PBS NewsHour


Unusual imagery for an inauguration without precedent

President Biden's inauguration featured unusual imagery in response to some unusual circumstances. The temporary public art is intended to represent the American people and to unify the country. Jeffrey Brown reports as part of our arts and culture series, "CANVAS.”

AIRED: January 20, 2021 | 0:03:58

JUDY WOODRUFF: As we have seen, today's inauguration featured unusual imagery, a response to the

unusual circumstances.

The temporary public art is intended to represent the American people and to unify the country.

Jeffrey Brown has our look.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the sky above Washington, pillars of light, 56 in all, symbolizing the

50 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories.

On the ground, a field of flags, nearly 200,000 of them, representing the millions of people

unable to attend due to pandemic and ramped-up security measures, an inauguration without

precedent, imagery to match.

ADAM BARON, Presidential Inaugural Committee: This is something that is meant to be evocative

for everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: Adam Baron, deputy director of events for the Presidential Inaugural Committee,

helped create and oversee the installations, American flags of all sizes, flags of the

states and territories.

Baron says the idea grew from looking at past inauguration scenes.

ADAM BARON: When you look down the Mall, it's not just the people that you see. There are

just these thousands of waving American flags that represent people from all stripes coming

together to celebrate a new administration.

So, we sort of took that image, and we wanted to have those waving flags represent people

that could not safely or smartly come together and gather this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the imagery is really from inaugurations past, but without the people,

in a sense.


We knew we had to do something that was still celebratory to commemorate the importance

of the moment, but that was smart and thoughtful of the health and safety of everybody involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the intended audience was, as with so much now remote, public art

on public space now closed to the public, and not just any space, but the National Mall,

home to enduring symbols of American democratic values.

Philip Kennicott is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for The Washington Post.

PHILIP KENNICOTT, The Washington Post: In Washington, we're just two weeks out from

having seen a violent mob storm the Capitol. What we see here is, in a sense, a kind of

fantasy of the crowd, as orderly, as collective, as gathering in proximity, but in a constructive


JEFFREY BROWN: Constructive, yet different for this very different moment.

Kennicott points to the evocative shafts of lights that once illuminated the absent World

Trade Center Twin Towers after 9/11, or the rows of orderly flags familiar at cemeteries

or battlefields. Those evoke sorrow. These images, he thinks, might offer something more


PHILIP KENNICOTT: By using the National Mall in this way, they're inviting us not just

to sort of be spectators, but to kind of project ourselves into that crowd and feel as somehow

we're more than just passive participants in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: You're saying we, as citizens, need to find a new way to connect to public

spaces, to public events, to politics itself. What role does the art play?

PHILIP KENNICOTT: In some ways, that's an effort to get us to go beyond the fairly passive

and reactive role that we have taken up with democracy through things like social media,

through television, and actually get out there and do something, be physically present.

We can't do that at the moment. But this is making us, in a way, yearn to be in that space

a little more tangibly than we might if we just watched it on television, as we used

to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: That asks a lot of what is, after all, a temporary art installation.

But we're a country in need of a lot just now.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.