Progress By Criticism

Exploring how artists can incite change through art, criticism, and freedom of expression.

By Jack A. from Royal Oak High School in Michigan


As Americans, we have a right to free speech. This right allows us to have a say in politics, ultimately allowing every citizen to have a place in what happens to our country. This freedom of speech also extends to artistic freedom. As American citizens, we have a responsibility to use our freedom of expression to make America better, even if this means criticizing American ideals.

The American Civil Liberties Union describes freedom of expression as very broad and general. “The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment's protection of artistic expression very broadly. It extends not only to books, theatrical works and paintings, but also to posters, television, music videos and comic books -- whatever the human creative impulse produces.” Creative freedom extends to any kind of art. This generalization allows Americans to criticize or call out anything they think is wrong, and allows the idea of progress by citizen criticism to function.

An example of this idea is an art installation by artist Dread Scott. Scott is an African American visual artist that creates subversive pieces that usually focus on the role of African Americans in American culture. Scott attended the Latin School of Chicago, a private academy in Chicago that students attended from elementary to high school. While there, Scott was the subject of racial slurs and prejudice. This experience shaped his style, and contributes to how he perceives American life. One particularly controversial work of his is an art installation at the Art Institute of Chicago. The art installation consisted of an American flag on the floor under a bookshelf. Above the bookshelf hung a collage of photos of American flags burning. Viewers were encouraged to step on the flag on their way to the bookshelf where they were to write how the flag should be displayed. Many participants wrote racist and offensive language to target Scott. Also common were messages from veterans claiming that the installation makes light of the cost in human life to allow for the freedom to lay a flag on the floor.

Conversely, participants also commented that a flag is just an object, and while objects can represent ideals, citizens should be less sensitive. This installation caused a great deal of controversy. President George H.W. Bush even called it disgraceful. The installation targets the sometimes overdone patriotism that Americans often carry. With his art, Dread Scott aims to criticize America’s collective view of a flag. Scott later expanded in a blog post that the installation was also meant to point out how we hold American ideals to a high standard, while benefiting off of years of slavery. Scott aims to criticize this hypocrisy, and hopefully better the citizens of America, by forcing us to reflect on the ideals that we hold so high, and maybe consider if these ideals are worth exalting.

Artist Ramiro Gomez also demonstrates the idea of progress by criticism. Gomez was born to two immigrant parents and worked as a nanny after finishing art school. Gomez noted a general disconnect and lack of empathy between upper class employers and their housekeepers and groundskeepers. Gomez’s blog page includes artwork dedicated to the experience of being an immigrant worker like this America. Gomez parodies work by artist David Hockney, a British artist. Hockney completed many works that showed a glamourous California lifestyle. Gomez takes these images and recreates them in a way that gives credit to those who make this flashy lifestyle possible. For example, Gomez turns Hockney “Lawn Being Sprinkled” into “A Lawn Being Mowed”. The first image depicts a lush green lawn with splashes of blue water sprouting every few yards. The second image shows the same lawn, but includes a man mowing the expanse of grass. A second work by Gomez shows a lavish living room, with a maid standing in the center of the room, a bottle of laundry detergent in her hand, pouring the blue liquid onto the furniture. In his work he creates a satire of the shiny lifestyle that many Americans yearned for during the 60’s. Through these satirical pieces Gomez sheds light on the workers that made this lifestyle possible.

Progress by criticism describes what it means to be an American. It promises to better the country. It pledges to stand up for what we believe is right, to fight for the core principles that define us-even when-especially when this fight is controversial. These artists exemplify the definition of creative freedom from the ACLU. They use different art forms to make a statement, to call for action, to make a change. There is a bravery required to face the controversy involved in making these statements. As Americans, we should be using our freedom of expressions to take action. It is our duty to use our freedom and abilities of expression to improve our country.

Royal Oak High School

AP Lang 2019

Personal responses to American Creed, the documentary.

More letters from Royal Oak High School

Surprise Me

More letters from Michigan

Surprise Me

Writing Our Future: American Creed is part of the National Writing Project’s family of youth publishing projects, all gathered under the Writing Our Future initiative.

Writing Our Future projects are designed by educators for educators and the young people they work with. Intended for use in schools, libraries, and other educational settings. All projects are COPPA compliant and educator-managed. NWP is committed to supporting young people’s writing and civic participation by providing a safe and supportive environment for youth writing, media creation, sharing, and publishing.