Activist artist Dread Scott creates in a language of searing simplicity. His work subverts American iconography to reveal the brutal injustices embedded in our nation’s marrow.
Scott’s first major piece, “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” was on view at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989, when Scott was just 24 years old. The participatory installation featured a photomontage of American flags in various circumstances ― draped atop the coffins of soldiers and lit aflame by South Korean students.
A genuine American flag lay across the floor. Viewers, then, were invited to write down their thoughts on the proper way to display the flag, and potentially step on the flag during the process. President George H. W. Bush called the work “disgraceful,” which signaled to Scott that he was doing something right.
More recently, Scott erected a black flag reading “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday” outside of Jack Shainman Gallery in Manhattan. The artwork was an updated version of the banner that hung outside the headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1936, re-installed after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police in the summer of 2016.
The flag is now on view at San Francisco’s Guerrero Gallery as part of the exhibition “Past, Present, Future,” a show squarely aimed to address the current political moment, a reversal of progress for those who have spent their lives marginalized, silenced and oppressed. Along with the flag, Scott will also show a piece entitled “IMAGINE A WORLD / WITHOUT AMERICA,” named after a quote by Bob Avakian, leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.
“I first read it in 1989 and it stuck with me,” Scott told The Huffington Post. “I began to think of it it as a provocative thought experiment.”
The piece features a map of the world, the perspective shifted so that the United States is dangling off the image’s edge, barely visible and ostensibly irrelevant. The piece dares Americans to put their own nationalism in check and imagine a radically different world where they are not the focus.
For decades, Scott has made blistering artwork that refuses to let America avert its gaze. In this current political climate, when years of progress are in danger of being reversed, his unapologetic work needs to be seen. We reached out to Scott to discuss.
How would you describe the way art and activism coexist in your work?
I generally keep my art and activism somewhat separate. Typically my art isn’t bringing people to a demonstration or seeking particular demands, which my activism typically is — including when I encourage people to be part of a movement for revolution, a revolution to get rid of this entire system and replace it with one that would meet the needs of humanity as a whole.
That said, for much of the last three decades, my work has been addressing some of the big questions confronting people. As art, which I show in major museums, in galleries and on street corners, the work is engaging the viewer and encouraging him or her to think about these questions. I began doing this when I was an undergrad.
In the 1980s that wasn’t what you were taught to do with art, and my initial works tried to keep my political ideas and my art separate. But the more I looked at the world and discovered artists ― Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, Roy DeCarava, Alexander Rodchenko and others who were bringing their politics into their art ― I searched for ways to do that with my concerns and aesthetic.
It’s crazy to think you made the work “What’s the proper way to display a U.S. flag?” when you were only 24 years old. What was your reaction when the president commented on your work?
When President Bush Sr. called my work “disgraceful,” my response was: “The President knows about my work and doesn’t like it. Good.” It meant that the work was engaging in a discussion on a national level about an important question. And if the head of this empire didn’t like what I was doing, it was an indication that the work was powerful and that it clearly stood with the people I cared about and the people that Bush wanted to continue to oppress and exploit.
The way you folded viewers’ reactions to that piece into the work, it reminds me almost of a proto-social media experiment. Do you think there is any danger in giving a stage to those who respond to your work with such hate and negativity?
Giving voice to white supremacist and vitriolic defenders of America can be a problem. But in the context of the “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” I think that they became part of the dialogue I initiated and they look like the racists and warmongers that they are. The context is important.
You’ve spoken about the importance of widespread exposure, in terms of ensuring an artist’s work extends beyond a small, uniform subset of people. Has the internet changed how your work is processed and responded to?
The internet has enabled some of my projects to reach a wider audience and be seen by people who wouldn’t otherwise see it and also to be studied by students who would not have this level of access if they had to look for a monograph on me or hope that their professor had actual slides. I’m happy that works like “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” spread in many ways in social media and people far outside of the art world were able to see it and share it. My video, “Anti-Campaign Ad,” was seen by over 10,000 people in a month and that would not have been possible without the internet ― unless it was shown at a major museum, which would never happen within days of it’s creation.
You’ve mentioned, in previous interviews, critiques of your work that frame you as a “shock artist.” Can you talk about the difference, if there is one, between shocking work and challenging work, and where you see yourself fitting in?
I don’t make work to shock. This is a profoundly polarized world and if you make work that looks at important questions people are bound to be passionate about it. When the police kill 1,100 people each year, making work that calls out these murders will bring joy to people under the gun of the police and people who don’t want a society where the state gets away with murder after murder after murder. Murder by police should be very controversial, but unfortunately these murders are the status quo, and it is making art about it which some view as shocking.
“You need to get rid of a system and economy that are based on exploitation if you want to get rid of exploitation.”
Your “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday” piece was adapted from a flag made in the 1920s. Do you believe our society has made true progress in terms of racial justice [since then]?
The means in which people are oppressed and exploited has changed over the past 240 years, but there is a real continuum between a society that was founded on slavery and genocide and a society that imprisons 2.3 million people, 1 million of whom are Black. Ending slavery took a war. The ideas that rationalized slavery continued under Jim Crow and an economy that fed off the labor of the enslaved continued to brutalize the descendants of the enslaved. After the tremendous fight and sacrifice of the Cilvil Rights and Black Power movement, Jim Crow was replaced by what Michelle Alexander has dubbed the New Jim Crow.
So there are changes, but ask the parents of Tamir Rice or Mike Brown whether much has changed since the ‘20s. Ask Muslims who have had hijabs ripped from their heads or Latino students barred from their own school by white students yelling “White Power” and “Trump Trump Trump” if racism has ended or changed much.
Many have spoken about Trump’s election as a backlash to the strides made in terms of social justice over the past few years. Can you talk about how you see the relationship between the past, present and future ― and whether the brutal cruelties of the past can ever be left behind?
I don’t think that Trump’s election is a backlash based solely on ideas or revenge, but rather what the ruling class in this country sees as a way forward in a world where they face many challenges, including many problems they have created. They are trying to continue to dominate the world and are facing challenges from old rivals and new ones. And those white people that are being used by Trump to consolidate his power, many of them want the unfair advantage that white supremacy afforded them for generations, that has been slightly undermined since the ‘60s.
In short, if there are jobs or cheap bank/government loans, they want to go back to a time when those advantages definitely go to white people first without question. And repression should go to black people and Latinos first. And along with all of this this, many want to put women back in the 1950s or 1850s as well.
But it’s not a backlash, but rather what’s going on in the economy, where based on the international competition, the U.S. and most other industrialized powers no longer can create the middle class existence for broad sections of society that was important to Western societies for the past 40 years. And in America, this system is going back to some of its key pillars ― white supremacy, patriarchy and Christian fundamentalism ― to negotiate the waters of continuing domination of the world.
But I have no interest in the expansion of the U.S. empire or its continued domination of the planet. The cruelties of the past, and present, can only be gotten rid of through revolution. You need to get rid of a system and economy that are based on exploitation if you want to get rid of exploitation. If you want to end racism, you need to get rid of the system that was founded upon it and that has it woven into its very fabric, including its founding documents. Democracy and freedom in the U.S. was conceived of based upon owning human beings.
The legal and political framework embodied in the constitution includes slavery. Slavery was not an aberration, mistake or “original sin”, but something that was integral to U.S. democracy. You can’t get to a society without exploitation if your vision of that is bound to a document where the freedom of some necessitated the enslavement of others. So I think that it’s possible to leave the cruelties of the past behind, but only if you make revolution to get rid of a system that needs these cruelties.
How have recent technologies ― including the internet, social media, cameras, video, etc ― contributed to this relationship between past, present and future? Do you see them playing a positive or negative role in the fight for racial justice?
Technologies are not positive or negative. The same internet that helped the Arab Spring is used to spy on people all over the planet. It all depends whose hands it’s in. Will the Googles, Apples and Facebooks of the world build Muslim databases or will they refuse to do so? Will they build strong encryption into all technology and enable social justice activists and others to keep government snoops out of their data and prevent them from learning their connections through metadata? Or will they comply with government orders to build in back doors and turn over data, and not even inform people about secret laws and orders?
The Freedom Riders broke the law and challenged social order. Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning may have have broken the law but their kind of courage is what is needed on a widespread level, including by corporations to stand up to tyrannical governments.
“Dread Scott : Past, Present & Future” runs until March 5 at Guerrero Gallery in San Francisco.