Who doesn’t heart the ‘80s? After all, it’s the decade that brought us parachute pants, video killing the radio star, military adventurism in Latin America and the beginning of our current trajectory of dire economic inequality.
OK, so maybe there are all kinds of reasons not to “heart” the ‘80s. But the new exhibition companion edited by Helen Molesworth will show you a side of the decade that has little to do with Reagan or John Hughes movies. This Will Have Been explores the art of the ‘80s, much of which many readers are either too young to know or simply weren’t paying attention to at the time (because of, you know, high school).
Beautifully designed, an objet d’art in itself, Molesworth’s volume explores art from a time period that, she readily admits, had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward art. The self-consciousness of the aesthetic, often high self-referential and postmodern, has led to something of a delayed celebration of even the period’s canonical works (if works fashioned in a time of nervousness over canon can even be described in this way).
Most usefully, Molesworth shows how art became hardwired into the decade’s history. Her opening essay attempts, successfully, to place the eighties in relation to the history of feminism. She claims that the ‘80s represent a kind of “open wound” that assimilated the struggles of second-wave feminism and prepared the way for the global and third wave feminisms of the ‘90s. The art of the ‘80s reflected this transformation, as well as a variety of cultural negotiations, hesitations and conflicts regarding race and sexuality.
A number of excellent essays by scholars and cultural commentators explore all aspects of the exhibit. Elizabeth Lebovici wrote perhaps the best, analyzing how the age of AIDS dealt with the question of desire and how feminist reimaginings of the role of sexuality and the body led to useful interventions in media theory and representation.
For example, scholar, and filmmaker, Laura Mulvey raised a number of questions in the ‘70s about how film replicated the power of the male gaze, creating a binary (and inherently oppressive) relationship between the observer and the observed. This tension became a significant part of second wave feminisms distrustful and deeply conflicted relationship with popular culture. Lebovici describes how the work of Mary Kelly called this simple dichotomy of the gaze into question by using images of “leather on leather” (as opposed to skin on skin) to problematize traditional fetishizations of the woman’s body. This provided a new way to think about the sexuality of “frontiers, representations and fixations” in which the trangressive could become the liberatory. Lebovici further explores these themes in relation to art that represented homoerotic desire, particularly in the work of G.B. Jones and Isaac Julien.
The previous examples show that much of what’s happening in the art of the ‘80s had to do with a struggle to come to terms with the legacy of postmodernity and representation. The rise of camp in the decades after World War II conjoined with the revolt against modernism to challenge the stability of all images. This may seem old hat now, in a culture where everything has become a reimagination, a borrowing and a tip of the hat to some other cultural product, the complete triumph of the metafiction and metanarrative.
And yet it must be recalled, as Molesworth notes in her introduction, this was the first generation of artists who had grown up surrounded with, indeed inundated by, visual culture. Living in an increasing postmechanical age increasingly influenced their art and inspired controversy. The discussion of the work of David Salle, indeed of his most well-known and controversial piece Autopsy (1981), illustrates some of the ideas being forged in this period about visual representation of the body and politics. It’s a kind of abstract diptych that suddenly brings the viewer up short with a photographic image of a nude woman sitting on a bed, a dunce cap on her head and over her breasts. Taken by some as an expression of misogyny, Autopsy provoked a series of interventions about the meaning of mass media imagery in relation to late capitalism and the body. These discussions often centered on how visual imagery often allies with repression.
One of the book’s most important sections, especially in terms of our current memory of the ‘80s, concerns art and politics. Kobena Mercer’s wonderful essay situates the art of the era in relation to neo-conservatism’s attempts to push forward narratives about golden ages and how they can be rediscovered (or the propaganda that they had been, as in Reagan’s “Morning in America” sloganeering).
Mercer shows that politicized art in the ‘80s, derided as mere propaganda by some, can best be understood as a response to a conservative aesthetic that found expression in the effort to return to painting and to the “High Modernist canon”. The radical aesthetic took the form of public performances of protest and horror such as the ACT Up “die-ins” that dramatized the mounting loss of life to AIDS and the Reagan administration’s utter stony silence in response to it.
Efforts could also involve efforts to take art into the streets, even seeking to challenge the traditional, deeply conservative aesthetic of the idea of the monument. The work of John Ahearn provides one of my favorite examples explored in the book. Ahearn belonged to a school of white artists who lived and did their work in the South Bronx and turned to their neighbors as subject matter. Ahearn’s beautiful Raymond and Toby represented Ahearn’s neighbor and his pit bull.
This example also serves as a barometer of the complicated politics of race in the period. African American neighborhood leaders protested Ahearn’s work, concerned that he had opted to show his neighbors in “everyday” poses. Ahearn took down his installation, deeply concerned that he had violated a covenant with his own community. And yet today his work seems so prescient, pointing, as it did to our deep need to see neighbors instead of strangers. Or face cataclysmic consequences.
I think that Moleworth is absolutely on to something in her insistence that the art of the era might be best understood as a coming to terms with the claims of feminism and the broader struggles for human liberation. As the Salle controversy noted above seems to indicate, the ‘80s became a cultural moment in which a conversation about boundaries and their instability acquired sharp teeth. It’s the beginning of an era in which we would forge clear sexual boundaries in the workplace, when representations of women and of sexuality became increasingly problematized and nuanced, all in the name of finding news ways to be in our bodies and to speak appropriately about the foreign and autonomous bodies of others.
Controversies over art, even controversies over the meaning of “killing women” in the slasher film, grew out of this new awareness and, as we know, prepared the way for third wave feminism, a feminism that would find much to ironize and much to plunder from older images, visual cultures and even from forms that the second wave of the movement may have found too problematic. Consider, for example, how third wave feminism has more or less recaptured the tradition of the burlesque show and turned it from a playground of peeping toms into a new, transgressive form.
I know that an exhibit guide seems, by nature, reserved for the specialist. Don’t be too quick to dismiss this though. Cultural historians, like myself, have a lot learn from this collection, as do scholars of gender. If you simply love art and design, you’ll want this on your shelf or maybe on your coffee table. It’s a work that utterly reframes a decade that was, it turns out, about more than wanting our MTV.