PRINT April 2003


“Theory”: Nothing recalls the fractious discursive climate of the 1980s better than that single, imperfect word. In part two of “Writing the '80s,” we return to three strands of the discourse that marked the decade. Here, THOMAS CROW assesses the Pyrrhic victory of social art history in the '80s as a generation of artists turned the academic notion of “subversive critique” on its head.

AT THE ONSET OF THE 1980s, I HAD AN EXPERIENCE AS A teacher that presaged—or so I came to see in retrospect—much of what would happen as a consequence of “the new art history” over the course of the decade, particularly as that untidy intellectual pursuit came to play a part in the contemporary practice of art.

I had spent a term instructing an undergraduate class in the latest analytical frameworks for interpreting modern-life painting in later-nineteenth-century Paris. Thanks to the then-recent work of Robert L. Herbert and T.J. Clark (not to mention the revived writings of Meyer Schapiro from the late 1930s), Impressionism no longer passed only for a pure art of light and air, optical naturalism and coloristic intensity applied to a gamut of otherwise ordinary subjects. Just a little cataloguing of Impressionist subject matter had proved the inadequacy of this venerable and comforting view, however indelibly imprinted on the taste of collectors, the lectures of docents, and the marketing of calendars.

Why was it that this group of painters, arguably the first coherent avant-garde, concentrated almost exclusively on the spaces of newly organized leisure, scenes where demarcated free time was packaged into “experiences” of sport, tourism, shopping, and entertainment? The aquatic resort or dazzling shopping street offered its version of reality as a collection of apparently uncomposed and disconnected surface sensations. The wedge driven between sensation and judgment was never the invention of artists but had been engineered by burgeoning commercial forces to appear as the more natural and liberated moments of an individual’s life. The emerging patterns of leisure-time consumption provided the invisible frame that made fragmentary and distracted cognition cohere as the very image of
pleasure. (1)

An elementary understanding of this concept required American students to wrestle with the unfamiliar issue of social class, even to use the term “bourgeoisie” in a sentence as an objective historical term. Simply put, the modern consumer economy began as an enterprise limited to those with the free time and ready cash to occupy the new spaces of organized leisure. And they were expensive. The new department stores—at once the encyclopedias and ritual temples of consumption—grew spectacularly by supplying the newly affluent with the necessary material equipment and, by their practices of sales and promotion, effective instruction in the intangible requirements of this novel sphere of existence.

Even to think in these terms of course entailed conjuring the forbidden spirit of Marx—poisonous heresy to an established hierarchy of troglodytic art historians bereft of higher intellectual culture. My group of unprejudiced undergraduates, however, could easily travel where most art-history professionals could not, and my most striking feedback from the student side came in a conversation with a graduating senior. Her keenest ambition had been to work as a buyer for a chain of upmarket department stores. In her job interview, she rehearsed precisely this critical-historical account of the nineteenth-century origins of the department store and its surrounding culture of consumption—and found herself hired on the spot.

IT STRUCK ME AT THE TIME THAT MY STUDENT’S CANNY use of the course content was a surer sign of learning than the customary moralizing critique of consumerism as manipulated false consciousness. And I hadn’t really grasped until then how easy it was simply to subject that Left position to a kind of reverse engineering: Diagnosis of some putative malady can simply be turned around to generate a recipe for its successful reproduction. Indeed, such a reversal, in the absence of any foreseeable change in the economic status quo, would constitute the surer empirical confirmation of that diagnosis.

The wave of appropriationist and simulationist tactics that crested in the mid-’80s appears in hindsight as the outcome of the same kind of thinking. If product packaging now carried a power confirmed by heavyweight theorizing (and Baudrillard became the name to reckon with), then reviving the readymade under the authority of Pop quotation offered an irresistible avenue for channeling that power into one’s work. Perhaps Haim Steinbach came closest to giving the game away by limiting his sculptor’s contribution to fashioning elegantly retro Formica-clad shelves that straightforwardly showcased unmodified store-bought items. His work always seemed more a demonstration of syntactical principle than of any cognitively interesting bricolage: I had the chance to compliment Steinbach on his shrewd choice of a pair of Air Jordans to adorn his then new piece no wires, no power cord, 1986 (Michael Jordan had joined the NBA only two years earlier with his unprecedented, trendsetting Nike deal); but the artist was vague as to who exactly Jordan was and didn’t think it much mattered anyway. And he was right, in that the conceit underlying Steinbach’s work was too fragile to sustain anything more than a certain allegorical suggestiveness subtended by a deft formal intelligence and a magpie’s fascination with objects that catch the light, which are precisely the qualities that still-life painting has purveyed for centuries.

“To explain everything is to excuse everything,” goes the ancient French adage. Enhanced historical understanding of similarly outmoded genres and styles—provided by a newly self-conscious academic discipline—renewed the interest of contemporary-art audiences in traditional art forms in a way that the old connoisseurial art history had never been able to accomplish. At the same time, the relaxation of standards in craft and technical apprenticeship, which Minimalism and its offshoots had already accomplished, allowed those genres and styles to be re-created with minimally transformed found objects or simple photographic duplication. Alongside still life came didactic history painting, ritual altarpieces, portraiture, and kitchen-sink domestic genre; all the staples of traditional art practice were back, their only real novelty being the stipulation that they needn’t—and probably shouldn’t—be rendered in paint on canvas.

JUST HOW THIS KIND OF HISTORICISM—THAT IS, THE transformation of historical depth into a menu of contemporary choices—came to pervade artistic thinking during the ’80s requires a complex explanation in which the newer forms of art history played various parts. Certainly the emergence of a social art history cannot be assigned more than a portion of the responsibility for this development. More direct in its impact was the related but distinct grouping of writers drawn by Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson to October magazine in New York. Likewise dissenters from art history’s established regime, their emphasis lay more centrally on the semiotic turn in the humanities, and their suspicion of painting was thorough and programmatic. Among the October writers’ shared preoccupations, the one that bore most directly on the thinking of younger artists was the undecidability that they inserted between an original object or gesture and its proliferation of doubles. This theoretical stance did more than undermine the last defenses of unique synthetic creation as a requirement for artistic seriousness (these were pretty much finished anyway); it had the perhaps unintended effect of putting the artwork onto the same plane as mass-produced products of all kinds, including, most importantly, the images generated by the entertainment industries. So long as pretensions to originality were abjured, representational content of all kinds—“pictures,” in Douglas Crimp’s parlance—was permitted.

One American crucible where social art history and the theoretical approach associated with October came together lay in the estimable Whitney Independent Study Program (long may it flourish) under the direction of Ron Clark. The ISP welcomed representatives of both tendencies and fostered an environment where their overlapping implications were put into play for cohort after cohort of beginning artists, curators, and critics. (The radiating effects of this unique, ongoing experiment merit a sustained study in their own right.) But here as elsewhere, critique and license lay only a hair’s breadth apart from one another: Can one forget that the young Julian Schnabel, a totemic figure of the ’80s’ dark side, was an early ISP graduate? And Schnabel was only the most successful among a number of artists who exploited the analytical intelligence then floating around the art world to strategize an ultimate move into the realm of theatrical film and fashionable celebrity—which started with his defiantly derivative embrace of painting as media event. If all signs are created equal, why wasn’t this one as good as any other, its marketability being merely a convenient bonus? Such contrarily opportunistic exploits served to goad left-leaning thinkers—a Benjamin Buchloh, say—into even more stringent examinations of the commodity transactions at the core of nearly all artistic practice, further turning the screw in a spiral of criticality that seemed to leave, as a young artist’s guarantee of integrity, only something like Christopher D’Arcangelo’s near
invisibility. (2)

It comes as no surprise, then, that the underestimated Ashley Bickerton, speaking on behalf of that cluster of New York artists coming to the fore in the mid-’80s, sought to distance himself from what they all termed the “Pictures” generation. “We’ve consciously learned and incorporated strategies from a lot of art-historical sources,” he stated from the dais of a 1986 panel entitled “From Criticism to Complicity”: “[W]e’re now able to step back and merge, in fact to implode a variety of different strategies and epistemologies into the total art object. . . . This would oppose it to the directed programmatic operative of original Pictures practice.” (3) “Imploding” is, I guess, an appropriate enough term for the reversal of valence stated so explicitly in the title of the event. Steinbach, the elder statesman of the group, likewise spoke of his own repudiation of the critical project subsumed under the Pictures rubric in favor of what he called “locating one’s desire, by which I mean one’s own taking pleasure in objects and commodities, which includes what we call works of art. There is a stronger sense of being complicit with the production of desire, what we traditionally call beautiful seductive objects, than being positioned somewhere outside of it.” (4) (My student could have said it better.) Steinbach’s sole lament was that his current budgets permitted only inexpensive acquisitions from the full panoply of consumer possibilities: “I’m looking forward to a time,” he confided to his listeners, “when I can break that limit and acquire some more ‘important’ things!” (5)

As concepts, New York–style appropriation or simulation implied a secure stance within the fine-art world from which to effect said appropriating or simulating. Just before he retreated for good behind his arch manufactured persona, Jeff Koons joined the conversation to affirm this assumption. Speaking of the accessible appeal carried by everyday objects in his sculpture—basketballs and the like—he nonetheless anticipated that his audience “can try to get more out of it and start dealing in art vocabulary instead of just sensational and personal vocabulary, and start to deal with abstractions of ideas and of context. . . . I hope that that would happen.” (6) By implication, the wider realm from which these objects are displaced is regarded as more familiar to an uninitiated audience than the fine-art one. But the reverse is true of the artist, for whom the fascination of the “sensational and personal” depends on its lying firmly outside the boundaries of his core professional norms where “abstractions of ideas and of contexts” prevail.

But there is no reason why the same body of art-historical theory could not give rise to forms of appropriation and simulation that ran in the opposite direction, that is, an artist being more at home in an everyday media realm and displacing into it objects from that exotically fascinating category of commodities labeled “American Fine Art.” As a shorthand recipe, this reversal underlies much of that practice that rose to international attention in the early ’90s as the “Young British Artist” phenomenon, the groundwork for which had been laid in the ’80s with this same cohort of American simulationists as backdrop and point of departure.

Much of what went on under the name “the social history of art” (or, alternatively, “the new art history”) had emerged from a network of dissenting art historians working across Britain in a variety of institutions, including schools of art. Its success and influence cannot in turn be separated from cognate intellectual developments that would have their impact on American art history only much later and in significantly diluted form. From the later ’60s Art & Language—the combative collective driven by disaffected teachers at the Coventry College of Art—argued that the American Minimalists had raised art’s philosophical stakes only to fold their cards. They, on the other hand, would play out the hand. In the process, it became a commonplace of the UK scene that to make art was necessarily to join a sophisticated argument about its right to exist, one in which American points of reference tended to be viewed as intriguing artifacts and talking points fashioned by a tribe of gifted idiots savants.

Though the Art & Language group, with its roots in analytical philosophy, derided structuralist and semiotic theory as “the French disease,” that body of thinking too made a strong early appearance in Britain through the pages of Screen magazine, which became something of an Anglophone cognate to Tel Quel and incubated a generation of adept writers whose preoccupation with film easily transferred itself to questions in the visual arts. In the same period, the crossover from theories of the sign to the work of social description took place under the auspices of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Initiated by Phil Cohen and elaborated by Stuart Hall and Dick Hebdige among others, a renewed cultural-studies agenda found its most telling subjects walking down the King’s Road. Once properly decoded, the fashion choices of glam rockers, skinheads, and punks could be made to yield a deep and moving account of the social traumas of the ’70s.

A few more steps down this path, however, and semiotics suddenly meant Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and Vivienne Westwood, just as these street idols—all with art-college roots—now stood out as magisterial semioticians in their own right, no academic validation required. Why should art have to be any different? Nourished at Goldsmiths College and elsewhere by all the aforementioned styles of theory, the “Freeze” generation of artists emerged a decade later into a feast of publicity that would transform them into the same sort of cherished national black sheep as the musicians and designers of a previous generation. (Just over the horizon their knighthoods await.)

The New York simulationists had delicately tweaked their Minimalist models as they dipped a toe into the mighty stream of the everyday. Their slightly younger British counterparts, by contrast, were far less encumbered by such stipulations of “seriousness” and thereby capable of seeding themselves into an immeasurably larger public narrative. If Koons had suspended a basketball in a pristine tank, why not an embalmed man-eating shark? It was bigger, better, and scary in the bargain—irresistible bait to the tabloids’ constant hunger for monsters and menaces. It’s hard to say which was more agreeably frightening to the suburban readers of The Sun and the Daily Mail: the predator’s grin or the artist behind it. And for all that, Damien Hirst’s Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, appealed to nationalistic taste with the same reassuringly Victorian ponderousness it treasured in the animal subjects of Sir Edwin Landseer.

The vaunted achievements of earlier artists had become no more than useful implements to be taken up and put down as the occasion required, often in unholy combination. By the measure of an American “art vocabulary,” to use Koons’s term, nearly all of “Freeze”-generation output appears cheerfully derivative, while a good deal of it just looks incompetent. But, placed alongside its axis of terror and disgust dredged from mythic survivals in the common culture, the majority of American Pop and process art suddenly looks prim and decorous by comparison. Encased in its own pristinely Koonsian vitrine, Marc Quinn’s Self, 1991 (a flaking, peeling cast of the artist’s head formed from nine pints of his own frozen blood, now by accident sadly melted), one-upped Bruce Nauman’s early conflations of signature and bodily index, while calmly and without histrionics incorporating all the sadism of Nauman’s later video output as well. Hirst’s Thousand Years, 1990, crossed the slaughterhouse imagery of Francis Bacon—no name to conjure with in New York but a talisman in London—with a process aesthetic out of early Hans Haacke. But when the rotting cow’s head breeding the doomed flies proved to reek beyond endurance, Hirst abandoned the rigorous protocols of the latter and substituted a fake head smeared with mayonnaise and ketchup. (7) The unmistakable overtones of William Golding’s perennial schoolboy allegory Lord of the Flies then found a grotesque echo in yet more synthetic artifice: the feral children of Dinos and Jake Chapman, cobbled into their hypereroticized monstrosity from shopwindow mannequins to embody the nightmare reversal of all the child-abuse panics that regularly ripple through the British national psyche. And that nightmare itself was to materialize in Marcus Harvey’s monumental Myra, 1995, which deployed the baleful portrait of smudged ’60s glamour through which the country’s most famous child murderer had impressed itself on the minds of nearly every Briton, rendered like a twisted Chuck Close through paint patches in the shape of tiny hands.

A dis-alienated avant-garde, then, purveying a Hogarthian catalogue of grotesques in some warped garden of unearthly delights. At the close of the ’80s, the more earnest exponents of a social art history could only turn away from this spectacle in dismay: (8) Like all academic pursuits, it had its own decorum to defend. Having assumed an elevated point of view that could survey the historical imbrication of avant-garde art within a society of consumption, a good portion of its authority depended on the assumed blindness of its subjects to that condition. No one counted on those surveyed becoming the ones to do the surveying themselves, nor did anyone consider how art’s own elevation would suffer in the process.

Thomas Crow is director of the Getty Research Institute and a contributing editor of Artforum.

“Freeze,” 1988. Installation view, Surrey Docks, London.


1. See Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” written in 1981 and reprinted in Crow, Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996): 4–37.

2. For examples of Buchloh’s trenchant arguments of the period, see his “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 339–68, and “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Artforum, September 1982, 43–56.

3. Quoted in David Robbins, ed., “From Criticism to Complicity,” transcript of a panel discussion moderated by Peter Nagy at Pat Hearn Gallery, May 2, 1986, Flash Art, Summer 1986, 46.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 48.

6. Ibid., 47.

7. See Damien Hirst and Gordon Burn, On the Way to Work (London: Faber & Faber, 2001): 180–81.

8. See, for example, Julian Stallabrass’s nonetheless invaluable High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s (London and New York: Verso, 1999).