This conversation took place on January 29, 2017, at Station Independent Projects, New York.
Gregory Sholette: My first question involves the relationship between artists and the state of emergency. I was thinking of starting off by reading a few bits from this text focused on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 by artist Cos Aly, author of “No Time for Art” (2011). It talks about precisely that problem. Do we stay in our studio, do we go out on the barricade?
“Since the revolution Egyptian artists have been running around like headless chickens. Their concerns have taken an almost existential dimension: What do we do now? Do we keep doing what we do? Where do we end and our art begins? These questions underline the very nature of the creative process.” And she says: “It’s become clear that there is a problem: you look at the situation and your working in all sorts of subscenarios.” She talks about the difficulty of being both an artist and an activist at this particular moment and because of the time we must make a clear distinction about who we are and what we do. And what we do doesn’t have to do with who we are. Because we are artists and the time is bad it becomes “no time for art,” which could be easily followed by “no place for art.” In other words, she’s questioning the very logic of whether or not one should abandon one’s artistic practice in a state of political emergency like the one they were in, in Cairo at the time, and like the one we’re in now. I’d like to start off by focusing on the question of making art (“studio art”) in a time of emergency—does one split time between studio and street, painting or drawing and activism? What kind of choices does art in a time of emergency present us with?
Dread Scott: On November 7, America was still an imperialist superpower creating tremendous misery for most of the planet, not just because of America but because of capitalism and imperialism. Half the planet was trying to survive on less than $2 a day.
It’s always a question: If you care about humanity what do you do? Where does art enter into that? I was talking with somebody recently for a magazine and when the interview ended he asked: You grew up in Chicago? How did you survive the Reagan era?
I said well, you know, Joe Strummer1 saved my life. I was a punk rock kid growing up in Chicago. I said: “There hasn’t been a time when there’s been any type of social change that art and culture hasn’t played some sort of role.” In the ’50s the Beats were actually challenging a lot. In the ’60s it was everybody from Jefferson Airplane to Hendrix. I love to think about what Trump would have thought of Hendrix wrecking the “Star-Spangled Banner.” In the ’70s and ’80s there’s “Anarchy in the UK,” and there’s “Clampdown” by The Clash: “Kick over the wall and cause governments to fall.” Film has been part of it and the visual arts have been a part of it, too. A lot of what you’ve been looking at: What were people in the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union in the teens and 1920s doing?
Sholette: There’s a feeling of rushing to the barricades. This is not the first time that that has has come up. One of the reasons I got involved in Political Art Documentation/Distribution (PAD/D) is because Ronald Reagan was elected. PAD/D got started in part because there was a sense that we had to get together and create a network. There was an incredible sort of energy, which there is today as well. But now it feels like things are more sped up and we don’t have the same amount of time to put into making art plus doing the sort of activism we need. I mean we should be at JFK now, or maybe down at Battery Park protesting, and yet here we are also doing something valuable by discussing art and activism.
Scott: Do you know Ganzeer? Ganzeer is an Egyptian artist and illustrator. He was already somewhat widely known in Egypt before the uprising, but throughout the uprising he was basically painting pictures of martyrs and other things on the walls. He became part of the voice of that uprising. I wouldn’t want to privilege the position of artists—I don’t think we’re more important or decisive to any social change than others—but art matters. He was organizing in the streets once a day, was on his Twitter account part of the day, and then he was painting and talking with people.
Personally, I don’t know that I ever get the balance right. You have to wrestle with that question, what’s going to make the difference? It’s weird: some of my art is of more interest to more people now than it has been, and so if this was years ago I probably would be at JFK now instead of here. You wouldn’t even have probably asked me to join you for this talk.
Sholette: Your answer to those people who say you’re preaching to the converted could also be: “Well actually, the converted need to have art too!”
Scott: But even more than that. I have a baseline assumption that most people who are going to come to a gallery to intentionally see a Dread Scott work, a lot of those people kind of agree with me on a lot of stuff. I’m not making work to piss off the imperialists of the world or the white supremacists. I’m making work for people like you and people also in housing projects and ghettos and barrios who might not always see the work but when they do and when you guys do it’s like, “Oh, I kind of get that.” I often make some people, including those like you, a little uncomfortable. I take you a little outside of your comfort zone.
In regards to the analogy, there’s a reason why preachers preach to choirs: people need art and sustenance but it’s also sort of deepening the people who are the most down, in a certain sense.
Sholette: You made me think of Hans Haacke, who did a survey back in the 1970s about who was going to art galleries and he discovered exactly what you’re saying. Most of them were from the left (liberals or progressives). Most didn’t like president Richard Nixon. They were against the Vietnam War and so on and so forth. But the added element was that these spaces were and are actually being funded by corporations and by a state that is doing exactly the kind of imperialist stuff that you would be opposed to if you could see through the facade, so to speak. I feel like today the facade is gone. I call this “bare art.” Most people know. It’s a very different kind of landscape but there’s still that question how to dig down under the institutional framework and point to the fact that yes, we can have interesting art, art that engages people because it addresses their spiritual and political needs. But you also have to change the historical and structural foundation of what art is. Otherwise, we are just taking a drive in the limo. I don’t want to be too mechanical here …
Scott: Yeah, don’t be mechanical. In the 1940s and ’50s there was struggle over members of the board at institutions using these institutions as a repository for their art. I think it was the Met in particular but it might have also been MoMA. They would borrow work just to put on their walls. So this is not new. In fact, it is probably a little less corrupt now. The fact that there are people [like Haacke] pointing it out doesn’t change the essence of the question.
In order for me to hear The Clash, some record executive from a multinational conglomerate has to make that record. And this is an executive who is probably controlling the same level of wealth as many of these art institutions. I wouldn’t have heard Rage Against the Machine, or The Clash, or the Sex Pistols without somebody from these multinationals giving it the go ahead. You wouldn’t see radical movies without that either … And it’s sort of a little bit of a bubble. Artists have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can be pure but it’s just not true.
One of the happiest days of my life was not when the Whitney museum bought a work of mine, but when I walked into the Whitney and saw my print on the walls—I assumed it was going to end up in a print drawer somewhere, never to be seen. And why did I care about that? I knew that at a museum like the Whitney all sorts of people would be there. I was not the kid who grew up liking to paint and draw. My response to our annual field trip that we took to the Art Institute of Chicago was: “Do I need to go to that boring-ass institution that has the lions out front?” Younger me would have liked to see some work like the stuff that I make—including specifically the piece the Whitney hung on their wall. The point is: it’s a battle. Yes, there are very wealthy people. The Kochs are on the board of some of these places for a reason. Yes some of the trustees and even some of the directors are people I would have very bitter political disagreements with. But the institutions often attract all sorts of ordinary people to come to them and the people who work at them by and large are progressive, broadly speaking.
Sholette: Obviously, there’s the contradiction of being anticapitalist and at the same time feeling that you need to have capitalist institutions in order to just keep things running. We’re at this moment where capitalism is obviously in a crisis, and one way of trying to get out of the crisis is to create these authoritarian structures. It looks like liberalism is being jettisoned for a kind of Putin-esque, oligarchical structure. We also know that it goes together with noncitizens, Muslims, Black Lives Matter, all these people that claim, “We don’t like these folks” … The question I’m trying to get to is: Are we sort of edging towards another “degenerate-art” type of situation? This is completely speculative and I can’t answer myself, but do we also need to think about what an aesthetics of resistance might be. Is there sort of a way that art is inherently dissident? Some people would argue it is.
Scott: Art is not inherently dissident. It’s that simple. There is a lot of art that is dissident.
Sholette: Is there a type of art that is dissident?
Scott: No. There’s not a type of art.
Sholette: There’s no genre, there’s no form. There’s no aesthetic of resistance.
Scott: No, but I think are we heading towards a situation where the führer declares certain art degenerate. Yeah, we’re there. Trump has said Madonna should be arrested for her speech at the women’s march. Reince Priebus and Bannon and Newt Gingrich have all called for the arrest of an artist who reaches “a few more people” than us. They have targeted Saturday Night Live, which is one of the most popular late-night TV shows, and they’ve targeted Hamilton. They are going after art. Trump is on record, before his run for president in 2000, as saying Rudy Giuliani was right to target Sensation, where I think he used the word “degenerate” and claimed that when he is president there will be no NEA.
Sholette: I am reminded of the artist Wafaa Bilal, who took a US point-and-shoot video game where they were chasing Al Qaeda figures and flipped it around.
Scott: It was a game originally called Quest for Saddam that Al Qaeda hacked and made into Quest for Bush. They hacked the skin so the game was the same—they didn’t change the architecture, just swapped the uniforms for the good guys and the bad guys. Then Wafaa hacked that game so his piece was called Night of Bush Capturing: Virtual Jihadi, where you would become a suicide bomber to try to kill Bush. He said he did it because he had a brother killed as collateral damage. Wafaa is a brilliant Iraqi artist who lives in New York now. When he did this game he was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As it was about to be shown there, a young Republican organization created controversy and the show was thrown off campus. Some institution came forward to show it in the town, but then an alleged fire code violation came up, so the piece was effectively suppressed.
Sholette: Is there a responsibility that artists have to somehow chronicle the time that they’re in? And I ask this in the context of art that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, which has become very popular. My work engages in that as well. We also know that, for example, the Yes Men made a fake newspaper. How do these approaches relate to this larger question of fake news. Do we have to then rethink realism? Is there a responsibility for artists?
Scott: I don’t know. I hate to be extremely prescriptive for artists. We come up with weird ways to address stuff. Who would have thought fifteen years ago that the Yes Men appearing as a corporate representative of Dow Chemicals and offering reparations to Bhopal would actually have the company come out and basically reiterate that they don’t mind having killed thousands of people in that disaster? I don’t know how we chronicle the times. Artists, like everybody else, have the responsibility to fight for the world as they understand it. We don’t have to live in a world defined by a tiny handful of people who control the great wealth and the knowledge that humanity as a whole has created. Capitalism is actually a nightmare and it’s outmoded—we don’t have to live in this world—but most people don’t agree that we actually need a communist revolution to get rid of capitalism. That’s an ongoing struggle. There are millions of people who are anxious and saying a fascist America would be really bad. And we’ll have to act against that. I don’t know what’s going to come out of it. I haven’t chronicled the time but I’ve been making art about it and about fake news. I want to say that there’s a radical difference between artists utilizing the media to expose corporations and oppressive relationships and people who intentionally spread lies to bolster political opinion and actual untruthful reporting that the führer and his companions like. They’re different things. It’s bizarre that, post-Enlightenment, we’re still arguing about whether there is reality and whether there is truth, but that’s a big battle. We actually can’t lose that philosophical battle. Trump is saying the New York Times is fake news—it might be bad news and it might be news you don’t like, but it’s not fake. It’s reality-based. And there is news circulating on the internet that’s just bullshit that masquerades as news.
Audience member: I think a lot of the conversations I’m having now are about people trying to figure out what to do first. As artists and people who have been politically engaged, what’s your sort of fantasy of what we wish we’d built that could help all of us or organize us? What would that fantasy be?
Sholette: That’s a good question. As I said earlier, there’s so little time. What do you do? Do you make art? Do you organize? We should be at the demonstration essentially, but we also should have had in place a much stronger organizational structure so we could have immediately moved into much more detailed and sort of robust pushback against what’s happening. It’s like we’re really reinventing the wheel and I’ve seen this happen three times and I know my friend Lucy R. Lippard said back when I met her in the 1980s: “I’ve seen this happen before.” Every time, we reinvent more or less the same structures. I don’t know how you get around that … I mean, there is healthiness to reinvention I think. You throw a little bit of the old out and rethink because the problems are similar but they’re not the same. On the other hand, there is a lot you could learn from what people did in the past. For example, the project Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. How many people know about Artists Call? In 1984, Ronald Reagan looked like he was poised to send troops into Central America, which of course the US had done many times before. Artists and gallery owners got together, including some fairly serious commercial galleries, but also not-for-profit spaces, so that artists like us who are kind of marginal lefty artists, along with mainstream artists, briefly came together in unified protest. Claus Oldenburg did a wonderful poster for Artists Call, which happened over the course of about a week—or perhaps a month maybe—all across New York, and then other cities joined in as well. We refused to allow the US to invade. Not that we artists and art workers directly stopped any invasion from happening, but it was at least a structure in place where people could quickly work at that level of solidarity. Today it is good that people’s bodies are out on the streets but two years from now when the policies are really coming down, will we really be prepared for a complex, organizational response? Artists Call offers one possible model of resistance that cuts across many sectors of the (bare) art world.
Scott: We need organization but the bigger thing is we need to have greater clarity on certain politics. At Refusefascism.org we called for trying to get people out in the streets for a Tahrir Square situation before Trump and Pence were able to get bolted into place and actually get inaugurated. The idea was to stay in the streets and basically topple the regime before it got started. That didn’t happen but waiting for two years for some legislative stuff is not sufficient either, we don’t have two years. The damage is being done on a daily basis. What war is going to be started in the next two weeks or two months? Trump’s saying in thirty days that he wants the generals to give him a plan to wipe out ISIS. Well that just means bomb the hell out of the Middle East. “Just go kill some brown people,” you know? The Muslim ban is already tearing families apart right now. The database that he’s going to set up and the deportations he’s going to do—and yes, Obama was the deporter-in-chief, Obama alone deported 2.5 million people. But Trump wants to surpass that in his first year. This is actual fascism and I have not seen this before. I hated Reagan, I hated Bush. Didn’t like the Obama Administration, who were all imperialists, but Trump and Pence are fascist. They told the press to shut the hell up. They’re saying political dissidents should be stripped of their citizenship. That is very significant. I have not seen this before. This is different. And we actually need to approach it as if this is what it is and not say well, we’ll survive two years or four years … Some people will get hurt. We actually need to mobilize, and this needs to be driven from power as soon as possible. Nixon won by a landslide. He was gone two years later.
1 Singer, guitarist, and main songwriter for the band The Clash.
Image: Documentation of Dread Scott’s performance Money to Burn (2010).