Wake Up, People

The multidisciplinary artist Dread Scott makes work that is designed to provoke—in a big way.

His first piece, created in 1989 when he was a 24-year-old student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, consisted of a ledger book mounted on a table. To write in it, visitors had to stand on an American flag. What Is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? caused such a firestorm—President George H. Bush deemed it “disgraceful”—that Senator Bob Dole initiated a measure to outlaw the display of the flag on the floor or ground.

Years later, Scott (born Scott Tyler) created another piece in which he burned the flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. He was arrested, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the artist and the First Amendment. “That means,” Scott told an audience at FIT on February 25, “that you can do whatever you want with it.”

Scott calls his art “revolutionary,” and there’s no mistaking the vastness of his ambition. He wants to change his audience, to “move history forward,” as he puts it. He showed slides of his work and discussed ideas.

A piece made in 2012 for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dread Scott: Decision, was designed for maximum audience discomfort. Visitors were brought into a large space where four naked black men were being menaced by German shepherds. As Scott read aloud the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling (from which he derives his nom d’art), in which the court held that African-Americans were not citizens and hence could not sue in federal court, the audience was invited into voting booths. The ballot consisted of a simple yes/no question: None of the 2012 presidential candidates are addressing the fact that one out of nine black American men was currently in prison. Would you still vote?

Though his work is stark and strident, Scott’s manner is affable, and his sense of humor charms. One piece, called Imagine a World without America, consists merely of the title printed on a world map laid out so that the United States is cropped out. Unfortunately, he acknowledged, Canada was also omitted. “But that’s their fault,” he said. “They should have known better than to set up beside us.”

The talk was sponsored by ARTSpeak, an interdisciplinary program presented by the departments of Fine Arts and History of Art

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