Dread Scott challenges the legal limits on how to display a flag.

Dread Scott’s arrest during his protest flag burning in defiance of the Flag Protection Act in 1989. Photo via DreadScott.net

Happy Fourth of July! — because no matter where you are or how you feel about the state of politics in the United States, you can at least celebrate the fourth of this month, which marks American Independence Day and the 234th anniversary of the approval of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.

In recognition of this occasion, I interviewed artist Dread Scott, whose work is directly engaged in challenging public perception of and reactions to US politics and history.

His 1988 piece “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” resulted in a landmark Supreme Court case, ultimately coming out in favor of protecting “flag desecration” as freedom of expression, although there have been numerous attempts to pass legislation and constitutional amendments banning desecration of the flag. In a recent performance, he criticized the financial industry by burning $250 on Wall Street — to bankers’ and passerbys’ bemusement. His works often do the difficult work of making audiences and critics alike uncomfortable, recognizing the contradictions ingrained in American culture and its culture of politics.

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Dread Scott performing “I Am Not a Man” (2009) in Harlem (photo via dreadscott.net) (click to enlarge)

Janelle Grace: Where does your desire to engage come from? How do you sustain that motivation for conflict?

Dread Scott: The world as it is is intolerable and it doesn’t have to be this way. Wars of plunder and occupation; oil spills wiping out whole ecosystems and devastating many people who depended upon them; youth killing each over nothing and with no future at all under this system; immigrants criminalized; women afraid to walk the streets at night and unsafe in their own homes; fundamentalism on the rise; and people terrorized and shamed because of who they love.

This system is horrible and it all this horror is unnecessary. So my desire to engage starts from recognizing all of this and wanting to contribute to humanity getting to a whole new era. As for conflict, I don’t actually have a desire for conflict. I have a desire to make powerful work about a world that is profoundly polarized. And if you do that people are bound to have strong opinions about the work and some of those will want to see it suppressed and keep it from finding a wide audience.

JG: The American Flag and US currency are treated as inherent symbols of the country — the language and legal issues around them, the flag especially, suggests that a person is literally burning the country if they are to burn either. Your work directly challenges those symbols and raises questions about the role and potential limitations of dissent in an American context. What do you think about the history and state of dissent and the US’s relationship to freedom of expression today — either in general or within the contexts of your work and the legal issues around it?

DS: There is not nearly enough dissent in this country, or for that matter the world as a whole. There are many courageous people who find ways to resist and there are many important dissident voices in the arts. And this dissent is often met with repression. But I believe that the main thing that is stifling dissent is not repression or threats to freedom of expression but rather that far too many people continue to place their hope in this government and this system. Many are opposed to the war in Iraq, they don’t like the mass foreclosures and the greatest transfer of wealth from Black people in the modern era, they are deeply troubled by the oil spill … but they think that this government or this or that politician or some law will somehow resolve these problems in a way that they would like. And the bitter truth is that this system stands above the people and the elected officials don’t work for us. Stopping the crimes of this system will take a movement of millions from below.

As for challenging symbols, I think that this is very important and my work often does that. Burning money on Wall Street, a symbol of capitalism, and US capitalism in particular, points to the absurdity of a system based on profit and shines a light on the profound polarization of wealth in the world. I hope that this performance helps people reflect on this. And because this was resonating with people and challenging a taboo, police moved in to stop the performance. This system can “burn” hundreds of billions of dollars and steal people houses and this is all legal. My burning $250, an infinitesimal sum by comparison, ends up with a citation and a day in court.

Dread Scott's Money to Burn

Dread Scott during his “Money to Burn” (2010) performance (photo via Heart as Arena)

JG: How do you feel about nationalism in general, what benefits and disservices and purposes does it serve?

DS: These are big questions and I feel that a real answer would take several pages which would be inappropriate here. That said, briefly, nationalism for and in imperialist countries is a real problem. Should people support the invasions and occupations and ugly national chauvinism? Or the “sealing the southern border” and all the racism (and defense of land stolen from Mexico) that this is founded upon? Ultimately, I think that humanity needs to get beyond nations, but how to do that and what roll national liberation struggles can play in that and how nationalism of oppressed people should be viewed would require a blog for that topic alone, so we’ll leave that for another time.

JG: What are your goals — in terms of how the government frames theses issues, and how the public reacts or takes action around these issues?

DS: I don’t have a goal for how this government frames these questions. What I care about is how people look at the world. Whether they are increasingly able to confront it as it is and imagine how it could be radically different and far better. And whether they take joy in the work and are inspired, even when experiencing and thinking about difficult topics.

JG: What legacy do you expect your work to have? (versus what do you want it to have?)

DS: I don’t know. There isn’t a lot of critical writing about my work. However my work is often discussed in mainstream newspapers and on TV and in radio. So it is a bit unclear what legacy my work will have. That said, if people think that my work is important and is looking at significant questions and is formally innovative, then I hope that they would write about it and contribute to more people now and in the future knowing about the work.

JG: Why do you think there’s a lack of criticism about your work?

Dread Scott, “Imagine a World Without America” (nd) (via dreadscott.net)

DS: I think that the limited amount of critical writing around my work is the result of two things. The first is that taken as a whole my work is about revolution and humanity getting to a radically different and far better world. This perspective is not what most people in the arts and society more broadly are thinking about most of the time. And related to this it is sometimes dismissed as “political art” or put in categories where people think they get what the work is but don’t really end up engaging it because it is not how other artists they are familiar with are approaching related questions. And beyond this my work is challenging and it makes some people uncomfortable. This is fine and absolutely necessary for the art but I suspect it is a bit off-putting to some writers. The other reason for the lack of critical engagement is the same problem most artists face. There’s a lot of art out there and not all of it is going to be the subject focus in the arts. So part of it is just luck and timing and perhaps that will change.

JG: How do you feel about the Art World or art world today? What artists are you excited about? Who do you draw inspiration or influence from?

DS: There is a lot of good work being made today and the arts is one area in this society where there are a lot of critical thinking, dissenting voices, and inspiring ideas. That said, I wouldn’t say that dissent in the arts is the dominant thing going on. A lot of it is really boring and not compelling and some is actually fucked up. Volta NY (one of the major art fairs) this year had several misogynist works by several artist and even some really racist art, which was surprising. I’m influenced by many things, music and movies, particle physics and cutting edge Marxist theory. As for artists, I’m excited by, I think William Pope L, Cai Guo-Qiang, Kyle Goen, Jenny Polak, Hank Willis Thomas, and Waafa Bilal, are all doing great work. I really liked the Abramović show.

JG: What do you think about the ways the American public discusses or celebrates the country/its freedoms or symbols thereof/etc?

DS: Frederick Douglass gave a very good speech on July 5, 1852 — “What to the Slave is your 4th of July.” This speech is still very relevant and is well worth reading. Sure the barbecue is tasty and fireworks are nice, but what this holiday is about is celebrating a country that was founded on genocide and slavery and is now an imperialist superpower. It plunders the planet and gives a comparatively high standard of living to some and allows a little bit of room to make minor criticism. America uses predator drones to kill Afghan children as they sleep. It imprisons 10% of young Black men and its police murder and terrorize people in staggering numbers. America’s so-called freedoms are nothing to celebrate. Quoting Douglass:

Go where you may, search  where you will, roam through all the monarchies, and despotism, of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the every-day practices of this nation, and you will say with me that for revolting barbarity, and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without rival.

Janelle Grace is the #TalkBackTuesday editor of our tumblelog Hyperallergic LABS. In some of her previous professional lives, she's written essays for the Studio Museum in Harlem, coordinated gallery talks...

3 replies on “Honoring US Freedoms Through Dissent: Interview with Dread Scott”

  1. great piece! interesting that today at a 4th bbq my partner commented on how ironic it was that we can’t burn the flag but we can desecrate it as consumers eating on flag plates and wiping our mouths with flag napkins. in no other country would we soil the image of the flag with greasy bbq.

    “Ultimately, I think that humanity needs to get beyond nations,…” What a beautiful quote!

    1. Thanks Morose! I think about that from time to time myself — I really wanted to take a picture yesterday at the beach — American flag beach towels are okay on the ground, American flag napkins are okay in the trash? That element of consumerism is a really jarring contradiction!

  2. Great, thank you! I was very agitated when I viewed what Heart As Arena shared about the recent Wall Street performance. I can’t think of any art I have seen or am seeing as viscerally engaging as what Dred Scott is doing. This is powerful and not to be ignored. Please tell him that New York State abolished slavery on the 4th of July in 1872. Most people don’t know this and I think for many black people it will help them to enjoy the fireworks more.

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