How art can shape America’s conversation about freedom | Dread Scott


I am a visual artist, and I make revolutionary art
to propel history forward. I’m going to come right out
and tell you something: I don’t accept the economic foundation, the social relations or the governing ideas of America. My art contributes to fundamental change by encouraging an audience to address
big questions from that perspective. Social change is hard,
but ideas matter tremendously. When I say I’m an artist,
most people think, “Oh, he’s a painter.” Behind me, you can see
some of the kind of work I do. “Imagine a World
Without America” is a painting, but I work in a range of media, including photography,
video and performance art. A current project,
“Slave Rebellion Reenactment,” is going to be reenacted
on the outskirts of New Orleans this November. In 1989, I had an artwork that became
the center of controversy over its transgressive use
of the American flag. “What is the Proper Way
to Display a US Flag?” is a conceptual work that encouraged
audience participation. It consisted of a photo montage
that had text that read, “What is the Proper Way
to Display a US Flag?” Below that were books that people
could write responses to that question in, and below that was a flag
that people had the option of standing on. The photo montage consisted
of images of South Korean students burning American flags, holding signs that said,
“Yankee go home. Son of a bitch,” and below that were flag-draped coffins
coming back from Vietnam. People wrote long and short answers. Thousands of people engaged with the work
in a lot of different languages. Some of the people said, “I’m a German girl. If we Germans would admire
our flag as you all do, we would be called Nazis again. I think you do have too much
trouble about this flag.” “I think that the artist
should be returned to his heritage, i.e., the jungles of Africa, and then he can shovel manure
in his artistic way.” “This flag I’m standing on stands for
everything oppressive in this system: the murder of the Indians
and all the oppressed around the world, including my brother
who was shot by a pig, who kicked over his body
to ‘make sure the nigger was dead.’ That pig was wearing the flag. Thank you, Dread Scott,
for this opportunity.” “As a veteran defending the flag, I personally would never
defend your stupid ass! You should be shot!” — US Navy Seal Team. As you can see, people had
very strong reactions about the flag then, as they do now. There were demonstrations of veterans
in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. They chanted things like, “The flag and the artist,
hang them both high,” evoking images of lynching. I received numerous death threats, and bomb threats
were phoned in to my school. It was a very dangerous situation. Later, President Bush called
the work “disgraceful,” which I viewed as a tremendous honor, and Congress outlawed the work. (Laughter) I became part of a Supreme Court case
when I and others defied that law, by burning flags
on the steps of the Capitol. That action and the subsequent
legal and political battle led to a landmark First Amendment decision
that prevented the government from demanding
patriotism be mandatory. But let me back up a bit. These people literally wanted me dead. What I would do at this moment
would make a difference. This is me at the exact same moment, eight stories above that crowd. It was supposed to be for a photo shoot that was going to take place on the steps
where the veterans were at that time. It wouldn’t have been safe
for me to be there, to say the least. But it was really important
to do that shoot, because while some wanted to kill me,
it was also a situation where those who viewed the American flag
as standing for everything oppressive in this system felt that they had a voice, and that voice needed to be amplified. The point is this: changing anything — whether it’s conventional ideas
about US national symbols, traditional thinking challenged
by scientific breakthroughs or ousting an authoritarian president — requires a lot of things. It requires courage, luck and also vision and boldness of action. But on luck — I have to say, the photo shoot we did
might not have worked out so well. We laughed after we were out of the area. But the thing is, it was worth the risk because of the stakes that were involved. And in this case, the luck
led to a wonderful, profound and powerful situation that was also humorous. Thank you. (Applause)

95 thoughts on “How art can shape America’s conversation about freedom | Dread Scott

  • This is great stuff. I hung my American flag, which has a heart shaped hole in it, in my window and kept it there until people threatened me with eviction. Free speech is my favorite thing besides other really cool things like geometry and computer games. 🙂 Great Scott! 🙂

  • This dude is a fool. He is against our economic system? Well I'm sorry but there isn't any option thats any better unless you like communism or socialism which allow for bigger tyranical leaders.

  • Thank you. Great talk. Wonderful art. Reminds me of what Einstein pointed out …that nationalism and patriotism are a sickness. It seems clear to me that until we care about the freedom of everyone and everything ‘freedom’ is just freedom for the powerful to take advantage of the vulnerable.

  • I believe we're missing the whole point of His Artwork, which is the idea of freedom or is America's understanding of freedom a lie?

  • I don't understand the point of this TED talk. To display the arrogance of some? To show how weirdly controversial the flag is?

  • It's easy for Americans to hate and criticize America, only because they have the FREEDOM to do so. Just imagine a Chinese or Russian citizen doing this.

  • Partly what I don't get is why people keep picking on Veterans using the flag. Of course they're gonna be upset when you disgrace the flag in such a way. To a normal person, like me, the flag is just a piece of cloth. A symbol yes but it holds barely any meaning anymore. To the veteran however it's a symbol and a thanks for their sacrifices, the daughters, the sons, the mothers, the father's who gave so much to protect or serve the US , then the flag the represents them is tread on and disrespected, they're disrespected. It isn't the flag, it's what it symbolises.

  • The colonial states will suffer the consequences of cruelty, massacres and unscrupulous acts to date.
    The world's greatest and wildest genocide was against North and South American residents.
    In 1945, atomic bombs that were delivered onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed more than a hundred thousand people.
    Also in February 1945, the United States and Britain bombarded Dresden, killing hundreds of thousands of spikes in a few days.
    Also one cannot do without mentioning the countless persecutions and massacres of the Soviet Union.
    The Catholic Church has burned many people alive.
    I now ask: Will all these atrocities, slaughter be unpunished?
    Of course not!
    That atheists do not believe in divine justice is not the proof that there is no divine justice.
    Europe is no longer Jewish-Christian, but paganized.
    Pagan civilization and morality are rapidly dragging the world and humanity into the Third World War.
    Western civilization, which is contrary to philosophy, has made the world uninhabitable.
    In all the heavenly religions, there is a mention of the divine time wars.
    The world and humanity will be ruined and sank because of their reproach.
    Could it be said that the Zionists have followed the Torah?
    Are Christians on the path of Jesus?
    Their true religion is the Golden Calf.
    Teachings of Jesus Christ are not all about singing songs in Churches and reading deities.
    Zionism and the state of Israel which are totally contrary to the Torah will bring terrible disasters to Jews and all humanity.
    As Kierkegaard said, they spit on his grave, saying, "Jesus."
    They have followed Satan and Taghut.
    First and second world wars and the madness of the Soviet Union did not bring their minds to their heads.
    The brainless civilization that sinks the world but at the same time sends satellite to Mars.
    Crazy civilization melting polar ice.
    Civilization invented and discovered nuclear weapons that could destroy mankind not only once but also thousands of times.
    The civilization of sin, rebellion and pleasure!

    FELLOW DWELLERS OF THE EARTH;
    My name is Eight Billion,
    I contain an angel and a devil struggling inside,
    The face I dress varies to survive,
    Always hungry for power, never enough to content,
    I look for “inner peace” whilst consumed by grudge,
    For sons, for daughters, for the self, please be advised, there long existed the new code, aside,
    Let’s consider having an appointment with the best stylist for a change,
    Experience, how exceptionally would you look better reflecting the best,
    Thus, if you manage to change yourself, repenting for good,
    The place called Earth might turn into Heaven, I assure,
    It is me, it is you, it is us will power to CHANGE.

  • I would write:
    " A Flag should stay at eye level. Never so high that makes us look up as if we are inferior, or lower at ground that makes us look down as if we are superior. I would treat the Flag same as my bhrother and sisters, as an equal being."

  • As far as this is about respect of the US flag, I say this. I do not like the message, but will defend his right to express it; and I have done so as an officer in the US Army and continue to do so as an atheist citizen today.

  • I respect free speech, but your method is disgraceful. Symbols matter. The lives sacrificed represented in that flag matter. Surely, there are better ways to push out the limits of people thoughts. I will not be foolish enough to attempt to change your mind. I will take this moment to vehimenently protest.

  • Having reverence for a symbol of freedom and hope is not evil or oppressive in nature. This country has provided shelter for more refugees and immigrants that any other country in history. This country has provided more opportunities for the less fortunate to overcome diversity and life struggles than any other country in history. I accept that we have had a troubled past, but we are always evolving and moving forward. It is shameful that anyone thinks it's humorous to disrespect our flag. It's your right to do so, but you should be ashamed. Your anti-American ideas are nothing more than an attempt to provoke a radical reaction, to draw attention. These ideas should not even be entertained because of the obvious thoughtlessness of your comments. Those of you that entertained this as insightful, I challenge you to critically think your opinions on this through. This "Artist" clearly has not.

  • Art is usually captured beauty or controversial. Most striking message from you is the question, actually 2 questions. 1. Why do you remain in the US after you clarified how much you hate it. 2. What’s with the haircut-hair-do. Pretty weird.

  • This video pulls at what it means to be tribalistic by hoisting a symbol over your head and placing claims upon it. The ideas that you form from that symbol can be meaningful to you but not to everyone. The perspective of your belief system is what is under attack here. Your flag is just an outward visual signal of those beliefs because we use those as the threads in the making of that symbol.

  • While I support his right to free speech, I very much disagree with the entire premise of his art. While there is very much a place and a need to debate how we can make America a better place and as the city on a hill it was always meant to be, to show blatant disrespect to something many people have enormous respect to only serves to alienate them all. To such people (including myself) the flag is more than a piece of cloth. It is a symbol of our country and all the ideals we strive to uphold. Making a piece of art like this only tells everyone who holds the American flag as important that Scott doesn't care or respect their beliefs. If he does not respect their beliefs, then why would people listen to other ideas he has. Perhaps Scott may even have some valid points, but his sign of enormous disrespect to the beliefs of those who have respect for the flag only serves to silence discussion. His carelessness towards the beliefs of others is more awful to me than anything else he did.
    Also, his map of the world without America is also just ridiculous. I do not know if he meant it this way, but it implies he thinks the entire world would be better off without America and Americans. Yet, he ignores all those totalitarian nations that are viciously oppressing their people. I would never what those countries gone. There people must be freed from their oppression, not wiped off the face of the Earth like a stain. If you truly believe America is oppressive, please at least have compassion for its people.
    Also, I would like to say threats against his life are also absurd. Is freedom of speech only for those you agree with, or does it apply to all people? To threaten a man for his art, even if you believe that art goes against all of your values, goes against all the values that America stands upon. The rights to freedom of speech and expression applies to all, and are not limited to those of a certain political belief.

  • A world without America is a world of opression, violence, and sufferring. The American flag stands for the freedom to do what's right. While some people misuse their freedom, it's our job to make those people irrelevant. America has BY FAR the best system of government. If he tried burning the Chinese flag in the middle of Shenzen, he'd be executed.

  • I dont know if I find this fair. It feels as if he wants to force people to convert to how he wants America to be. That's not how freedom works. If you dont agree with pretty much any basic American principle like you laid out in the beginning, then what's preventing you from moving to another country that shares your values? I'm not just saying, "dont like it? Get out", but if you genuinely dont agree with American principles then I see no reason for you to need to stay here. (Other than wanting to force your way of life into americans). There are plenty of people who like the way America is doing things. That doesnt mean America is perfect. But our system functions extraordinarily well.

  • I just realize something! I think the flag can me taken as a symbol for the government of the USA (not necessarily the people). So I see where the the love/hate relationship with the flag/government comes from. But I would point out that as a US American, I hold the constitution as a physical ministration of our american values.
    As such, I never see anyone burning symbols of the constitution…And that is a comforting thought.

  • Patriotism is mandatory!
    US is the crowning glory.
    That being said
    I appreciate challenging thought
    That gives rise 4 ah better world

    We are not all ways bound by our past
    When it comes to future change
    People never like oppression
    Yet seek leadership
    Then spit in the very face of what they asked 4
    ….the healing of there own Achilles 10Don.

    We see this politically and personally
    Masogenists who seek women to destroy them be cuz of their hatred of their mother's
    Women see king to destroy and take over men financially because of their glass cielings,and forced dependency.

    The children caught in the financial and legal crossfires.

    Holy wars that are not holy at all.

    We are at war
    The war that started long be4 my birth
    The war of resources, politics, gender, religion
    The war that destroys, creates, and gives rise to our most cruel AND compassionate sides. The war AhV humanity. It is a war of evolution.

    Funny thing is
    This war
    Is first created INSIDE of US
    Long be4 we were borne.
    Then manifested outside of US

    Perhaps rather than looking outside at everyone and everything else we need to look first inside
    The healing, the change takes place there

    The war has its functions….population control
    Thought control
    Resource acquisitions and management

    I wonder can we do this another way? Sso let's see what would that look like?

    In the meantime,
    Pick up the flag
    Disrespect has no place here in US

    My thoughts…if you can not or choose not to expand God's territory …and contribute here

    Then go

    Take ah stand and be counted 4
    Or stand down and be counted out
    #supportUS
    #inGodwetrust
    #weareAmerica
    #gobigorgohome
    #wethepeople
    #uscrowninggloryoftheworld

  • the people who defend the flag in a violent reactive way will never understand what it represents to everyone else. It's a symbol of oppression around the world. and domestically, a symbol of a country that has abandoned and disrespects the vast majority of it's citizens. respect is something that must be earned. and many, including myself, will not respect the flag of a country that continues to abuse and oppress us. until that respect is earned and america has repaid its grievous debts, I will not pay it respect it does not deserve.

  • This man doesn't know how amazing America is. It has allowed him to be able to create art for a living. Unity around the flag has kept America strong and free. What that flag stands for is the reason he can do what he wants today.

  • 1. "United statians", not 'americans'.
    – Brazilians, Canadians, Chilean civilians tortured by the US army in the seventies, Pinochet the USA-propped up 'american' president, they're all 'americans'. United statian is their adjective and demonym. Using 'america' as your noun is false advertising.

    2. United statians speak of freedom like fish speak of flying, and north koreans speak of world domination.

  • Not impressed at all with any of it. Not a fan of his "art", indirect and boring speech, not a clear subject or answer regarding the Flag – disrespected?
    It would take a part 2 to make this clear up, but PLEASE do NOT make anymore videos/ted talks with this gentleman and his art!

  • This is a fundamentally flawed view on the United States. Everyone’s ancestors have done horrible things, no mater what country your from. We can either accept this and move on, trying to be the best this country can, or use cultural symbols as a punching bag to get out your socialist teenage angst.

  • Yes he does have the right to say and do everything he did, but on the flip side these kinds of things attract the simplest minded people to start spouting off nonsense like the deonn Norton guy talking about the prison population for some reason like all prisoners are innocent.

  • never explained what was funny about the photo shoot: and never actually talked about his art. Too bad, I would have loved to hear about the thought process that went into creating that piece.
    oh wait, contemporary art, never mind. there was no thought process. That's why this was all about politics instead.

  • In response to the many comments below. The expression anti-American or un-american, so commonly used in the speech of Americans, clearly reveals the social and political policing of thought that many Amercians seem to have become so used to that its invisible to them. The whole world can see this discrepancy and so fortunately, can many Americans. If you cant question the policies of your country and express dissent for the common, but still oppressive, views of your country without being called un-American or anti-American then you live in a place with a profound lack of freedom. Freedom is not American. It is a life affirming respect for the value of freedom for all life. As soon as freedom is only for one group it isn’t freedom at all… its propaganda with an agenda of domination. This is the criticism of many groups living within and without the country of America. You cant speak of freedom for one group without speaking of freedom for all. Of course this struggle for freedom is occurring in all countries throughout history. The point of this Ted talk as i understand it, is to bring attention to how ideas can be complex, such as the symbol of the Amercian flag symbolizing freedom for one group and oppression for others and the need to have an open dialogue without being policed by the powerful.. without being called un-American…a name calling that holds just below surface a violent threat meant to silence other views. This is not freedom. In fact, it might well be un-American!

  • as he speaks from the comfort of the USA. What's it like to be so oppressed that you can talk about oppression, and have the people you say are oppressing you, give you the freedom to talk as you do? you think you are a hero? Logic would say otherwise.

  • More politicized left leaning bias riddled Marxism. TED is overtly partisan which is highly dangerous when presenting content as educational. I can't tell if they've always been this way or if I have just woken up?

  • I've far more of an issue with so-called 'patriots' being totally okay with buying US flags made in China (or US flag underwear, etc.) than a free- and critically-thinking citizen who wants his country to be better.

  • I love this. Artists are so necessary. They actually show members of a society who they are through the eyes of others, since it is difficult to see clearly when you are locked inside a bubble. Interesting how some of the more feeble comments here deal with his appearance or his voice but don't outline where he is actually wrong in his perspective.

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