‘What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?,’ an installation for audience participation by Dread Scott. — photo courtesy of the artist
Here’s one way to get your art noticed: have the President of the United States call your work “disgraceful.”
That’s what happened to Dread Scott in 1989. His installation, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, invited viewers to write comments in a blank notebook. The most convenient way to do that, however, involved standing on an American flag laid out on the floor.
George H.W. Bush was not impressed, and the entire U.S. Senate denounced the work; Scott found himself caught up in the culture wars of the time. Since then, he has continued to create provocative work to, in the words of his website, “propel history forward.”
Scott will speak in Dows Theatre on the Coe College campus on Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the college’s Marquis Series. His presentation is titled “Imagine a World Without America.”
Artist Dread Scott will speak at Coe College as part of the Marquis Series. — photo courtesy of the artist
“The title comes from an artwork that I have called Imagine a World Without America, which is a print on canvas that’s about six and a half feet by six and a half feet that is a map of the world but instead of America being centered, which is the way most of the time we see it, Europe and Africa are in the center and America sort of falls off the edges on the left and right side and it just has text that says ‘Imagine a World Without America,’” Scott explained.
The artist believes the exercise in imagination is worthwhile. “We should dream of a world that would be better than the one we have and then ask people to complicate the thought experiment by imagining that world without America—whether you believe America is fundamentally a force for good or one of the great problems in the world today, it has disproportionate influence and so I want people to think of a world without what America historically has been and what it represents in the present.”
The themes in his work give Scott the grist for compelling presentations.
“My lectures are really engaging because the work that I do touches on some of the big questions confronting humanity,” Scott said. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to have it be part of the popular discourse and cross from a contemporary art world into popular dialogue. The work is accessible even though there’s a lot to the work. There’s a lot for people to chew on and think about. I hope that aesthetically people have a joyous experience when seeing it, but then, you know, it talks about big ideas. There’s a lot to talk about.”
The American flag is, of course, something people are talking about at the moment as NFL players protest racial injustices, particularly police brutality, during the singing of the National Anthem before games. Scott’s controversial piece involving the flag seems particularly relevant to that discussion.
“My work was addressing a similar question years ago and people are looking back at that work and saying we need to think about the questions that were raised in it,” he said. “They’re not identical to the way Colin Kaepernick or Trump are raising them. They’re adding complexity to an already complex set of questions and so I’m happy that work that I made a long time ago is something that people still are drawing ideas and discussions from.”
Recently, the flag returned to Scott’s work for the first time since What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? The new work is a public art project on kiosks in New York City featuring an image of the American flag in black and white and the words “Never again.”
Decades after the controversy over What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, Scott is grateful for the experience.
“I feel very lucky. All artists should be lucky enough to have a work that gets widely discussed and they get known for. Unlike, say, popular films or music, it’s rare for visual artwork to be on the cover of the New York Times or be talked about in Time magazine or People magazine,” he said. “And I feel tremendously lucky that happened early in my life and that it was about a work that I’m still very proud of. The work was talking about things that clearly are continuing to be discussed all throughout society so the fact that work has stood the test of time, in a certain sense, is good.”
The early-career controversy convinced Scott of something important that continues to underpin his work.
“I’ve gone on to make work about a lot of other things and the way the work most influenced me is it actually reconfirmed my conviction that art could matter tremendously. That even visual art could bring joy to some people but also enable people to see the world in new and different ways. And that people might even stand in line for an hour to see a visual artwork, which prior to that happening with my work I would have said, no, maybe you would stand in line an hour to see Star Wars but not a conceptional photograph and installation for audience participation.”
The experience was central to the development of his art going forward.
“You know, it was great, and it really has challenged me to make work in that spirit. Not so much trying to address the same theme very much but more to make work that takes up the sometimes unspoken questions and unspoken ideas and tries to push formal boundaries within that,” he said. “I am an artist. I’m not a politician, I’m an artist. And so I do have to work within the language of art, and part of it is trying to contribute to artistic movements and developing things within that. But it has set a standard with which to approach the work which I’ve made for the past 30 years now.”
Scott believes his lecture will provide a respite for all those who are feeling overwhelmed by much of what is happening in society today.
“If you are interested both in what’s going on within contemporary art but also you want to have a forum to talk about to a world which isn’t sort of scarred by war and white supremacy and random senseless violence, then this is the place to come. It’s going to be a talk where suppressed ideas are given freedom to be discussed and where white supremacy will be on the defensive and people who yearn for a world of freely associating human beings can come and get some fresh air and a great place to talk.”
Tickets for Imagine a World Without America are $15 for the general public and $10 for students and seniors. They can be purchased online or by calling 319-399-8600. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.
North Liberty celebrates Iowans' least favorite time of year with a festival's-worth of physical, social and family-friendly events, including its first ice rink. Pre-registration begins Monday, Nov. 20.