Don't Tread on Me

Broward College art professor draws controversy with a piece made of an American flag, resembling a floor mat. 

February 1, 2018
"The bride laid bare"
(Lisa Rockford)

Many call it art; others call it a trap. A faculty art exhibit involving a whitewashed American flag cut in two and placed on the floor in a high-traffic area of a Broward College art gallery is drawing criticism, including from students who said they inadvertently stepped on it.

In response to the controversy, Broward has defended the assistant professor of art behind the piece -- specifically her right to free expression. At the same time, the college has announced the flag piece will be moved to another part of the gallery.

The decision gives guests “the choice to opt out of the experiential nature” of Lisa Rockford’s piece, the college said in a statement.

Broward “understands that the piece, currently on exhibit, is controversial,” it also said. “The provocative nature of the piece is protected by the artist’s constitutional rights, specifically the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

Rockford’s work, called “The bride laid bare,” made headlines this week after some students complained that it was placed near the entrance of an on-campus gallery and resembled a rug or mat.

“You have the right to express yourself, but you have to do it in a respectful manner,” Jess Karcher, a Broward student and Marine Corps veteran, told the Sun-Sentinel. (Karcher visited the gallery specifically to see “The bride laid bare” after hearing about it from friends.)

Several other artists have used the American flag in campus exhibits this year -- and upset some in doing so. In November, a graduate student in fine arts at the University of Nevada at Reno who is an Air Force veteran used a series of axes and a fallen flag to ask, in his words, “Where Is America?” Also in November, an associate professor of art at the University of Miami fashioned a Ku Klux Klan-style mask out of a U.S. flag. She said her piece was a response to seeing white supremacists march with the flag in Charlottesville, Va.

In both cases, the artists’ respective institutions defended their right to free speech while encouraging respectful dialogue. Both Rockford and the Miami professor say they have received physical threats online over their work.

Rockford’s artist’s statement says that the split flag is a symbol of current political discord, and its placement on the floor is a dual reference to vulnerability and the historical slogan “Don’t tread on me.”

“The nation lays bare. Left and right separated in two. Divided. Exposed. Vulnerable. Do we respect the country enough to tread carefully? Can we unify by meeting in the middle?” Rockford wrote. “The flag has been whitewashed, to represent the suppression of unpleasant histories and tensions. It is also a clean slate for our future actions.”

Noting that the piece includes a narrow path between the flag’s two sides, Rockford said that the “actions of the viewer become contributions to the work. Does the viewer walk forward blindly without being aware of their surroundings? When the viewer realized what they were stepping on, did they quickly jump off, or were they unaffected?”

If this work bothers visitors to the gallery, she said, “or if the viewer hesitated or considered their actions before stepping forward, then it has been effective in causing them to think about their relationship to the American flag, its value and its meaning.”

Rockford said via email Wednesday that she understood that the college had been advised by legal counsel to move the piece away from the doorway, where people were more likely to step on it without understanding what it was. She was asked by a supervisor about moving it and agreed, she said.

Broward said the work "represents the opinions of the individual artist and they are not indicative of the values at [the college], the Rosemary Duffy Larson Gallery or the other artists featured in the exhibition. Professor Rockford’s artist’s statement is now placed adjacent to the display to inform the viewer[.]"

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