Dread Scott (BFA 1989) talks about the provocative work that the President of the United States deemed “disgraceful.”
Dread Scott (BFA 1989) first gained notoriety at the age of 23 when he exhibited What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag? at A / Part of the Whole, an exhibition organized by SAIC's Black Student Association. The installation comprised an American flag displayed on the ground beneath a photomontage and a comment book. Visitors were asked to record their impressions in the book—with the option of standing on the flag while doing so.
The piece sparked national controversy. Then-President George H.W. Bush deemed the work “disgraceful.” The United States Congress denounced it and passed legislation to “protect the flag.” And, the following year, the government cut funding to SAIC. Scott talks about the provocative work that will forever be tied to SAIC’s controversial history.
As a student, what motivated you to create What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?
I was working on a body of work that was a series of installations. I started that because I saw that there was a lot of political or social discussion and people either agreed with it or disagreed with it but didn’t engage with it. I wanted to make work that implicated the viewer in these questions in one way or another.
It was optional for viewers to stand on the flag in order to offer comments. Why was this crucial to the work?
I had my own personal views on the flag, America, and US imperialism. But the work wasn’t about me. If I had just said, “fuck the flag,” people wouldn’t have had the opportunity to engage. The fact that people chose to stand on the flag was what made the piece so provocative. People who liked the work expressed a range of social and political perspectives—dangerous ideas that were not popular.
Did you anticipate the degree of reaction that you received?
There was nothing to set a precedent for this at all. The piece had been shown before at an alternative space about six months earlier, and was seen by several hundred people. Some liked the project; some didn’t…so it was completely unanticipated. Then it was shown at a juried exhibition at the school. I’m sure that if they had known this would be the reaction it would not have been admitted.
At the time, George H. W. Bush was running his campaign appearing at flag factories on a platform of reinvigorated US patriotism. So people were trying to suppress What is the Proper Way in various courts. There were death threats and bombs threats phoned into the school; people in the gallery that had their livelihoods threatened by patrons; people that were trying to suppress this work on a range of levels up to the Supreme Court—they stood for all the injustices of oppression. At this point, none of the culture wars had happened, and so I didn’t expect it and I was very happy that the work resonated so deeply. It was something I wasn’t prepared for, but it was inspiring and challenging.
Why is it important that artists—especially students—create work that addresses social and political issues?
For the majority of the people on this planet, it’s a horror. Half the people on this planet live on less than two dollars a day. There are wars raging; being female on most parts of this planet is just dangerous. In America, one in 10 black men are in prison. This world is a horror, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
I think artists exercise disproportionate influence—visual artists in an art school, versus a Miley Cyrus with a megaphone. We exercise disproportionate influence but we all work with our heads. And it’s our responsibility to do something that could bring a more just world into being. It’s profound interest in inequality and a belief that the world can be made better, fundamentally different, and artists should play a role in this and shine a light on some of the big ideas coming from humanity. I have my own personal views on how that should happen, but it should happen. Why would artists absent themselves from broader ideas of society? These are questions people are talking about, and artists should be a part of that discussion.