This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s covers the period from 1979 to 1992. During this era, the political sphere was dominated by the ideas of former US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the music scene was transformed by punk and the birth of hip-hop, and our everyday lives were radically altered by a host of technological developments, from the Sony Walkman and the ATM to the appearance of MTV and the first personal computers. In the United States, the decade opened with an enormous anti-nuclear protest in New York’s Central Park and closed with mass demonstrations against the government’s slow response to the AIDS crisis. This exhibition attempts to make sense of what happened to the visual arts in the United States during this tumultuous period.
The artists represented in This Will Have Been belong to the first generation of artists to grow up with a television in the home. They came of age in a culture saturated with images designed to promote desire—desire for objects, for lifestyles, for fame, for conformity, for anti-conformity. So too the majority of these artists lived through the heady days of the 1970s feminist movement and witnessed that broad-based social movement’s demands for equality in all areas of life—work, family, and intimate relationships. It became the task of the 1980s to assimilate these powerful social forces—the rise of television and movements for social justice—as they converged.
For many of the artists represented in this exhibition that meant grappling with complex questions: In a world increasingly filled with mass-media images, what is the role of the visual arts? How can artists make images that either compete with or counter the powerful images produced by advertising and Hollywood? In a society struggling for increased equality, how do historically marginalized people—women, people of color, and gays and lesbians—find their public voice? Toward the end of the decade, as the rise of HIV/AIDS created a growing political and medical crisis in the United States, these questions increased in urgency. This Will Have Been features a wide range of artworks, made by a diverse group of nearly one hundred artists, demonstrating the decade’s moments of contentious debate, raucous dialogue, erudite opinions, and joyful expression—all in the name of an expanded idea of freedom, long the promise of democratic societies.