The Art Installation That Offended A Nation

“If any one attempts to haul down the American flag, shoot him on the spot.” —John A. Dix, 1861

In A Nutshell

Dread Scott Tyler is no stranger to controversy. Back in 1989, this American artist angered everyone from Vietnam veterans to Washington politicians with his contentious art installation “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” But why was it so controversial? Well, because it involved standing on top of the American flag.

The Whole Bushel

Art is the perfect venue for sparking fiery political discussions. Nobody knows that better than Dread Scott Tyler, an American whose work drew the wrath of the president himself.

In 1989, Tyler created an incredibly contentious installation at the School of Art in Chicago. This simple piece was just begging for controversy with a name like “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”

First, Scott hung up a photomontage depicting flag burnings and flags draped over military coffins. Next, he bolted a shelf to the wall, directly under the montage. Then he set an empty journal and pen on the shelf, for people to leave little comments. So far, it seems pretty tame, until you noticed what was on the floor.

Underneath the shelf, resting on the ground like a welcome mat, was a large American flag.

The idea was for guests to stand on the flag and write their opinions about the piece in Scott’s journal. Needless to say, lots of people were infuriated by Scott’s work. Veterans protested the installation and tried to sue the museum. On quite a few occasions, vets would fold up the flag so no one could desecrate it. And as you might imagine, most of the comments weren’t exactly positive endorsements.

Soon, even the government was up in arms. The entire US Congress condemned the installation, and President George H.W. Bush called it disgraceful. Tyler’s work also inspired federal and city governments to pass laws protecting the flag.

That same year, in an unrelated case called Texas v. Johnson, the Supreme Court declared flag desecration was protected by the First Amendment.

Since then, Dread Scott has continued to stir up controversy with his artwork. In 2011, he photographed himself burning the Constitution. He’s sold T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “United We Stand,” but the slogan is paired with flags of countries the US has invaded like Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of his most unsettling projects is “Dread Scott: Decision.” Inspired by his famous namesake, this interactive experience involves audience members walking past nude black men who are guarded by German shepherds. Like all of his installations, it’s a disturbing experience. Of course, that’s really what art is all about, facing the past, challenging the status quo, and keeping the powerful on their toes.

Show Me The Proof

Cornell University Law School: Texas v. Johnson
NY Times: Disputed Exhibit of Flag Is Ended
Dread Scott: “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”, “Burning the US Constitution”, “United We Stand Stand”, “Decision”