Flags in Context: A Discussion of Design, Genre, and Aesthetics
Raven: A Journal of Vexillology, Vol. 15, pp. 43-80, 2008
38 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2020
Date Written: November 23, 2008
This article appeared in Raven, a journal devoted to vexillology, the scholarly study of flags. In recent years, vexillologists have become increasingly interested in developing criteria for judging the aesthetic quality of particular flag designs. My article gently critiques one such effort - titled "Good Flag, Bad Flag" - for proposing a set of overly simple, dogmatic, rules of flag design. It suggests, instead, a more subtle and historically sensitive approach to the study of flag design and aesthetics grounded in the simple observation that flag design has tended over the centuries to be guided by various distinct styles or genres, sometimes called flag families, many of them borrowed from related disciplines. These genres or styles or families have distinct artistic and political histories, and the article posits that the story of flag design and aesthetics can be told in terms of a continuing process of experimentation and development as various genres get tried out, work well or badly, wax and wane, combine and reconfigure, and - sometimes - get transformed by a moment of brilliant rule-breaking. The article argues that the criteria in "Good Flag, Bad Flag" can best be understood as one flag genre among others, a codification of a more eclectic and autonomous set of modern flag traditions arising out of political and aesthetic developments in the second half of the twentieth century.
More broadly, the article situates the relatively new discipline of vexillology in the space between a hobbyist activity and a scholarly enterprise; relates vexillology to more established fields of applied design such as architecture; and argues for the necessary and mutually reinforcing relationship between aesthetic theory and rigorous social science in the study of any applied art, whether vexillology or any other.
Keywords: flags, aesthetics, design, criteria for applied design, art criticism and social science
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