Dread Scott’s “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” and Art Censorship

Updated on July 31, 2018
JenniferWilber profile image

Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?
What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? | Source

The History of Dread Scott’s Work

In February 1989, the artist Dread Scott, then known as Scott Tyler, displayed his controversial work What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? as part of a student exhibition at the Chicago Institute of Art. This art installation included an American flag laid out on the floor, with a photograph of various images of American flags and a shelf holding a guestbook for visitors to record their thoughts about the display mounted behind the flag on the ground. To sign this book, visitors had to step on the American flag.

What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? was met by daily protests outside the Chicago Institute of Art. Chicago's City Council quickly passed an ordinance banning flag desecration. In September of that year, the ACLU wrote city officials on behalf of ten artists, including Dread Scott, asserting the ordinance was unconstitutional. In response to the letter, the City of Chicago filed a lawsuit against the artists, asking that the ordinance be declared constitutional.

In November of that year, Judge Kenneth L. Gillis ruled that the ordinance could not be used to prosecute artists who incorporate American flags in their works. Judge Gillis stated:

“[W]hen the flag is displayed in a way to convey ideas, such display is protected by the First Amendment. […] For every artist who paints our flag into a corner, there are others who can paint it flying high."

A close-up shot of the photo accompanying this art installation.
A close-up shot of the photo accompanying this art installation. | Source

Why Dread Scott Makes His Art

Dread Scott makes his art as a way to protest the current state of America. On his website, he says:

I make revolutionary art to propel history forward. I look towards an era without exploitation or oppression. I don’t accept the political structures, economic foundation, social relations and governing ideas of America. This perspective has empowered me to make artworks that view leaders of slave revolts as heroes, challenge American patriotism as a unifying value, burn the US Constitution (an outmoded impediment to freedom), and position the police as successors to lynch mob terror.

His artwork is a way to protest oppressive policies and political structures. He hopes that, through his artwork, he can propel history forward towards a new era free of exploitation and oppression. Of his controversial work, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, Dread Scott had this to say:

In 1989, my artwork What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?, a conceptual artwork for audience participation, became the subject of national conversation over its transgressive use of the American flag. President G.H.W Bush called it “disgraceful” and the Senate denounced and outlawed it. This public conversation confirmed my belief that art, including fine art, could be part of changing the world.

The criticism that his art drew only confirmed that his art was important, and that it could help to change the world for the better. The protests over his art only inspired him to continue making more art to protest the oppressive society we live in, as a way of fighting against oppression and exploitation.

The Artist’s Life: Dread Scott

A newspaper article appearing in the Chicago Sun Times regarding Dread Scott's work.
A newspaper article appearing in the Chicago Sun Times regarding Dread Scott's work. | Source

Why Banning Dread Scott’s Work Would be Unconstitutional

Though many protestors called for a ban of this and other works of art that “desecrate” the American flag, banning Dread Scott’s work, What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? would have been serious breach of the constitutional right to free speech. Art is meant to express the artist’s feelings and opinions to the world. Dread Scott used his art to voice his opinion. America is a country founded on freedom and the ideas of free speech and freedom of expression. To take these freedoms away just because some people disagree with an artist’s opinion is un-American, and unconstitutional.

Dread Scott’s work What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? is an important work of art. It symbolizes the current state of the United States of America. The American flag represents a country that was founded on exploitation and oppression, particularly of African Americans. Even though America is supposedly a country founded on ideas of freedom, too many Americans have not had that freedom throughout much of our country’s history. This work of art represents this exploitation and oppression.

In addition, each time someone steps on the flag in this art installation, adding their footprint, it may be seen to represent how American citizens contribute to destroying the country that the flag represents. Dread Scott’s artwork makes a statement about how the government, as well as the citizens, are destroying America as we allow our freedoms to be stripped away. It may be a statement about how we, as Americans, are losing our freedom.

The protestors of this art installation add to its symbolism. People are invited to step on the flag, desecrating it, the same way that the corrupt government “desecrates” the constitution by stepping on our rights as citizens, via things like the Patriot Act. The people who protest Dread Scott’s artwork, attempting to silence his free speech symbolize how Americans simply allow their freedoms to be taken away. Perhaps Dread Scott knew how people would react before he displayed his artwork.

Another newspaper article about the court case surrounding Dread Scott's controversial work of art.
Another newspaper article about the court case surrounding Dread Scott's controversial work of art. | Source

Dread Scott will Not Be Silenced, Even if He is Censored

Even if this work of art is censored, it will not be silenced. All attempts to censor this work of art have brought more attention to it, forcing people to think about government censorship. Under the Constitution, the government has no right to censor art, since it falls under free speech. It seems like the current policy for free speech is really “free speech, as long as it agrees with the government,” and that idea is truly un-American. A true American would defend Dread Scott’s right to say what he wanted, and what he needed to say in his art, regardless of whether they agreed with his message or not. True American values do not allow for censorship of art. It should not be illegal to use the flag in protest or in a work of art such as this.

A full photo of 'What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?" by Dread Scott.
A full photo of 'What is the Proper Way to Display the US Flag?" by Dread Scott. | Source

The Irony of the Protestors of this Work of Art

It is ironic that some American’s are so appalled by desecration of the American flag, yet don’t bat an eye when they see people suffering at the hands of the government, starving because they can’t afford to feed their families, being murdered in the streets, or killed in war. Many Americans put the symbol of America before actual Americans, actual people. It is this kind of false patriotism that is destroying America and everything that America was founded on. Lawmakers should spend more time making legislation that would actually protect people from violence, rather than trying to censor art. I think that is what Dread Scott was trying to say with his work, What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag?

Research Sources



© 2018 Jennifer Wilber


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