3 October 2015
When teaching art history I used to do a demonstration to make the point that images mean something to people. First, I held up a piece of A4 paper with the New Zealand flag printed on it. I ask if anyone would like to tear it to pieces. There was always someone happy to volunteer. I then asked the class how they felt about this. There was usually a mixed reaction, from indifference, slight anxiety, to loving this “radical” act. It was generally older students who might express some concern, the younger ones hardly ever. Next, I showed a picture of John Lennon and asked again if someone will tear it up. This time there was alway far more reluctance. But someone would, and there was a real sense of unease in the room. Being a big John Lennon fan, I myself often welled up.
My purpose in telling this story? I think there’s something in the student reactions to my classroom demonstration that’s relevant to the current flag debate. We are all visually savvy, bombarded as we are by photos, brands and advertising. Added to this are all the images of people ― like musicians, celebrities and famous political figures ― who mean something to us because they represent our ideals and values. We pick and choose from the wealth of visual imagery available to us. And most often our identification with images transcends national boundaries. The direction of our popular culture is increasingly global. This is undermining, particularly amongst young people, any shared allegiance to a national identity and its symbols, other than perhaps on the sports field.
The four flag designs initially put forward for us to vote on were insipidly uninspiring. But it wouldn’t have mattered what they were, there would still be differences of opinion. I’m quite fond of the tino rangatiratanga flag, for instance. It’s visually strong and clearly means something to people who wave it at demonstrations or have it hanging on their front door, as someone down the road from me in Hikurangi does. That flag, however, was never going to be an option in a process driven by the prime minister.
Late on the scene is the red peak flag. This one is interesting, in that it eschews symbols that have a long history, like the silver fern or koru. It would look very striking being raised on a flag pole or at an Olympics medal ceremony. But doesn’t the colour red symbolise the left of the political spectrum? Could it represent a socialist utopia rising up in New Zealand? Certainly not the current reality, but a delicious irony.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, and it’s likely to be the status quo, perhaps New Zealand is destined to be the first multi-flag country (the word for this could be multiflagarious). Different designs have their supporters, while many people simply don’t care. In a world where we urgently need to see ourselves as global citizens first, rather than parochial nationalists, such good humoured flexibility would, I think, be very appropriate.