Art as conversation: What it can say
There is no denying that Dread Scott’s work, “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S Flag?” caused controversy in 1988 when it was first displayed in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Viewers had to step on the American flag to answer the question.
With the controversial nature of his work in mind, Scott used it as a primary example of how art forces and shapes conversation about society. In his case, it’s the idea of freedom he wanted to talk about.
Scott’s work, being participatory art, accomplished what it set out to do: it forced a conversation by allowing people to pour their sentiments about the flag into a thick notebook. Some answers congratulated the artist and thanked him for unmasking the oppression they had to go through, while others saw the work as an attack on American values. Some argued that, while discourse is necessary, how one chooses to participate in it matters. Scott wasn’t being respectful enough for their liking.
That is the problem that many subversive artists face. They are forced to work within the confines of what society deems acceptable. A significant deviation will not go unnoticed and is often frowned upon. An artist must follow the social norm she or he is trying to subvert or throw into sharp relief. They have to choose between acceptance and perhaps a weakened point or they may face criticism or even censorship.
Scott faced national backlash when he displayed his piece. George Bush called it disgraceful and the U.S. Congress outlawed the work. This culminated in a First Amendment decision that prevented the government from demanding patriotism when Scott and three others burned flags on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to display dissatisfaction at Congress’ decision to ban the art. Scott, through his actions, albeit their controversial nature, brought the oppression represented by the flag into light and even brought about legal changes.
Now the question is, was there a better way to accomplish the same thing? Perhaps, perhaps not. A harsh awakening was what the audience, the American population, needed, but could Scott have also shown the freedom and protection that the flag represents for some?
Scott wanted his art to instigate a conversation, and a productive conversation today is one which is nuanced and comprehensive. Presenting an issue to satisfaction means presenting all the sides of it, warts and all, even if it doesn’t favor one’s argument.
Art is a nebulous concept. People argue about every aspect of it: what it should do, what it is or should be, what is the correct way to do things and much more. Scott’s initiative to create a loud buzz may be seen as ham-fisted, but in the context of the time, it may have been a necessary step to take in order shake the public consciousness into awakening. Art starts a conversation, and as banal as it may seem in the present, that conversation can snowball into critical issues. It is difficult to say whether what Scott did was right, but one can be sure of its impact on the world.