Visual Arts

Burning Flags

Artist Dread Scott speaks about his revolutionary art

Courtesy of the Artist

It starts with a series of questions. “Do you guys have hope for the future?” artist Dread Scott asks from the podium. From around the hall at the DuSable Museum of African American History, seated audience members answer: “Yes.”

“Do you think the US government tortures people?” “Yes.”

“Do you think that having one in nine young black men in prison is acceptable?” “No.”

“Do you think that this government lies to you?” “Yes.”

“Do you think that the government values your life?” “No.”

He looks around, trademark mohawk in place, eyes peering through black-rimmed glasses. “Then what’s that hope based on?” he asks. This is how he begins to talk about his art.

Dread Scott describes himself as a “revolutionary artist,” one whose work, which includes installations, photography, performance art, video, and print, is blatantly political. Political messages are the threads that tie his art together, and he seeks to make work that is “part of helping to forge that different society, and helping to bring that world into being.”

“I have hope for the future too,” Scott says. “But the hope actually really lies in people confronting a lot of the horrific things going on today, and making revolution, and transforming the world and themselves in the process.”

The works Scott discussed at the DuSable are unflinchingly confrontational, often addressing issues of power and race. In his 2011 performance piece Money to Burn, Scott plucked dollar bills from wads of cash taped to his chest and burned them, all while singing the words “money to burn” and walking down Wall Street. In another piece, Decision, four silent nude black men are surrounded and herded by German Shepherds, whose hostile barks punctuate the air as audience members make their way around them to enter a makeshift voting booth. Scott’s work strives to shock and discomfort, but also deals with the tension between maintaining sensitivity and illuminating injustice. Several of his pieces function as both memorial and protest, commemorating revolutionaries or victims of police brutality.

Scott is perhaps best known for his work What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, an installation that gained notoriety after President George H. W. Bush denounced it as “disgraceful.” In the installation, audience members were invited to write their response to the title of the exhibit in a book. A photomontage of flag-draped coffins and burning American flags plays above and a physical flag is laid out on the ground below. “Part of the project is about the choices people make,” he explains, pointing to the fact that audience members had to choose whether or not they should step on the flag to write on the book.

When Congress outlawed displays of flags on the ground or floor in response to the installation, the next logical course of action, according to Scott, was simple. “What does one do when one is confronted by an unjust law?” he says, “Well, you defy it.” He clicks to the next image. “This is me burning a flag on the steps of the Capital.”

“Previously, had you asked me whether I thought art could matter—and matter in people’s lives—I would have said ‘Yes, it could.’ But if you pressed me on it, I would have said it matters if your name is Steven Spielberg or Chuck D,” explains Scott. But the fact that his piece was able to incite denunciations from the President and Congress, as well as contribute to the Supreme Court case U.S. v. Eichman, that legalized flag desecration, reaffirmed his belief in the power of art. “This really showed me something about the power of art,” he continues, “that, even with all their weaponry and might, they actually felt very threatened by this artwork.”

They’re bold images, purposefully heavy-handed at times, but effective because of it. Deliberately discomfiting, his work constantly seeks to illuminate social and political problems and create dialogue. On the horizon for Scott is a 500-person reenactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising, the largest slave revolt in American history. “My desire to do this piece is to learn all I can from that,” said Scott, pointing to his admiration of their desire to abolish slavery, rather than negotiate lighter punishments. “But [ I] also [want to] put into people’s heads bold and imaginative thinking about horrific problems and coming up with bold solutions to those actual problems.”

The audience at DuSable, however, was already searching for solutions, already unsatisfied with lessons from the past. Pervading the crowd was a sense of frustration and desire for change, but also feelings of powerlessness. One audience member asked how she, as an eighteen-year-old girl, could make a difference. Scott’s answer was vague: he asked audience members to be aware of their abilities to become revolutionaries, suggesting that they read works by revolutionary thinkers as a start. Was this a talk about art, or about a political movement? The two became indistinguishable during Scott’s lecture, but towards the end it seemed clear that as much as Scott may have been trying to disintegrate the boundaries between them, the audience members were still left searching for answers to questions they already had.

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