Featured Image: On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide, 2014, performance by Dread Scott.
Artist Dread Scott isn’t unfamiliar with these images and the violence that can accompany them. His own life has been threatened for holding his belief and expressing himself through art. President George H. W. Bush qualified a historically significant artwork by Scott with only one word, “disgraceful”. The participatory piece, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, is the artist most known work – it even brought him not in the most incredible museum but the United States of America Supreme Court. When art can mitigate and facilitate difficult conversations and politically infused art is centred stage, few artists are as deeply involved in its creation. Still, Scott persists and signs, creating work tackling social and political constructed identity, relationships of power and much more. Interview with an artist, a man who won’t shy away from questioning the status quo.
EL: You work with several media; how do you decide which one is the most appropriate for each project?
DS: I work with many media. I am always focused on finding the best way to approach and convey ideas. I aim to find media that will most benefit from the concept, striving to help people engage in the conversation. I don’t hold onto a specific media or skill; I like the conceptual freedom it gives me. I also love challenging myself — I am easily bored otherwise. Trying different things, exploring a diversity of media, and pushing my practice keeps my mind alive. I always start with what I want to talk about and then figure out the best way to bring it to life. For example, when I speak of freedom and slave rebellion, I feel that a reenactment is the best way to do so. I love interactive works that necessitate audience participation to be active. The form follows the idea, and it is back and forth. Sometimes I have a framework or a constraint, which is then how it starts, but otherwise, I ask myself what I want to bring out of this idea and then do the research, which leads me to give it a form and a media.
EL: Revolutionary Art—Propelling History Forward, how did you come up with this mojo? How is the court case of What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? Change or contribute to your vision of revolutionary art?
DS: Hm, well, this is something that took time to develop. The idea of Revolutionary Art is something that I started exploring around 1987-88. The coupling of that with Propelling History Forward came a little bit later. It was Reagan America that made me a Communist. I was trying to make sense of what was going on, to understand and how countries were ok with possibly destroying the world to extend their power. I started to dig deep and do my research. People were telling me that Communism was a disaster. But in fact, it was capitalism that was threatening the world with war and nuclear destruction. Capitalism is a system where a tiny handful of people control the knowledge that humanity has created. It’s a system of exploitation. The people who run this system were the ones that were saying that Communism was a nightmare.
I could see that the Soviet Union in the 1980s was horror and had been for decades, but seeing the horror of capitalism, made me want to see whether the world could be different, so I dug more into what Communism was. I started looking at a series of talks given in 1942 — they took place between intellectuals in Yan’an. Here, there were reflections on how communists looked at art during their revolution. There were conversations amongst theorists and common people, and Mao Zedong gave the opening and closing remarks. They were published as an essay “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art.” I really got into it. One of the things it said was that “revolutionary art should help the masses of people propel history forward.” I adapted this term. I had a Creative Capital Foundation Grant, and they encouraged grant recipients to think through their artist statement. As part of that process, I came up with “Revolutionary art. Propelling history forward.” This is how it came about.
EL: How do you think your artwork “What is the proper way to display the flag?” would have been perceived if it were made 30 years later, it would have been done a year ago? Do you feel that we are currently making progress on that end?
DS: Colin Kaepernick’s example shows that we are not making progress: criticizing the USA for its treatment of Black people during the national anthem is not something that can be done—without repression. What is the proper way to display the flag is my most well-known work, and it is now studied at university, but it has sparked controversy; some institutions which showed the work had to close their doors permanently; others had curators threatened, and their tires slashed. The last time it was shown was in 2003. It is a work that belongs to art history, but it also became a banned piece of work. It would require tremendous security if it were exhibited today, even more so now than in 2001. Society is currently very polarized: it is incredibly violent, and powerful people back these acts. What is the proper way to display the flag? is tremendously relevant, but if it were shown right now, it would be crazy. When it was created, there were no social media, so it did not catch on fire the same way it would have today. I hope that a significant institution will show it in the future. The American identity has changed after the Trump presidency, and there are fewer migrants, while more are facing deportation. This is a country founded on slavery and genocide. This artwork enables oppressed people to speak up about their views of the US and US patriotism and have legitimacy when doing so. We do not need to reclaim that flag, and it stands for monstrous things. Therefore, there is a standing invitation for an institution like MOMA, the Walker or SF MOMA and others to take on and show this timely and topical work and engage with it at this present moment.
EL: Your art isn’t only presented in galleries and museums, but also on street corners and where people live and exist – why is this important to you, and how does it contribute to your process? How does audience participation influence, change or contribute to the work?
DS: I love showing in museums and on the street. Not one audience is better than the other. When you investigate both spaces, you notice that the desire to see, engage, and question are the same, and all audiences are essential no matter their background. If you only display your work in a museum, then you ignore and discount a large audience, the ordinary people, the ones that will not go to museums for all sorts of reasons. But these people are also interested. When the work is shared, and people react or engage with it, it is enriched. It is a conversation. It doesn’t matter whether the answers are short or long, it is unmediated, unvarnished, and unedited. It means that people are thinking about the same question that I am, and this sort of raw engagement is rare in society. It is compelling to see how people will react differently in non-art space. When the space is theirs, there is spontaneity and immediacy. It isn’t just people on vacation and seeing “culture” or high school students being dragged in. It can be people who are steps away from being homeless, but they can still contribute to enriching society and changing the world. I would say: get the work to different audiences, take note of the various interactions. Artists need to think creatively. For example, it was very compelling to see how people reacted to prop muskets in the reenactment in New Orleans. Some were more scared, and their reaction to artists with props was so different from seeing actual armed people with guns—the police—and their feeling a sense of safety, Other people felt a deep sense of safety with the reenactors. These reactions and the visceral nature of the art wouldn’t be the same in a museum or gallery. So it is sometimes necessary to show outside of these traditional spaces.
EL: Political and social art isn’t the most popular with (commercial) galleries and within the art world – I had many conversations with artists and authors about how difficult it is to make a living from their artistic output. Especially with the pandemic and the lack of governmental art funding in the US. May I ask how you make a living? Or sponsor your projects? Any advice or suggestions for artists who want to engage in this type of art?
DS: The critical thing is to make meaningful art. Do not think about the market. Currently, there is a place for political works and artists of colour — more than ever before. Until now, a handful of lucky ones made it, and I am happy to have been able to survive and thrive and found a way to make my art. It took a lot of determination and a fair share of luck. I know that not everybody gets the opportunity to make art full time.
So, my advice is the following: you should create things that matter. The art market and, by extension, the art world is good for some reasons (and terrible for others). Still, there has been an increased interest to open the door to people of colour and women regardless of their ethnicity, and that in a way that has never been the case before. Overall, it is a good thing, and it leads to more artists surviving. In the ’80s and the ’90s, you needed to have a whole other career to supplement the income you were getting from your art. This is still the case, but many not as much. Today, you can find ways to combine incomes to survive; grants, lectures, teaching…not just living off sales. Artists should be open to numerous ways to get their art to the audience they want. There are also increased possibilities for “cutting the middleman out”; the internet, websites, Tik Tok, Instagram, NFTs and so on. Will people embrace it? That is the question, and yes, it is still dominated by people with money. I might even release one NFT in the future. Doing political and socially engaged work now is much more viable for more artists. In the ’80s, only a few, like Gary Simmons and Glen Ligon, became a critical and commercial success.
Still, many have already been forgotten and have not made it. Abstract oil on linen will still be easier to sell than a Faith Ringgold, regardless of whether it is interesting or not. Yet we are in a time where these artists can get some love: for example, Swizz Beat is getting into collecting Black art that matters. He is got a tremendous collection of Gordon Park, and he will not flip it. This collection exists to respect and nurture and foster scholarship around that type of art. We see more collectors collecting for a good reason, for caring for the art and the story (as well as the history). Yes, the commercial art world is a driving force at the end of the day, but who cares? It is emblematic of some deeper societal problems, large sums of money concentrated in a few people’s hands. But there is a shift in collectors of a new generation: so, create good work and do not stress out whether it will turn into a sale.
EL: The past year or so has been intensely shaking. From the pandemic to the racial inequality issues, a lot was happening – what kept you going and grounded?
DS: This might come as a surprise, and I don’t know how to structure this thought, but I felt it was truly inspiring. The way people rose after the death of Breonna (Taylor) and George (Floyd). There is a lot of potential right now. There is a resurgence of fascism and white supremacy, but conscious people also have a new height. To an extent, there is a possibility that we will see more considerable, systematic changes. It will be interesting to look back at this period, and I wonder if it would be similar to the ’50s and ’60s. There isn’t any guarantee that there will be an excellent resolution to this period. But there is hope, and it is a period of tremendous changes. The two ruling parties can’t agree on much, which creates an opportunity for the radicals and revolutionaries. It’s an opening: it might not be seized, and nothing good might come out of it, but being grounded in the actual underlying contradictions is key. It is a roller coaster of life but right now, right in the middle, with the inclusion of artists and people who crave and work hard for change, there is an enthusiasm that creates potential.
THE [Quick] BLITZ
- The most considerable influence in your life (person, theory, model…)
Days in, days out, I would say my wife, Jenny Polak, is also an artist. I could also have chosen other artists, but I feel that children, parents, and intimate people around whom you gravitate are the good influences that make me better. Another influence that is especially important to me is music. And I’ve been influenced a lot by the writings and speeches of the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian.
- Favourite book
So many books, but the first one that comes to mind is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It is profound, and I only read it three times, but I go back to some parts. I enjoy this book very much. It is as much the protagonist’s story as it is about America — lots of Black people that experience a comparable situation. This book does not shy away from what happened, from the history and the past that set the stage for the present, yet it also resides in the present.
I can also recommend the book I am currently reading, Tacky’s Revolt by Vincent Brown. It is about the largest slave uprising in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic, in Jamaica. Another good one would be The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and any James Baldwin. I keep thinking about and re-reading them.
- A myth you would like to debunk? (Can be art-related but doesn’t need to)
A myth that I would love to debunk is that “Races”. They are a whole invention. Do not get me wrong, I like being Black, but the concept of race is socially constructed and bound up with capitalism. It is not something that has existed since the inception of humankind. It is woven into America, but not only is it a global phenomenon, but it also defines what we eat, what we listen to, our desires and who we love. Yet, at the end of the day, it is all fiction — even the culture that comes from the visual arts and the music. I genuinely love Blackness and Black people, but it is still a myth that must go. We need to get rid of it!
Another myth that needs to go is countries Obviously countries exist, but look at the world: it wasn’t always the way we know it today empires and countries have come and gone. Part of the issue for us today is people’s allegiance for their country, especially people in America. The chauvinism that we’re indoctrinated within America is so harmful. And it is comparatively recent. It could not have been like this 200 years ago. Britain and France invaded and colonized other countries then, and the notion that America should have the right to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, or decide policy in Mexico, or save the world from Russia would have been ludicrous. Allegiance to countries is an outmoded notion, a hard one that has constructed what a country is, but at the end of the day, it is powerful and toxic. The notion of allegiance is based on outdated ideas; America and Americanism as we know it are things we need to eradicate. Replacing that, we need to have our concerns focused on the interests and needs of global humanity
About Dread Scott
Dread Scott is an interdisciplinary artist who, for three decades, has made work that encourages viewers to re-examine cohering ideals of American society. In 1989, the US Senate outlawed his artwork, and President Bush declared it “disgraceful” because of its transgressive use of the American flag. Dread became part of a landmark Supreme Court case when he and others burned flags on the steps of the Capitol. He has presented a TED talk on this subject.
His art has been exhibited at MoMA/PS1, The Walker Art Center, Jack Shainman Gallery and street corners across the country. He is a 2021 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and has also received fellowships from Open Society Foundations and United States Artists, as well as a Creative Capital grant. In 2019, he presented Slave Rebellion Reenactment, a public performance, which was featured in Vanity Fair, The New York Times and on Christiane Amanpour on CNN. His art is included in the collection of the Whitney Museum.