Dread Scott has the distinction of being one of the few artists to have had his work denounced by a United States president. In 1989, when he was an undergraduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he showed What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, an installation in which viewers could respond to the titular question while standing on an American flag. Politicians were outraged—George H. W. Bush called the work “disgraceful.”
“And so I’m like, ‘Wait, this is great. This is a job I want to do for the rest of my life!’ ” Scott told Cuban artist Tania Bruguera in a talk Thursday night at the Brooklyn Museum. “I knew it wouldn’t happen to me or other artists again, but it showed the power of art.”
Bruguera and Scott barely knew each other before the event, but they’ve read a bunch about each other’s work. (They were speaking in honor of the museum’s show “Agitprop,” which focuses on activist contemporary art and includes both artists’ work.) Their careers have a fair amount in common, not least because they have a penchant for getting into trouble. Bruguera has been arrested more than once by Cuban authorities and denied entry to her home country; Scott has burned an American flag on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, becoming the unlikely party of a Supreme Court case because of it.
“I don’t like scandal, but I use it as a resource when it’s needed,” Bruguera, who has long reddish hair and an interest in power structures, said. “Why? Because sometimes, you need to bring people out of their comfort zone in order for them to open up.” Scott, who has a mohawk and a passion for researching America’s ugly history of racism, agreed with her.
Both artists recognized that being provocative can also be a problem—the art might not be as nuanced as the statements they’re trying to make. Bruguera mentioned The Burden of Guilt (1998), a performance in which she wore a slaughtered lamb around her neck as she ate dirt—a reference to when some Indians in Cuba rebelled against Spanish conquerors by doing the same. She called the work a “mistake,” saying, “I felt that representing the problem was not fixing the problem. I got much more interested in trying to use the resources of power than representing the effects of power.”
“I rethink work a lot,” Scott said. “I’m old enough to know that not every work I’ve done is a great piece.”
The difficult part, both artists agreed, is moving people to action through art. Bruguera gave Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008) as an example of a more successful work. In the performance, policemen on horses burst in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and moved unaware museum visitors into a corner. Most visitors complied, but one girl refused to move. The police sprang into action and began to more forcefully order her to follow the others.
“I want [the audience] to become citizens, not an audience, and to react as citizens and maybe go home and think about what they did and didn’t do,” Bruguera said.
Scott, who is currently planning a historically accurate reenactment of America’s largest slave rebellion, said, “I have a tremendous confidence in the people to shake off centuries of oppression and become emancipators of humanity. We need revolution, and we actually need people who come with that, regardless of whether they know it because they’re artists and they studied art…The world does not have to be this way.”
Scott has faith that change can be made with or without institutions. He said, “I tell people I show in mainstream museums and on street corners, with or without permission. I’m really trying to reach an audience where, even if the museum were right next door to them, [they] wouldn’t come into the museum.”
“I kind of cherish the fact that you do art without art-world permission,” Bruguera responded.
“Art without permission!” Scott exclaimed. “Younger people, do that.”
“Young artists don’t think they’re valuable without an institution, and that makes no sense,” Bruguera said. A round of applause followed.
Although both artists are firm believers in the power of their work, they’re also careful about the messages they present. Bruguera recalled a recent mistake she made when trying to use the press to her advantage. “I think it’s important to not over-account for my project,” she said, and then, mocking herself, “Go to Art in America, ARTnews, Artforum!” She laughed a little and added, “I’m very nervous about that. The press is a tool, not an enemy itself. It’s a tool that you have to use for the work.”
In the questions section, a number of hot-button issues came up, including gun violence, police aggression, and immigration policy. More unexpected was another news item from earlier this week: the stabbing at Art Basel supposedly mistaken for performance art. One audience member asked how Bruguera and Scott knew where to draw the line, if a stabbing could be considered an artwork.
“If you were going to stab someone as art, I don’t know why you would do it at Art Basel,” Scott said. He brought up another act of violence that had happened only a couple days earlier in Miami: the shooting of a bank-robbery suspect by a police officer. The art world ignored this, and Scott views that as a problem. He said, “The question I pose to you in the audience is, Why are we talking more about the stabbing that happened than the police murdering again and again and again?”