The image of the European flag (fig. 1) is widely seen on European Union (EU) products, online, citizenship documents such as passports and Customs signs at border crossings. It was designed to signify unity in 1955 but in 2016 Banksy responded to the UK’s EU referendum result by creating a work that re-appropriated the flag, subverting its intended meaning.
Fig. 1. The European flag
The European flag was originally created by Arsène Heitz to represent the Council of Europe. Heitz’s design had one star for each of the 15 member states of the Council however the sovereignty of one was disputed. In the final design drawn up by Paul M. G. Lévy, the number of stars was changed to twelve. The Council adopted the flag in 1955 (Council of Europe, 1955) and the EU in 1993. (EU)
The flag consists of a circle of twelve five-pointed yellow stars on a blue background. One point of each star points upwards and the stars are arranged according to the hours on a clock face without any of their points touching. According to English Heritage (English Heritage) azure (blue) is one of five heraldic colours. The yellow of the stars represents gold, one of two ‘metal’ colours. The European flag conforms to traditional heraldic rules; a ‘metal’ design must be placed on a ‘colour’ background.
The symbolic explanation given in 1955 was ‘Against the blue sky of the Western world, the stars symbolise the peoples of Europe in the form of a circle, the sign of union. The number of stars is invariably twelve, the figure twelve being the symbol of perfection and entirety.’ (Council of Europe, 1955) The circle is seen to represent unity as many objects in nature are round such as fruit, the planet and the sun. The number twelve is considered to be ‘perfect’ across the globe and examples include the number of zodiac signs, gods of Olympus, Apostles, tribes of Israel, inches in a foot, months in a year and hours on a clock face.
The five-pointed star has a number of associations including authority (five star General), excellence (five star hotel), fame (Hollywood Boulevard) and conforms to the mathematical Golden Ratio that appears naturally in plants (e.g. the spiral pattern of leaves). This ratio is considered aesthetically pleasing and has been used by many artists including Salvidor Dali in The Sacrament of the Last Supper (see fig. 2). In the bible it says ‘After that there appeared a great sign in heaven: a woman robed with the sun, beneath her feet the moon, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’ (Revelation 12:1) hence people may associate the twelve stars of the European flag with the bible and Marian iconography (the study of the ways that the Virgin Mary is represented) (KhanAcademy)
Fig. 2. Salvador Dali’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955)
Banky’s Dover-based mural was produced in response to the outcome of the EU referendum. The site selected is integral as Dover is one of the primary crossing points from the UK to Europe and 62% of the population of Dover voted to leave the EU. (Electoral Commission, 2016) Banksy creates juxtaposition by painting an illegal mural of a flag representing the legal authority of the EU on the wall of a building beside the A20 (see fig. 3). He used his stencilling technique to add a workman on a ladder chiselling a star off. Banksy’s flag has been created with a square background rather than the proportions of the European flag (2:3). This modification maximises the visibility of the ring of stars and workman from a distance. Banksy sites his work on walls saying ‘There is no elitism of hype, it exhibits on some of the best walls a town has to offer, and nobody is put off by the price of admission’ and dislikes galleries as ‘When you go into an Art gallery you are simply a tourist looking at the trophy cabinet of a few millionaires.’ (Banksy, 2005)
Fig. 3. Banksy’s Dover Mural (2016)
The star is being removed with the violent act of chiselling rather than more passively painting over it and signifies the destruction of the signified union. The workman carries a bucket, presumably to put the pieces in, however the debris falls freely. The removal of the star represents the UK breaking away from the EU while the falling debris could be seen to represent the lack of consideration for the repercussions. Cracks emanating from the star being removed spread across the entire flag to suggest that withdrawal may affect the other members. Banksy could be prompting viewers to consider whether they have precipitated the break up of the EU.
The use of the image of a white workman echoes the statistic that ‘Younger, more middle class, more educated and BME voters chose to remain; older, working class, less educated and white voters opted to leave’ (Ipsos MORI, 2016) This fits with Malcolm Barnard’s suggests that the ‘positions of dominant cultural groups can be challenged by the meanings that they produce being contested.’ (Downs, 2012) In this case, the ‘less educated, white working class’ and more generally, the UK, is challenging the ideology that the EU represents unity.
Barthes suggested that there were two main ‘orders’ of signification and that Banksy is using second-order signification to make his point. It should be noted that Downs argues that there is a third-order of signification based on ideology. With this in mind, Banksy’s mural can be read in a number of ways, either the EU flag represents unity that is being destroyed by Brexit or it represents unwanted sovereignty and migration (Reuters, 2016) and the workman is shattering that symbol of control.
While the European flag was designed as a representation of unity, Banksy’s work encourages the viewer to consider whether this is still being signified. With the UK leaving the EU and rejecting what some consider excessive European sovereignty, can the European flag still represent unity? By re-appropriating the image of the European flag Banksy is able to comment on current affairs and emphasise the symbolism with his choice of site.
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List of Illustrations
Figure 1. The European Flag (1955) At: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/flag_en (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Figure 2. The Sacrament of the Last Supper, 1955 (oil on canvas), Dali, Salvador (1904-89) / National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA / Bridgeman Images
Figure 3. Banksy (2016) [Photograph] At: http://www.banksy.co.uk/out.asp (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Banksy (2005) Wall and Piece London: Random House Group Ltd
Banksy (s.d) http://www.banksy.co.uk/out.asp (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Council of Europe (1955) https://rm.coe.int/16804efecd (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Dean, T. and Millar, J. (2005) Place. London: Thames and Hudson
Downs, S. (2012) The Graphic Communication Handbook Abingdon: Routledge
Electoral Commission (2016) https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/find-information-by-subject/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/eu-referendum/electorate-and-count-information (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
English Heritage (s.d) http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/easter/preparing-for-easter-adventure-quests/our-guide-to-heraldry/ (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
EU (s.d) https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/flag_en (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Ipsos MORI (2016) https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2016-eu-referendum (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
KhanAcademy (s.d) https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/new-spain/viceroyalty-new-spain/a/cabrera-virgin-of-the-apocalypse (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Reuters (2016) UK press coverage of EU Referendum campaign dominated by pro-Leave Press Release https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2017-06/Press%20release%20UK%20press%20coverage%20of%20the%20EU%20Referendum_0.pdf (Accessed on 20 December 2017)
Revelation 12:1. In: The Holy Bible (King James Version) [iBook Edition] p.3898