudes to art in our century that, whereas a politician, a schoolteacher, or a general might see the flag as a vastly significant emblem, an artist sees it mainly as color and shape.
Something not dissimilar has occurred by making traveling exhibitions, and a book, out of the flags of the Fante. This West- African tribe, inhabiting the coastal region of Ghana, subdivides into many traditional states. Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard, in their book ``Asafo! African Flags of the Fante'' write of the ``political complexities'' of the Fante region: ``...there are twenty-four traditional states along an eighty-mile stretch of the Atlantic coast, and each state is independently ruled by a paramount chief (`omanhen'), supported by elders and a hierarchy of divisional town and village chiefs.
``In one town there may be from two to fourteen Asafo companies, with as many as seven active companies in a single town.... When the Fante were not fighting together against a common enemy, ... antagonisms often extended to open conflict among themselves. Observers report that battles between Asafo companies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left many dead or wounded.''
The flags in the traveling exhibitions (see schedule next page) and illustrated in the book are from a period of 150 years. Although in the West these generally 3-by-5-foot patchwork images have a primitive appeal, a directness, and a simple, strong use of color and visual language that impresses easily as a kind of charm, they were not intended to be in any way delightful.
Adler and Barnard write that ``the Fante Asafo take the concept of fighting for and with their art to the height of vernacular expression.'' To the Fante, historically at least, their flags represented rivalry, and their messages were not so much subtle digs at other companies as plainly insulting provocations.
The recognition that the ``art'' of the flags was not exactly peace-making led the colonial governor of the region in the 1860s to order that flag designs be submitted to him for approval. And today, in postcolonial times, a new flag design must by law be paraded before all the other companies, ac-cording to Adler and Barnard, ``in order to make sure that no one is offended.'' This suggests a taming of the earlier aggressive meanings of the flags.
The Union Jack included in most Fante flags before independence (March 1957) suggests either alliances with the colonial power against other enemies or a bow to the status quo of that period. And in fact, the whole idea of flags as signs of loyalty and identity owes a great deal to the European presence in the area.
Seen as art, however, no longer provocative in a local setting, the Fante flags become small vivid masterpieces of frankness and naivete and can certainly be enjoyed on an aesthetic level.
Color can be bold or subtle, but the designs are rarely so complex as to detract from the impact of the message. The messages, even at their most insulting, are wrapped in the packaging of proverb or aphorism, which gives wit to both the message itself and the images used to drive the message home.
Though proverbs are traditional means for conveying an idea, the vitality and originality of the Asafo flags are due partly to the ingenious ways in which they not just adapt traditions but invent new ones. Some of these new images adopted ideas from the colonialists. Lions, the book points out, are ``not found in the heavily forested ecology of the Fante coast.'' Yet they are used as emblems of power in some flags.
Planes, ships, trains, and cars also appear on flags, obviously stemming for the European influx and the arrival of modern technology. Thus a Fante company challenges its rivals with a flag illustrating the idea that ``like the aeroplane, we can go anywhere.''
In many other flags, familiar local flora and fauna are used to effect: ``like the vine we can conquer any problem,'' for instance or ``without the head, the snake is nothing but rope.''
Such proverbial messages, and the flag images invented to express them, seem to display something more than partisanship: They perhaps have something to do with learning how to face the dangers, hazards, and unknowns of daily existence. They pass folk wisdom and common sense from generation to generation. As with Western fables and fairy tales, ideas of wariness and canny logic are transmitted to counter gullibility or foolhardy innocence.
The applique imagery of the Fante flags is of this sort, and expresses with an astonishing intelligibility, as well as irresistible color and vigor, concepts that have applications wider than tribal infighting or mere rustic naivete.
The exhibiton opened June 18 at the High Museum of Art/Georgia Pacific Gallery, Atlanta, and continues through Sept. 3. It will be at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Oct. 1 through Nov. 27, and at the Seattle Art Museum Dec. 15 through Feb. 12, 1995.