THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Art of Flower Power

Visual appropriation during the Vietnam War

by Zak Nguyen

Illustration by Alexandra Hanesworth

published November 3, 2017


In the late 1960s, American poet Allen Ginsberg developed the idea of Flower Power in his essay “Demonstration or Spectacle as Example, as Communication or How to Make a March/Spectacle,” which outlined the strategic use of flower imagery to change war psychology and encourage critical thought rather than violence. Although he didn’t actually use this phrase in his essay, “Flower Power” would become one of the most influential slogans used by peace-promoting hippies during anti-Vietnam War protests. Almost all forms of hippie culture were flooded with floral imagery as the spread of Flower Power motifs gained momentum, popping up on textiles, propaganda, and even vehicles. Hippies who donned floral clothing and flowers in their hair were referred to as flower children. This shared iconography inaugurated a new aesthetic in mainstream American youth culture, and for the first time, flower imagery existed as a powerful symbol of overwhelming peace and love, as well as the psychedelic, the carefree, and the individual. In a scene photographed by Bernie Boston in 1967, a protester surrounded by police placed a flower into the barrel of a rifle. Art critics and anti-war activists alike called it groundbreaking.

Except it wasn’t. Allen Ginsberg may be the person who is credited with introducing the idea of using flowers as a symbol for peace during the Vietnam War era, but flowers were already a widely understood symbolic representation of peace—in Vietnam. Not only were flowers already widespread symbols in Vietnam, but all throughout East, South, and Southeast Asia as well: floral representations of peace are a staple of Asian religious art.

In Buddhist and Hindu art, flowers of all kinds have been used to represent peace for about as long as these spiritual practices have existed. While Boston’s photograph, itself titled Flower Power, marks a significant moment in American cultural history, the image of weapons transformed into flowers was not unprecedented. In the age-old story of Buddha’s ascent to enlightenment, he calls on the Earth Goddess, who aids him in defeating the elephant-riding demon, Mara. The Earth Goddess brings forth a flood to wash away all of Buddha’s enemies, and transforms their weapons into lotus flowers—symbols for peace and transcendence.

Is it just a poetic coincidence that flowers symbolized peace in both American hippie culture and ancient spiritual practices of Asia? Perhaps. But starting in the early ’50s, during the Beat Generation, Ginsberg became a practicing Buddhist and eventually became involved with Krishnaism. It seems entirely possible that Ginsberg lifted flower imagery from his Asian religious and spiritual influence. Buddhism and flowers weren’t the only things from Asia to become a part of American hippie culture either—macramé, the papasan chair, and mandalas also became iconic symbols of the countercultural movement, just to name a few of the more recognizable examples.

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During the time that Flower Power was popularized after the Beat Generation rolled into the hippie movement, its appropriation of Asian cultures coincided with American military involvement in Southeast Asia. After all, the idea of Americans—specifically white Americans of notoriety and power—infiltrating Asia to unnecessarily take part in something for their own benefit was a form of oppression integral to the development of what became the Vietnam War. Simply put, Flower Power was a cultural repetition of the American mindset that led to the Vietnam War in the first place: in both cases, white Americans utilized Asian resources for their own benefit, disregarding the lives of Asian people who were suffering while they occupied their land.

Leading into the Vietnam War, the US had briefly allied with Vietnam during World War II, while it was still a French colony. Together they fought off Japan’s occupation of mainland Southeast Asia, but the US ignored Vietnam’s requests for aid in gaining independence from the harsh rule of France afterwards, because France was an ally to the US. Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese nationalists (known as the Viet Minh) who opposed French rule originally planned on founding a democratic state out of Vietnam based on the US Declaration of Independence, but due to the lack of support from the US, they modeled their self-governance around communism instead. The battle of Dien Bien Phu, a fight that marked the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of American involvement in Vietnam, saw the country split into two self-governing entities—the communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam. It was only when the Viet Minh turned to communism as a result of America’s initial failure to acknowledge them that the US decided it was worth engaging in warfare. There is a reason why some historians claim that the US “lost” Ho Chi Minh to communism—to white Americans, Vietnamese lives didn’t matter under the harsh colonial rule of the French, since France was an ally to the US. But when Vietnam turned to communism, Cold War politics convinced them that they needed to recognize events happening in Vietnam—in other words, it seemed that the entire reason the US went to Vietnam in the first place was that they placed more significance on the Cold War mindset that opposed communism than Vietnamese people themselves. In fact, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara even admitted to deceptively convincing American citizens that participation in the war in Vietnam was necessary. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which American media claimed had been an unprovoked attack North Vietnam launched an on a US destroyer on routine patrol, followed by deliberate attacks on two US ships two days later, was revealed to have been entirely fabricated in an attempt to encourage the US to go to war. McNamara both withheld information from president Lyndon B. Johnson and completely lied about the second attack—it never happened. The real truth, which involved a buildup of military pressure on North Vietnam from the US in coordination with attacks on North Vietnam from South Vietnam and Laos, was completely ignored. And in doing this, McNamara usurped President Johnson’s military power and the American public’s support for the sake of going into one of the bloodiest wars in American history.

Flower Power’s appropriation of South Asian Buddhist influences was not physically violent, but interestingly similar in how it replicated American occupation—Ginsberg and other white Americans attempted to learn peace from Eastern religions, and eventually used these teachings about peace to protest the violence of the Vietnam War. But unfortunately these teachings about peace in Vietnam weren’t exactly popular or even promoted while Vietnam suffered through French rule, and only gained cultural momentum in the US when American soldiers’ lives were at stake during the war. In both situations, decisions to engage with Eastern cultures were based solely on whether or not Americans could benefit—the American government only decided to recognize the events happening in Vietnam after it felt that the rise of communism was a threat, and the hippies only decided to utilize the symbolism of Flower Power for America, not for Vietnam. But while the decision to engage in war with Vietnam was fueled by McNamara’s lies and the fear of communism, the quick growth in Flower Power’s popularity resulted from America’s artistic and visual interests.

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Flower imagery in Western art throughout history has, for the most part, been used as a symbol of aesthetic beauty more than for its other valences. From Dutch still life paintings of the 17th century, to Garden of Eden landscapes of the Middle Ages, and even to Van Gogh’s Irises (a modern painting influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints), floral arrangements are portrayed in a way that emphasizes beauty and nature, and oftentimes religion's relationship to beauty as well—on Christian epitaphs as well as in paintings, the beauty of eternal life and the yearning for life after death were often represented through bouquets of flowers and ears of corn. The sight of flowers in Christian paintings evoked memories of a “paradise lost”—the Garden of Eden. In American art, flower paintings were primarily used as scientific or natural studies up until roughly 1900. American still life painters like Severin Roesen became popular for their gorgeous realistic paintings of magnificent bouquets, fruit, and overwhelming compositions full of flowers. As much as they were meticulously executed realist and naturalist studies, they were also magnificent images that were vibrant, detailed, and luxurious. 

The turn of the 20th century saw American artists explore flowers as they investigated abstraction. American artists were no longer interested in botany or representational depictions of nature. Instead, they sought to use flowers as their own language, often in reference to their associations with nature and beauty. Modernists like Marsden Hartley painted flowers with thick black lines and abrupt (yet organic) shapes, defying the realistic, naturalistic still life paintings that were made before his time. Although Georgia O’Keefe rejected the idea that her flowers were symbols for female genitalia, she painted flowers in a way that almost gave them human characteristics. Flower imagery and symbolism retained some associations with decoration from earlier time periods, but simultaneously became abstracted in different ways in American art during the 20th century, broadening the list of reasons why artists would want to use flowers as a visual tool or symbol. Flower Power falls right into that category. But what made Flower Power so readily accepted and embraced was America’s artistic interests outside of the language of flowers—as abstract expressionism’s popularity in the ’50s dwindled, interests in newer movements like pop art, minimalism, and neo-expressionism spiked. People were interested in elements of popular culture, like comic books, advertisements, movies, and cultural symbols, as well as images that consisted of vividly colored, recognizable objects, and images that were repetitive and simple. These were the perfect circumstances for the rise of Flower Power, as flowers could be depicted in ways that satisfied the interests of all these movements. They could be easily portrayed in ways that were simple, colorful, repetitive, and patterned, to the point of being used widely as a cultural symbol. Flower Power was the marriage of all types of modern visual interests during the ’60s and ’70s.

Despite this, as a combined artistic, cultural, and political movement, Flower Power was a failure. While it piggybacked on interests in American modern art movements, prompting a striking aesthetic shift in American art history, the movement’s lack of consideration for the ideas that inspired it make it self-contradictory. At its core, it was only a replication of the US government’s involvement in Vietnam, but at a level that was more cultural than it was governmental—which was exactly what it was trying to protest to begin with.

Where was this infatuation with peace that the Flower Power movement promoted when the Vietnamese were still under French rule? Why didn’t Ginsberg and other white American beatniks and hippies promote peace to the same extent for Asia, the very place that Buddhism and Krishnaism originated, during a time when Asian people were suffering from the likes of none other than white European colonial powers? Ginsberg, among many other white American beatniks, was already a practitioner of Buddhism before the Battle of Dien Bien Phu even was fought. The appropriated Flower Power movement only arose when white American hippies decided they needed it, after American soldiers’ lives were at stake—similarly to how the US decided it wasn’t worth engaging with Vietnam until after the rise of North Vietnam’s communist regime and the country’s participation in Cold War scrambles for global power. As the saying from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now goes, “The Viet Cong were invented by the Americans, sir!” Flower Power was a visual and spiritual power struggle between white Americans and Vietnam, where white hippies took what they needed from the very people the US had subjected to the suffering of war, in order to protest that same war. And both the North and South Vietnamese were left with no voice and no chance of winning.

I can only imagine what my family—a group of South Vietnamese refugees—probably felt when they arrived in America during the early to mid-1970s: nothing but tremendous relief. Blinded by the violence they were forced to endure as refugees, they had no choice but to assimilate to American culture as a survival tactic. They were unaware of the ways that Flower Power was a harmful movement that excluded Vietnam while capitalizing on Vietnamese culture and its people. When I reflect on Flower Power, the most worrisome aspect of the movement is that many hippies were considered the progressive counterculture of their time.

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While the hippie movement in America has ended for the most part, American interests in art and visual languages have not. Contemporary visual aesthetics act as powerful conduits for different aspects of American culture thanks to the speed at which information travels, whether through Google Images, Pinterest, Urban Outfitters, Stranger Things, or the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But aesthetics as a form of political activism is something that is not talked about nearly as often. Political symbols—such as Flower Power, the pride flag that has been used to represent the movement for LGBTQ rights in the US and, in a more contemporary context, the “pussyhats” that some activists who participated in the Women's March wore as symbol of resistance to President Trump—are still just as powerful, and cling easily to the mindsets of people fighting for specific movements, which is often part of the reason why they become so popular. What the Flower Power Movement failed to do was recognize the source of its imagery as a repetition of the very thing it was trying to fight against. Similarly, the way that the pride flag is now waved in predominantly white spaces and the way rainbows have become representative of white queer experiences is criticized for excluding the queer people of color who have fought for LGBTQ+ rights, hence the inclusion of the black and brown stripes on Philadelphia's new pride flag released this past summer. The "pussyhats" that were used as a response to Trump are criticized for not being inclusive of women of color, transgender women, or transgender men. Given how Allen Ginsberg initially spoke about the use of flowers as symbols with a purpose of making a “spectacle” that was meant to disrupt the violence, rather than as symbols taken from Asian religions, it’s easy to only want to focus on what the flower symbol actually did visually rather than the historical or cultural context from which they were taken, and the same can be said about just about any other symbol that has been used to define political movements. Because of that, symbols within activism should be just as aware of the histories and sources that symbols are taken from. Privileging the visual status of our symbols, rather than the legacies of their contextualized meanings, makes the potential political power of these symbols practically null.    

ZAK NGUYEN RISD’19 dressed up as a flower child this Halloween.