Dread and Circuses at the Brooklyn Museum


Dread Scott is trying his best to stir up trouble again. The Brooklyn-based artist, born Scott Tyler (he added “Dread” to his name to commemorate the Supreme Court’s famous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that black slaves couldn’t sue for their freedom because they weren’t considered U.S. citizens), first emerged in 1989 as a self-described revolutionary at the Art Institute of Chicago. He caused controversy by placing a comment book on a gallery wall in such a way that in order to write in it and answer the question “What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”, a viewer had to walk over a U.S. flag placed on the ground. The resulting furor prompted Congress to pass a law prohibiting flag “desecration”—which, in turn, was protested with flag burnings. Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided to overturn the so-called Flag Protection Act.

In 1994, Scott was angering people again with an exhibit at Grand Army Plaza. El Grito, an installation piece he made in conjunction with graffiti artist Joe Wippler, portrayed a future civil war between African-Americans, Latinos, and the police. Illuminating a mural were actual Molotov cocktails, and dying police officers were represented by headless, bloodied mannequins clad in uniforms. The exhibit drew protests from the law-and-order crowd, and Guardian Angels leader Curtis Sliwa was arrested when he attempted to vandalize it.

And now Scott has a new show, which he unveiled three days into the Sean Bell trial. One piece, titled Blue Wall of Violence, is made up of FBI shooting targets that portray Amadou Diallo and five other unarmed New Yorkers shot by police in the 1990s. Scott says that the installation—part of a mini-retrospective on display at Brooklyn’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts—is a commentary on “a society where police have unchecked authority.”

The Daily News, on the other hand, described it as a “cop-bashing exhibit” portraying “trigger-happy racists who have put bull’s-eyes on the backs of black New Yorkers.” Pat Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, took offense as well, questioning the propriety of using tax dollars to fund the museum.

But after that initial outcry, the official police line has softened. PBA spokesman Albert O’Leary says now that “it’s not a big deal,” and that the organization won’t lobby to cut the museum’s government funding—which, considering the extent to which Scott’s fame rests on the controversy that his pieces provoke, might be a blow to his program.

At least he can count on the rank and file. Sitting next to the installation is a binder full of bitter commentary printed out from media and police websites, including screeds written on, a social-networking and news site for law-enforcement officers.

Writing anonymously, the (supposed) peace officers let loose on Scott’s work: “The Brooklyn ‘Museum’ should be blown off the face of the earth. It’s the most liberal, anti-American, racist spot in the entire city,” writes a user named NYPDLieutenant, who claims to be a retired police sergeant from Brooklyn.

“Hope he gets shot by a low life black asshole, call the police, and have them do a half ass job, better yet maybe he would die,” writes a man who identifies himself as a retired California deputy sheriff.

“I’ve always hated fucking Brooklyn! That museum would have been burnt down to the ground in Howard Beach, Queens and then afterwards everybody would have met up at the local Trattoria for Capicolla and Canolis!” writes tony6d2, who describes himself as a police officer in Florida. Later, he adds: “This is why people end up getting chased into the Belt Parkway by other people with baseball bats!”—referring to the 1987 death of Michael Griffith, a young black man who was struck by a car as he fled a mob of white men wielding baseball bats.

“Their comments have very much vindicated the art,” Scott tells the Voice. But he insists that he “is not trying to incite anything other than dialogue.”

The current exhibit provides a glimpse into Scott’s 19-year body of work, which is full of pieces meant to inspire anger. There are the illustrations of Hurricane Katrina victims, modeled after Palestinian martyr posters whose purpose is to fuel outrage. There is a video installation showing Brooklyn correction officers bashing the faces of immigrant detainees into a wall shortly after the September 11 attacks. The bespectacled, cerebral artist says that his views are more common—and less controversial—among the city’s black and Latino population. “I would expect that there are hundreds of thousands of people in New York who think police murdered Sean Bell,” he says. “This is work that actually talks about that world.”