For the first time in quite a while in America, people (on both sides of the political fence) are holding up signs. In a world flooded with pictures, a world where, for decades, the intellectual and populist conversation has focused on image saturation, and where advertisers seek to gain and retain audience attention with flashing GIFs and innovative visual marketing techniques—analog signs have regained some of their poignancy, and impact. In the raucous election year that just ended, we were reminded of the power of the placard, the banner, the Sharpie-scrawled scrap of cardboard taped to a stick, whether it says “Make America Hate Again” or “Women for Trump.”
What could this mean for the art object? This past July, several days after the shootings of two black men by police officers—Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana—a banner appeared in the Chelsea gallery district in New York. In white lettering on a black ground, it read, A MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY, and it fluttered for a week in front of the Jack Shainman Gallery on West 20th Street. Like a cultural signpost of our digital day, it ricocheted around the art world, and then on to the wider world, via the Instagram account of MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, who re-posted a video of the artist Dread Scott installing it. The banner is an update of a flag that read, A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY, and that the NAACP hung outside its Manhattan headquarters after each such death between 1920–1938.
Dread Scott should be a familiar name to those versed in landmark Supreme Court decisions—as well as recent art history. In 1989, Scott, then a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and still known by his birth name, Scott Tyler, showed an art installation called What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? (1988) at the school. In the artwork, he placed an American flag on the floor in front of a photomontage of South Korean students burning U.S. flags and of coffins draped with U.S. flags. The most direct route to the photographs involved trampling on the stars and stripes. Gallery audiences had the choice of whether or not to take that transgressive step; if they did, they could access a logbook, where they could participate in the piece by writing down their reactions.
Subsequent outcry from the public, massive protests by veterans, constant media coverage, the Illinois state legislature defunding the SAIC (save for $1), and even the condemnation of then newly elected President George H. W. Bush were all part of a nationwide examination of the exact question that Scott posited: “What is the proper way to display [the] flag?” The controversy unfolded a couple of months in advance of a case before the Supreme Court, Texas v. Johnson, that would ultimately favor the First Amendment rights of the individual to desecrate the flag over the symbolic resonance maintained when the federal government protected the flag from abuse. Seventeen years later, as the Black Lives Matter movement unfolds, Scott continues his protest into the 21st century through political art.
I met Scott in a Chinese restaurant in New York on a muggy day in August. The artist, ganglier than he appears in photos, sported a dramatic Mohawk. For a man at the center of two landmark sociopolitical confrontations between artist and state, you might expect him to be grave, but he smiled after we talked about being in the midst of the hottest summer on record. “Ecologically,” he said, “that is a truly dangerous thing both now and in the future. Do the Right Thing opens with Sam Jackson saying, ‘It’s hot.’ And he’s not just talking about the weather. I think that that is very true, it was a very hot, long summer, . . . yes, quite literally, but more shrewdly, metaphorically.”
Scott installed his banner outside Shainman’s gallery on July 7, as part of artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman’s exhibition, “For Freedoms,” a show for their super PAC of the same name. (Earlier this year I myself flirted with the idea of forming a PAC based on combining my initials with an artist’s, but it hadn’t happened. Like so many, I chose to show my solidarity with Scott by re-posting A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday on Facebook.) Scott made the banner in 2015, in response to the killing of South Carolina resident Walter Scott during a traffic stop. Later on the same day that he installed it at the gallery, five police officers were shot dead in Dallas during an anti-police-brutality demonstration there, which led Fox News to do a report on Scott’s banner, headlining it, “Art gallery stands by anti-police violence flag in wake of deadly Dallas shooting.” In response to the Fox story, Scott and the gallery both got a series of ugly emails. “I hope someone lynches you. You are not an artist you’re a piece of shit,” read one of the worst.
Shainman became concerned for the safety of his staff. “It is the kind of work that you can’t ignore,” he told me. “It makes everyone take a stance. Never in all my years showing art (of all different sociopolitical degrees) have I seen anything like the public reaction. I was worried about my employees and about our visitors.” Gallery director Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels went to the local precinct to meet with its Community Affairs officer who, after a two-hour conversation, put the gallery under special alert, with a patrol unit passing by several times a day. Shainman refused to take A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday down until his landlord, ROY-AL Company/Kalimian Organization, insisted on it, threatening legal action. (As it happens, that echoes history: the original banner stayed outside the NAACP headquarters for years, until the organization was threatened with losing its lease.) Scott’s banner was up for only a week but, he suggested over lunch, during that short time it “began to embody the fears of gallerygoers, the police, landlords, and even Fox News.”
Before hanging his banner outside the gallery, Scott, accompanied by several Shainman staff members, had activated it by taking it to Union Square during the protest there after the deaths of Castile and Sterling; it evoked the way the NAACP flew its flag during the ’20s and ’30s, following the lynchings of individual black men. Today, Scott said, black people “are killed by the police in greater numbers than they were at the height of lynching. The police actually kill more white people than black people, but the percentage of those murdered is disproportionately black [to the general population]. You’re approximately six times more likely to be killed by the police if you’re black than if you’re white. That is the terror that is perpetuated among people today, and that is the legacy of lynching. I want this flag to be a phantasm of the past: both as a means to mark this horror from the past that exists in the present, but also as the resistance from the past that persists in the present. The flag was flown because the NAACP organized people to stop lynching.”
That wasn’t the only way the NAACP fought lynching. Along with the John Reed Club and other like-minded organizations, it curated art exhibitions, and sold the art to raise money for anti-lynching efforts. José Clemente Orozco and Isamu Noguchi were among the artists who donated work to these shows. Noguchi’s sculpture Death (Lynched Figure), 1934, now at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, based on an International Labor Defense photograph of a torched, castrated, lynched black man, was a denunciation of the horror of lynching.
It was crucial for Scott that, aside from the slight change in language, his flag precisely replicate the original. I wanted to challenge him on this assertion. Scott discussed A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday as if it were all content and operation, and not deliberately jarring formally. At first he resisted me. Doing research at the Library of Congress, he could find only six photographs of the NAACP banner and said, “it might be slightly off, but it’s pretty damn close.” He rattled off dimensions. The original was 9 by 6½ feet; his is smaller—a little over 7 by 4½ feet—but its proportions are the same. There are other differences. The font the NAACP used, he said, “would have been a hand-cut one that the flag maker would have designed, based on what sign painters would have used. So it’s very much an Art Deco font. I’ve tried to match the individual rendering, but mine is not hand cut. I chose the closest font I could find and tweaked that in Illustrator to evoke a semblance of the original.”
I countered that his flag is not exactly a replica. There is a way in which he aestheticizes the content—the word “lynched” seems enlarged through the addition of “by police yesterday” under it. “People might not know the original flag,” Scott said, “but they know my work and that it refers to an original. In my practice I am concerned with this conceptual framework, where the past can sit in the present. History sets the stage for the present, and it resides in the present in a new form.”
Not able to let go of the art-historical import of the flag, I pushed on about flags in art from Raoul Dufy to Jasper Johns and then reminded him that, in A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, there is no representation of a figure being lynched; all we have is the text. This seemed important because, as Shainman pointed out to me, people kept thinking that despite the lack of a figure they saw the flag as reading a black man was lynched by police yesterday. The text manages to suggest a figure. “Is the association with a black male because the flag itself is black?” I asked Scott, “or is there something else going on?”
Excitedly, he replied in rapid fire: “Yes, so part of reading the word ‘black’ is that people actually do associate lynching exclusively with black people, and while there were people of other ethnicities [who] were hung, lynching was something that basically happened only to black people. It wasn’t about ropes and trees; it was about systemic terror for the black population.”
Scott Tyler was born and raised in Hyde Park, Chicago. Like his father, he went on to train as a photographer. To this day, that training helps him frame what he wants people to see. The controversy sparked by What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? resulted in instant success for the young artist. Not deterred by police protesters and death threats, he appeared on national television in 1990 wearing a T-shirt featuring an image of Mao Tse-tung (he told me he remains a Communist).
In the ’90s, and particularly after the famously incitant 1993 Whitney Biennial, Scott was categorized as an “identity politics” artist. Recently, though, with glowing reconsideration of these artists and their work (think Robert Gober’s 2014–15 MoMA exhibition), his art has also become understood in a more nuanced context. “The identity politics movement in art in the ’90s was very important,” Scott said. “I like a lot of the work that came out of the ’80s and ’90s, and I’m friends with some of the people who became prominent. People were looking at various cultures and people who’d faced various forms of oppression, be it because of their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nationality. We have to stand with the oppressed, and that’s a really good thing. However,” he continued, “philosophically and methodologically, what undergirded multiculturalism was a sort of relativism. People assumed, ‘Well, I as a black man can understand my experience, and you, say, as a black woman could never understand it.’ ”
Cultural relativism was a popular position in the 1990s. In the catalogue for the 1993 biennial, for instance, David Ross, the Whitney Museum’s director at the time, wrote, “Artists insist: know thyself.” Scott agrees that owning one’s experience is valid, but went on, “Well, first of all, we’re both still black, and most experience and understanding in the world is secondary experience…even what is non-stigmatized. I know it sounds old-fashioned, because now I keep returning to certain ‘truths’ that as humans we have to stand by.”
Thomas included Scott in his and Gottesman’s show this past summer at Shainman because of his way of alighting on the authentic in his work. “It unapologetically challenges aspects of our government, our economy, and our society,” Thomas said. “We wanted Dread to be a part of this from our very first community engagement project because of his track record for keeping it real.”
Scott’s penchant for keeping it real means that he has not been afraid to confront the government head-on with these truths. In 2009 he installed 12 coffin-scaled light boxes, each showing a photograph of an African-American or Latino/Latina teenager, for a piece called …Or Does It Explode?. The boxes also had an audio component: a speaker in front of each box played the teenager talking about his or her life goals and aspirations. Created in collaboration with the teenagers and very much akin to both flag works, it is an artwork that can live in a gallery but is ultimately for the public at large. Scott took the title from Langston Hughes’s 1951 poem “Harlem,” reinvigorating the lines that are trotted out every February for Black History Month calendars. Displayed in Philadelphia’s Logan Square, near the city’s Family Court Building, it confronted the judicial system with the lives of these teenagers held in a balance that might not exist absent systemic racism. Scott told me that one judge, who had to approve the work before it was installed, asked if there were anything she could do to intervene in the lives of these teenagers, in the hope of preventing their ending up dead, like many of those who had appeared before her.
Why limit yourself to audio and photography in that artwork, I asked Scott. Why hadn’t he made the jump to video? “There is a way in which video doesn’t do enough,” he said. “Look at all the videos of unarmed black people being shot by the police, and they can be virtually meaningless as evidence. My earliest work that was explicitly trying to explore political ideas had actual text; it was just static written text. I quickly moved into oral text, in part because some of the people I wanted to reach—not the majority of the actual audience—don’t enjoy reading. With audio, more people will listen.
“Then,” he added, “there’s also the influence and inflection of voice and culture that don’t translate into writing. Yes, Zora Neale Hurston made some real breakthroughs in talking about vernacular language, but it’s still different when you hear the actual voice. With …Or Does It Explode?, it’s extremely important that the voices of the people [be] brought outside of their day-to-day lives and into an art context—into a gallery context, or even a museum context.”
In the next year, Scott will have exhibitions at galleries and museums throughout the United States, from Chicago and New York, to Memphis, Winston Salem, and New Orleans. He doesn’t think about his work in terms of the art world; he thinks of it in terms of the possibility of contagion. His next major project, Slave Rebellion Reenactment, is a re-creation of the German Coast Uprising of 1811. It will feature 500 men and women armed with machetes, cane knives, sickles, muskets, blunderbusses, and clubs. “You know,” he said, “the items that people rebelled with.”
His concern for historical accuracy pops up even in the dress of the participants. “In the original rebellion, the generals, formerly slaves, seized French militia uniforms,” he said. “They wanted to look like an army to other slaves.” The participants, outfitted in period costume, will start out 40 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and walk to within 15 miles of the city, to the location, 26 miles from the Andry Plantation (now LaPlace), where the rebellion took place. At the time, it was all sugar plantations. Now, Scott pointed out, it is populated by strip malls, box stores, trailer parks, gated communities, and oil refineries.
Earlier, we’d spoken about the fear of allowing black people to arm themselves, in connection with the 1960s and ’70s, the time of the Black Panthers. “It actually began in the Dred Scott Supreme Court case decision,” Scott said. “One of the arguments was, ‘Look, if they were citizens, we’d have to allow them to have guns.’ The founding fathers were not so foolish as to allow black people to be armed. It’s very explicit. We don’t want the people we denigrate and abuse to have access to weapons, because then what happens? Then they might come for us.”
Emboldened by his mention of Dred Scott, the famous 1857 case where a slave sued for and was denied his freedom, the most obvious question came to mind, “Why Dread Scott, why that name?” His eyes seemed to glaze over, surely from having had to answer this so many times over the years. “Scott Tyler was a figment of my mother’s imagination. It’s my government name. When I came of age, I was a punk-rock kid in the 1980s and ’90s; all my friends were in bands and had stage names. I knew Virus X, I hung out in passing with Joey Shithead. People had all sorts of colorful names, and I thought well, all right, just because I’m not in a band doesn’t mean I can’t have a different name. So my parents named me Scott and I had dreadlocks so I thought, I’ll be Dread Scott. With the name like the work, I wanted people to have to know that [to paraphrase from the Dred Scott decision,] there are no rights that a black person has that a white person is bound to respect. I chose to spell it differently than the historic figure, in order to bring up the concept of dread. If people see me or my work with dread, if they are threatened by it, well, those people who want to exploit society should be threatened by art.”
Andrianna Campbell is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in American art and modern and contemporary art of the Americas. She currently holds the CASVA Chester Dale Fellowship at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 110 under the title “Banner Year.”