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When Old Glory `Paints' the Floor, Not the Breeze

`ALL right, you're arrested.'' With that, two police officers hauled off four high school students sitting on an American flag. The flag wrapped around the last student in the line, spinning him around as he was pulled inside the Art Institute of Chicago. He had been reading a handwritten statement that began: ``Can a symbol ever be more important than the ideal it represents?''

The American flag and its symbols have occupied center stage in Chicago for the past month, thanks to a controversial student art exhibit that displayed the flag on the floor. The uproar and protests are over. But major questions remain: Should artists have complete freedom to express themselves? Or do they - and the institutions displaying their work - have a responsibility to uphold community standards?

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The questions are not just local. A flag-burning case in Texas was argued before the United States Supreme Court last week. A decision is expected later this year.

In Chicago, the uproar has stirred strong opinions on all sides.

Scott Tyler, the School of the Art Institute student who created the exhibit, talked of minorities oppressed by American domination. One photo of his exhibit showed South Koreans burning the US flag in a Yankee-go-home protest. ``People have to confront the whole situation in this country and the world, and face up to where this `gentler and kinder' nation is heading,'' Mr. Tyler said in a statement.

Not too many people seemed to agree with those sentiments. But artists and the School of the Art Institute rallied to defend Tyler's freedom to express them.

``I didn't see it as an invitation to step on the flag,'' says Diane Grams, co-chairwoman of the artists' right committee of the Chicago Artists' Coalition. ``I saw this as really questioning: What does the flag mean?''

``This school is like a laboratory,'' adds Tony Jones, president of the School of the Art Institute. ``And in a laboratory there are often volatile experiments....'' Indeed, the street in front of the Art Institute was buzzing for more than a week with a confused, chaotic dialogue.

Veterans protested the exhibit, arguing that federal and Illinois law makes it a crime to trample or otherwise desecrate the flag. A Circuit Court judge had ruled that laying the flag on a clean floor didn't violate those laws, but the Chicago City Council and even the US Senate later passed measures to make it illegal.

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Tom Matti, an unemployed carpenter, brought along a bugle to show his support for the veterans. Greg Romanelli was insulted by the exhibit.

``It's a slap in the face to every guy that went over there,'' says the Vietnam veteran, who protested each day the exhibit was open. ``They have another piece of art in there [and] they put plexiglass over it, they put yellow tape around it. And you would be amazed at the people that would step on the flag and take great care to walk around that thing.''

But on the same stretch of sidewalk, a small group of students shouted protests against ``thought police.'' A Vietnam veteran and an avowed Communist began to talk out their differences.

Art has always confronted and criticized society's norms. In the past year, aldermen stormed the Art Institute school to tear down a painting that depicted the city's late mayor in women's undergarments. The debate over art's place will no doubt continue.

``They did what was right in taking that down,'' says Mr. Matti, referring to the mayoral painting. ``An exhibit that promotes hatred and violence in a public place after a man dies is wrong.''

``The First Amendment is the First Amendment,'' counters Ms. Grams. ``To limit artists about what they say about society, we limit what we know about culture.''

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