This morning brought an email from a former student , who passed along a news story from her local paper in Springfield, IL. The full story's here, but here's the short version: apparently an AP art student at Chatham Glenwood High School designed a mural for the school which is an appropriation of Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima. The mural replaces the American flag of the original photograph with a wind turbine, to signal the role this generation of students will need to play in taking care of the environment.
After the mural was approved by the school, some faculty and community members objected. The chair of the social studies department objects to the mural because, as he puts it, "You’re taking history and a known historic image and basically distorting it." There is also concern that this appropriation of the Iwo Jima image may offend some World War II veterans who are sometimes invited to the school to speak about their experiences in the war. Ultimately, the decision was made to keep the mural but to put it in an upstairs hallway, away from the first floor social studies classrooms.
For students of visual politics, this controversy is puzzling to say the least. While some veterans suggest they are offended by the image, the claim (from a social studies teacher, no less) that the mural inappropriately distorts a "known historic image" shows real ignorance of visual history. There is perhaps no more appropriated image than the Iwo Jima photograph. It's been turned into a memorial. It's been used by the U.S. government to sell war bonds. Its form was famously echoed to commemorate heroism after 9/11. And, it's the go-to visual topos for editorial cartoonists. To suggest that its iconicity makes it somehow inviolable is to fail to understand its iconicity. Instead of excoriating the appropriation, it might be useful instead for the social studies teachers to consider, as some communication scholars have, the resources within the image that lead folks to associate it with the duties and responsibilities of American citizenship.