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The US Supreme Court’s 1990 Dread Scott Decision

Dread Scott. "What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?," 1988. Installation for audience participation: Silver gelatin print, books, pens, shelf, active audience, US flag; 80 x 28 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

No, that's not a typo in the headline. Dread Scott is an artist who creates provocative art, and his 1988 work, "What Is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?" led to a Supreme Court decision (US v. Eichman et al; 496 U.S. 310 (1990)) that ruled his use of the Stars 'n Stripes, even to the extent of burning the flag, was protected free-speech conduct under the First Amendment.

The exhibit placed a large US flag on the floor in front of a photomontage showing the flag and expressions of anti-American sentiment. A blank journal was below the photo, inviting gallery visitors to write comments—but to do so, one would have to stand on the flag.

Of course, this upset many people, and the following year Congress passed an act outlawing desecration of "Old Glory." Scott and others, in protest, burned the flag on the steps of the Capitol Building. And that was the issue that led to the Supreme Court case. 

Dread Scott likes to ask hard questions—about racism, capitalism, war, mass incarceration, and more—and his artwork is intended make people think about how to answer them:

    • After the 1999 police shooting and killing of Amadou Diallo, Scott created a screen print reminiscent of yellow-and-black traffic signs, with the text "Danger: Police in Area." It depicted silhouette figures of a cop shooting a man. The sign has been displayed at various locations. 
    • After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and other sites, a performance was choreographed in Times Square, consisting of more than 100 artists all wearing facemasks and signs with the slogan "Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War."
    • 2000 – 2004, "Lockdown," an installation series of photographs and taped interviews with youths in prison was publicly on display.
    • In 2010, during election time, "Poll Dance" presented a set of graphs and charts based on polling information divorced from the question that was asked. For example a pie chart with data: very worried 10%; not too worried 36%; what the respondents were concerned about remained unknown.
    • In 2012, again in advance of elections, Scott read out loud the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Simultaneously, four naked black men stood in a line guarded by two barking German shepherd dogs and their handlers. Finally, the audience was asked to walk through a line to a polling booth, where they could "vote" on moral questions such as, "Would you vote in the upcoming US presidential election if your vote implied acceptance of continuing the legacy of slavery within US society?"

This Labor Day weekend, Dread Scott has a retrospective exhibit of some of his works that explore civil rights issues and the criminal justice system in particular. "A Sharp Divide" will be hosted by the Rowan University Art Gallery in Glassboro, New Jersey.

I won't be there, but I hope to hear more about this show and about Scott's ongoing work. He is certainly a man who speaks right on.

America was forged by genocide and slavery and carries out profound exploitation and oppressions of whole peoples and vast regions of the planet to maintain this lopsided relationship.  It doesn't have to be this way and I personally look forward to the day when America and its flag are in the dustbin of history and people are striving to build a world of freely associating human beings, free of exploitation.  In this spirit I created a conceptual artwork where people could engage the question of what US patriotism and the US flag represents.

Dread Scott
Proverbs are not always right
Are you wearing blinders?

Comments 4

 
Laura Merrill on Sunday, 04 September 2016 15:01

A thoughtful and thought-provoking artist. Thanks for sharing this.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking artist. Thanks for sharing this.
Mary Neighbour on Sunday, 04 September 2016 15:26

As a talented artist yourself, you're most welcome!

As a talented artist yourself, you're most welcome!
Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Sunday, 04 September 2016 19:01

Never having heard of Dread Scott, thank you for sharing this. Artists are teachers in their own right and this gentleman is a powerful one! Of note in an Albuquerque Journal online article today it was described how some civil rights sites may be lost to history including a ghost town (Blackdom) that was once a thriving all-'black settlement in the New Mexico desert.-- one that I never knew existed. On the brighter side Albuquerque city officials are planning to revitalize the De Anza Motor Lodge--a motel that offered lodging to Black and Hispanic travelers along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles during segregation.

Never having heard of Dread Scott, thank you for sharing this. Artists are teachers in their own right and this gentleman is a powerful one! Of note in an Albuquerque Journal online article today it was described how some civil rights sites may be lost to history including a ghost town (Blackdom) that was once a thriving all-'black settlement in the New Mexico desert.-- one that I never knew existed. On the brighter side Albuquerque city officials are planning to revitalize the De Anza Motor Lodge--a motel that offered lodging to Black and Hispanic travelers along Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles during segregation.
Mary Neighbour on Monday, 05 September 2016 14:04

Jeannette, thank you for sharing the info about Blackdom--I'm definitely going to learn more about that. And also for sharing about the De Anza Motor Lodge. You've inspired in me an idea for a new book--Wow!

Jeannette, thank you for sharing the info about Blackdom--I'm definitely going to learn more about that. And also for sharing about the De Anza Motor Lodge. You've inspired in me an idea for a new book--Wow!
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