Dread Scott has been creating participatory artwork about the violently racist history of the United States for more than three decades. He gained national attention with his first major work, What Is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? (1989), which prompted viewers to respond to the titular question after having viewed footage of South Korean students burning the American flag. Their responses were displayed in a notebook near a flag laid on the ground, causing widespread controversy and heated debate about whether or not his piece resulted in the desecration of the Stars and Stripes. Congress soon passed a law prohibiting the display of the American flag on the floor, though after Scott was arrested for burning flags on the steps of the United States Capitol in protest of the law, a Supreme Court case decided that such laws banning flag desecration were unconstitutional.
The powerful honesty Scott infuses into his work has garnered significant acclaim. More recent examples, such as a flag that reads “A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday,” flew outside Jack Shainman Gallery in New York following the deaths of unarmed Black men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police. Although it became symbolic of this past year’s reckoning against police brutality and systemic racism, Scott’s battles with censorship are far from over.
Scott recently installed Imagine a World Without America (2007) and White people can’t be trusted with power (2021) for public view on the facade of Manhattan’s Playwrights Horizons Theater. The two text-based works challenge viewers to envision more equitable and ethical ways that power can be used to create a more global good. “I want people to dream in a romantic sense about what kind of world we want,” Scott tells The Art Newspaper. “What would the world be without this country that has such a profound influence? Some people, including myself, view it as a profoundly negative impact, while others might view it as positive. Either way, if you take America out of the equation, you get a very, very different world. If people in this country would stop thinking like its rulers do, then humanity would have a much better shot of having a life fit for human beings.”
Instagram seems to disagree. When Scott posted images of the two works, the platform identified them as “hate speech” and promptly removed them. He then made a new post called “White people’s algorithms can’t be trusted with power” that was also removed on similar grounds. According to Scott, Instagram said they reviewed his posts and concluded that both qualified as hate speech, meaning that a human chose to confirm the algorithm. “Instagram and Facebook (as well as the Facebook Oversight Board) consistently emphasize the importance of evaluating a work’s context when considering its permissibility on their platforms,” the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote in a statement. “In addition to Scott’s work being public art in New York City, Scott’s Instagram and broader online presence make clear that he’s a reputable artist who often creates work with themes of race, racism, and racial justice.”
Shortly after Instagram censored his works, Scott described the episode as Kafkaesque. “The art world is paying attention to me in a way that it hadn’t for decades, and it’s because suddenly large sections of people are saying, ‘Oh, wait, the police are murdering Black people—who knew?’ I’ve been making art about this since the mid-1990s. I truly wish it was not so damn relevant,” Scott continues. “Those of us who see that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is, should—to the degree we can—help others understand that in profound ways. That’s the role I’ve chosen to try and take with my art.”
Instagram soon restored Scott’s posts without explanation. Seemingly unfazed, he continues to use the platform to amplify issues of racial injustice and challenge his followers to think critically about how to dismantle inequitable power structures. He’s also calling out the invisible forces steering our experience on the network, as well as the power that social media platforms often inconsistently wield in determining what content can freely circulate online. “Are all of your Instagram posts only of white people?” reads a recent post. Another: “Do you only have photos of white people on your Instagram feed?”
White people can’t be trusted with power (2021) and Imagine a World Without America (2007) are on view at the Playwrights Horizons Theater (416 W 42nd St, New York) until May 9.