Artists Unite Issue

September 17, 2007

interview: Dread Scott (part 1)

Filed under: Articles — Peter Ferko @ 7:51 am

by Sky Pape

In this forum, political art has often been a topic of discussion. We decided to delve into the subject more deeply by interviewing the artist Dread Scott, who has dedicated himself to the challenge of making “revolutionary art to propel history forward.” He works in a variety of media, including photography, installation, sculpture, and screenprinting, and has exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as well as many galleries and museums around the country and internationally.

In 1989, an installation by Dread Scott, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, became the center of controversy over its use of the American flag. President Bush (the first) declared What is the Proper Way… “disgraceful,” and the entire U.S. Senate denounced the work when it passed legislation to “protect the flag.” As part of the popular effort to oppose moves to make patriotism compulsory, Dread Scott, along with three others, burned flags in protest on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, resulting in a Supreme Court case and a landmark decision.

Since then, he has made numerous media appearances, including on Oprah, The Today Show, and CBS This Morning, speaking about his work and the controversy surrounding it. He has been written about in The New York Times, Art In America, ArtNews, The Village Voice, Time, People, The London Guardian, and several other publications.

Artists Unite Issue would like to thank Dread Scott for taking the time to reflect on his work and ideas in response to Sky Pape’s questions.

More information on Dread Scott and his work can be found on his website: www.dreadscott.net

(This is part 1 of a two-part interview.)

WHATPOP1.JPG1. Visual art has its own language and concerns (both societal and self-reflective) and the same is true for socio-political activism. Where do the two intersect?

While I believe that art has its own language and one can make the same argument for social-political activism, I don’t think that there is a “concern” of either art or of activism that is it’s own purview, or that that no other realm has the capacity or freedom to explore those concerns. For me, the question with art, at least art that I feel is helpful to humanity, is whether it enables people to see and understand the world more deeply, and on that basis, help change it. Specifically, change it so that we move towards a world without exploitation or oppression. I don’t mean that art should be utilitarian or serve a political aim in a didactic way. Many times, art, even great art, will indirectly affect how people see the world and not have a 1 to 1 relation with how they act in changing it. But I do think that art reflects an artist’s worldview and often casts light on how they would like it to be. And while I think that there needs to be more activism in the world, my greatest concern is with how people view the world. What is their ideology? I think that art and activism can influence that. And while much activism often hopes to achieve a particular goal (stopping a war, ending discrimination, securing abortion rights…), as important as that is, I think what is most needed is for people to make revolution and take the first great step in being able to eliminate all of the horrors that plague humanity. And then move towards a communist world without exploitation — a world of freely associating human beings. To do that, what people think matters. How they view the world matters. From this perspective, I think that the intersection of art and political activism should be to help contribute to a situation where people can take that step — both helping to change the social landscape so that there is more upheaval in society, where the powers that be are more isolated and on the defensive, where people are more willing to fight for freedom. And where their sights are set on a radical transformation of society and a vision of what the world could be. Art and activism will contribute to that in their own distinct ways, but I think that this should be the aim of both for people who want their life to be about helping to usher in a better world.

2. Can political art be more than propaganda? Can it have staying power beyond the time when the specific issues cease to be relevant? Is political art a more valid cultural artifact of our society, or is a relic a relic?

I think that art that typifies contradictions powerfully is bound to have some lasting value. Look at Guernica. The horror of imperialist war and the destruction of being bombed from the air is still a huge question. And so Picasso’s work is still all too relevant. That said, social situations do change, and work that was powerful for a year or a decade or century may at some point be of more interest understood in its historical context. The Rite of Spring, the Igor Stravinsky ballet which caused fistfights when first performed, or Diego Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads, which was destroyed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who commissioned the work, or the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” which was a No. 1 record yet banned from play by the BBC and led to the group’s arrest, may need a little contextualization nowadays to understand the effect at the time the work was premiered. But with that context we can learn a great deal, gain new appreciation for the work, and it can still be quite effective generations later.

3. Considering the artistic legacies of the Soviet Union, China, and even Nazi Germany, can art serve politics in a meaningful way, while still allowing freedom of expression?

I think that art can contribute in significant and profound ways to discourse and thoughts about what society is and how it could be. That said, I think that the way this question is framed is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, I think that the aims and goals of the Soviet Union and China (when they were revolutionary societies — the Soviet union from 1917-1953 and China from 1949-1976) and Nazi Germany were very different, and all too often intellectuals, and others, facilely lump them together. The aims, goals and practice of China and the Soviet Union when they were socialist was to serve as a transition from capitalism to a worldwide classless communist world of freely associating human beings. And while there are important and substantive criticisms of these socialist societies and the theories that led them that need to be made, overwhelmingly the experience of these first socialist societies is something that should be upheld. The aim of Nazi Germany was to extend and reinforce German imperialism, to install an openly militaristic fascistic form of rule — within the borders of Germany and beyond — and, as part of that, to commit genocide of a whole people. These days, those profound differences are glossed over by far too many people.

So looking at the legacy of the art of revolutionary China and the Soviet Union, I think that some of the art made there is profound and work that many people need to study and learn from. This is true of the Soviet avant-garde as well as some of the socialist realist work. People should look again at Rodchenko, the Stenberg Brothers, Eisenstein, etc. And look as well at the peasant paintings from China. Unfortunately, by the 1930s in the Soviet Union, the intellectual air was sucked out of the society and the socialist realist art was very contradictory. I feel that some of the work is engaging and compelling and explored the connection of the masses to the revolution, but the art became increasingly constrained. This is an experience that should not be repeated and must be critically summed up. But to do so, the criterion must be how to keep your eyes on continually transforming society to eliminate oppression. To do that you need to have a vibrant society.

Which brings me to my second problem with the framing of the question about art serving politics being in contradiction to free expression. First, I think that it is wrong to believe that many artists in both the revolutionary and fascist countries didn’t make art they believed in. They were expressing themselves. It’s not as if Stalin or Hitler forced Dziga Vertov and Leni Riefenstahl to make films that reflected the official State outlook. As far as I know, each, and many other artists, made films and art they were passionate about. But more to the point, my problem with socialist realism and the sharp constraints on intellectual ferment in the Soviet Union, and to a lesser degree in China, is not that the artists didn’t have their individual expression and they lost out as individuals. Though a problem, the real problem with the Soviet Union, specifically looking at the arts, was not that each artist didn’t get his or her individual viewpoint expressed. My criticism is that many aspects of the intellectual life of those societies were lifeless and boring and did not end up serving the aim of getting to a classless world. Bob Avakian (www.revcom.us), who is a great contemporary Marxist intellectual and leader, has looked deeply at the history of socialist societies and has formulated that what is needed, particularly with respect to intellectual activity, is to have a solid core (of people grounded in the aims and goals of getting to a communist future) with a lot of elasticity. In this context, the point is that artistic individuality and expression can contribute greatly to getting humanity to a new era. If a significant section of artists and intellectuals were grounded in the aim of getting to a communist world, and based on that were allowed and encouraged to run in wild and woolly directions, it would have been, and in the future will be, messy. It would have posed certain challenges to keeping society moving forward. But society would have been vibrant, and this is the only way to actually move society forward in the way I’m discussing.

4. Is good political art, and by that I mean art that is both successful as a work of art and as a political statement, still the province of a small intellectual elite rather than the people?

No. Beloved (Toni Morrison), The River (Bruce Springsteen), Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo) “The Star Spangled Banner” (Jimi Hendrix), Interrogation II (Leon Golub), Michael Stewart - USA for Africa (Keith Haring), Disasters of War (Goya), Ironers (Jacob Lawrence), Uprising (Kathe Kollwitz), The Gift (Man Ray), The Americans (Robert Frank) Five Car Stud (Edward Kienholz), Terminal or Tilted Arc (Richard Serra), Sheep Raffle (David Hammons). Add your own. Obviously the fine art is less well known than the films, songs and novels, but they have been seen by and influenced tens of thousands, and often many, many more. This is not an elite. But to the degree it is seen by a smaller and more privileged audience, this is still important, including for the wider masses. If the intellectuals and middle class more broadly in this society are complacent and in support of the way things are, or if they are questioning the nature of society and want to change it, that is of great importance to the larger masses of people. Art like this affects how they see the world and what they feel needs to change.

(…to be continued)

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images: Dread Scott, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? 1988, interactive installation; Imagine a World Without America, 2006, screenprint

One Response to “interview: Dread Scott (part 1)”

  1. Artists Unite Issue » interview: Dread Scott (part 2) Says:

    [...] Part 1 of this interview is available here. [...]