Dread Scott talks subversive art, erasure and race in America

Haley Mullen, Assistant News Editor

“Do you have hope for the future?” Dread Scott asked University students and faculty members which filled the Gallery Forum. The answer he received from the crowd was a muddled chorus of yes’s and no’s. Scott, an artist whose work largely focuses on race and inequality in America, spoke on Wednesday, April 4th at 7pm as part of the Griot Institute for Africana Studies’ Spring 2018 Lecture and Performance Series. Scott’s artist talk was sponsored by the Griot Institute for Africana Studies, the Samek Art Museum, and the Department of Art and Art History.

Erasure, the theme of Griot Institute for Africana Studies’ Spring 2018 Lecture and Performance Series, was described by Scott as the genocide of African American by American institutions of power, and the “erasing or flattening of black history and culture.” Scott discussed this flattening through the PBS.com series titled “Black Folks Don’t…”, which includes episodes such as “Black folks don’t like punk rock” and “Black folks don’t have fathers.” To these proclamations Scott displayed images of him dancing at a punk rock concert and an image of him as a young child with his father.  

Professor Carmen Gillespie, the Director of the Griot Institute called Scott “distinguished and much lauded, a controversial and brave artist.” Scott has worked in a range of mediums including installation, video, performance and photography. On his work, Scott said  “I make revolutionary art to propel history forward. To do that I want the audience to confront the radical ideals of the art and use that to propel society forward.”

Scott is most well-known for his 1989 piece titled “What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” The piece includes an American flag laid on the ground and a book that was placed open with a pen for viewers to share their comments. The work drew criticism from the president at the time, George H.W. Bush, who called the piece “disgraceful” and the United States Senate rapidly passed a law against laying the American flag on the ground. To have a government reaction to his work, Scott said, shows, “how fragile the nation is and how powerful art is.”

Scott also discussed his works such as his 2009 “I Am Not a Man” performance piece and 2010 performance titled “Money to Burn.” Inspired by the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, in which protesters walked the streets wearing signs reading “I AM A MAN,” “I am Not a Man,” included Scott, dressed in a 1960s era suit and top hat, walking through New York City wearing a large sign with the words “I AM NOT A MAN” written in black.

With “Money to Burn,” Scott walked along Wall Street loudly singing “money to burn” and asking individuals if they had money to burn. If they did, he would light the bills on fire and then toss the flaming currency into a bucket he was carrying. Scott is stopped by the police and charged with disorderly conduct during this performance. “The police want the right to shoot down, brutalize, murder but they don’t want art being made about it” said Scott while the incident was shown in the Gallery Forum.

Through these pieces, Scott discussed his aim to ensure a dialogue around his art and get the issues of racial inequality in the United States to “extend beyond the confines of the gallery. ” 

“I found his way of using history and art for activism to be very enlightening. His work changes the perception of what art can do and brings new possibilities and models of activism while voicing a new way of critiquing society” Christine Cha ’20 said. 

“I think Dread Scott’s work forces us to interrogate things that are not articulated overtly and he does that by reversing that and articulating them. It is a necessary act of, as he called it, revolution” Gillespie said.   

Scott also discussed his views on education and college as important to exploration and creation of self. “One of the things a good college does is it creates an environment where you check out a lot of stuff, so I hope you come out a different person than you were when you began college.” Scott said. “I speak at all sorts of colleges and high schools because I think it is important to share this work with people who are grappling with what sort of human they want to be and what the reason for humanity is” Scott stated.



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