Morning in America

Written by Therese Möllenhoff

The artists in the exhibition Good Morning America grew up in American society in the 1950s and 60s, and were thus one of the earliest generations raised with television – during a period that was characterised by a constantly escalating media and consumer culture.

At the end of the 1970s these artists appeared on the American art scene with their critical, postmodern practices that explored the potential of art and its meaning in light of this new reality. In their art they drew inspiration from the images, objects, aesthetics and ideas of American culture – and their work thus narrates the story of American society at that period. Through their art they explored crucial issues concerning pictures and representation, the construction of identity and gender roles and consumer culture, as well as concepts that lay at the interface between the private and the public, such as sexuality, sexual orientation and the normative American ideals of family and home.

In the late 1970s the USA experienced what Jimmy Carter – president from 1977 to 1981 – called a crisis of confidence in his 1979 “malaise” speech: growing doubts about the meaning of life, the loss of a unified vision for the nation, and a tendency to cultivate self-indulgence and consumption. This generation of American artists responded to the conditions of the new and increasingly media-saturated period that followed in the USA of the 1980s. Former actor and media-savvy Republican Ronald Reagan won two consecutive presidential elections, and governed from 1981 to 1989. Reagan’s neoliberalist policies, called Reaganomics, promoted tax cuts and reductions in social benefits, which led to economic growth and increased consumerism, but also to dramatic budget deficits. Artists responded to the intensified commodity and consumer culture, and at a time when the status of art itself as a market commodity was also escalating, artists such as Charles Ray and Jeff Koons incorporated the mass-produced objects of the commercial marketplace into their critical exploration of the mechanisms of the consumer culture.

In the wake of the second-wave feminism of the 1970s, influential social movements demanded equality for marginalised groups. But the 1980s also introduced the so-called culture wars, in which an ideological battle between conservative and progressive powers took place, addressing topics such as religion, gun laws, abortion, narcotics and, especially, social issues and identity politics in areas such as gender, race and sexual orientation. The struggle for the rights of marginalised groups was met with opposition and a rhetoric that referred to the fight for sexual freedom as obscene. At the same time as Reagan was condemning the lifestyle of homosexuals, the country was shaken by a social crisis: in 1981 AIDS was first clinically observed in the USA. While the epidemic spread and activists fought against the lack of both action and treatment, tens of thousands died during the years that passed before President Reagan addressed the disease publicly. Artists such as Felix Gonzales-Torres made use of their own personal experiences to focus on political topics including the AIDS epidemic and American gun laws. The art of Robert Gober, too, presented alternative narratives about social exclusion and the marginalisation of homosexuals in American society. Through such means, art in that period challenged normative American culture.  

At a time when the circulation of pictures in the mass media was escalating, and TV images were acquiring ever-greater influence, art contributed its critical investigation of the new, media-saturated world. The Pictures Generation, featuring artists such as Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, responded to the world of images displayed by the mass media – pictures that promoted identity, lifestyle and consumerism. By casting a critical eye at the world of media and advertising, and at the cultural representation of sex and identity in the American mass media, the work of these artists helped to shed light on the role of the media in the social construction of identity and gender roles in American society.

Seen as a whole, the artists and artworks presented in the exhibition Good Morning America address a wide range of issues from the American culture of their time, including the representation and construction of identity, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, consumerism and the consumer culture. By visualising alternative narratives about marginalised groups and illuminating the structure of the new media and commodity culture, they displayed the critical potential and the social significance of art in society.

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