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THE CONFORMISTS: THE ART OF GENERAL IDEA

AT THE HEIGHT of the Reagan-era culture wars and the AIDS crisis—a moment that shaped today’s battles over social values, over what is normal and what is not—General Idea decided to fit in. The group explored assimilation and transgression, convention and critique, biopolitics and style. They inserted their quixotic brand of activism, agitprop, marketing, and performance, virus-like, into the mainstream, with results that were anything but. On the occasion of the retrospective “Broken Time,” which travels to the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires this month, critic Alex Kitnick takes a new look at General Idea—and their reimagining of what art and life could be.

Rodney Werden, Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson of General Idea Play the Part of the Architects of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, 1974, gelatin silver print, 15 5/8 × 19 3/4". From left: Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal, and AA Bronson.

Artists are “abnormal,” but they get away with it by calling themselves artists.

Jill Johnston, 1968

WHAT DID IT MEAN to be a “normal” artist in the late 1960s, after the twinned explosions of Conceptualism and Pop? Reflecting on their early careers, the partners in General Idea put it this way: “We wanted to be famous, glamorous and rich.” They were obviously being tongue-in-cheek, yet their words also offered a shrewd insight: Not only had the media image of the artist’s lifestyle become part and parcel of artistic practice but, after Warhol, art now offered a path to a kind of mainstream success typically reserved for other quarters of culture. Founded in Toronto in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal, General Idea would go on to produce a series of elaborate projects that acted as supports for this collective persona, such as the sprawling, multipart Miss

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