Art, commerce and the 1980s: how the decade became a turning point for mass media

Art, commerce and the 1980s: how the decade became a turning point for mass media

The 1980s: the decade of decadence, power shoulders, big hair, big bucks and Generation X. As the biggest ad agencies of the era – among them Saatchi & Saatchi, the WPP group – ate up the smaller fish becoming huge conglomerates, and cable TV arrived, commercial culture began to cut its teeth.

Meanwhile in New York, a group of young, gung-ho artists responded to the insatiable consumerism with art that both attacked and absorbed advertising aesthetics and its politics. Artists like Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince, were at the forefront, often appropriating their material directly from adverts.

Installation view of ‘Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s’ at Hirshhorn Museum with New! New Too! (pictured right), 1983, by Jeff Koons, lithograph billboard mounted on cotton. © Jeff Koons

Their approach quickly spread across the country and abroad. ‘What began as satire quickly grew to become a defining moment in contemporary art,’ says Gianni Jetzer, curator of ‘Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s’, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC – an exhibition exploring art and artists’ relationship to commodity and commerce. Focusing on works made in the 1980s by more than 70 artists, the show serves up a slice of eighties ideology on a plate of trenchant criticism of the socio-economic system.

Many of them haven’t lost their acuity. Thirty years after it originally appeared in 1988, Krzysztof Wodiczko’s iconic, 68ft projection onto the façade (pictured below) of the Hirshhorn Museum is being restaged. The work, the artist reflects, is ‘strangely familiar and at once unbearably relevant’. In it, imagery spliced from ads, films and newspaper headlines in the US at the time – abortion and death penalty laws – floats imposingly above visitors’ heads, a comment on way mass media manipulates us all.

Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC, 1988, by Krzysztof Wodiczko, public projection on the façade of the museum. The installation has been recreated for the 2018 exhibition. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York

It was also in the 1980s that artists, perhaps for the first time, had to face up to the place of their art as part of a market; the physical art object was now something to acquire and own, with buyers lusting for next big thing.

Though this movement defined, in many ways, the way artists work today, (see the new Netflix exposé of the art world, Blurred Lines, for proof). ‘This phenomenon of artist as a brand identity, and the art object as commodity, has not yet been examined at this scale,’ Jetzer notes.

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