Art of the 1990s

Instructor: David White
In the 1990s, new styles of art began to emerge that called attention to social issues, and critiqued culture in new ways. Through this lesson, you will explore some of these styles and gain insight into what the artists were hoping to achieve.

New Perspectives

When one compares the visual art of the 1990s to that of previous decades or centuries, there will likely be a noticeable difference in the content, medium, or format. Paintings once confined to canvas or traditional materials, for example, were suddenly appearing in large-scale on the side of buildings. Younger artists began to emerge during the late 80s and, as is always the case, brought with them new ideas and perspectives that influenced and shaped their art. Similarly, the political and cultural landscape of the Western world had become more liberal, making certain topics and subjects more socially acceptable in public arenas.

The 1980s was, from the perspective of many young people in the 90s, a troubling decade. It was the era of their youth, of course, but it was also one marked by political strife, corporate greed, and the winding down of the Cold War. The art of the 1990s reflects these feelings in styles influenced by the 80s, often in unexpected or even shocking ways.

Transgressive Art

In some ways, the more challenging artists of the 1990s were a continuation of the work and statements being made by earlier artists, such as Robert Maplethorpe. He was the subject of extreme criticism for his photographs that graphically depicted so-called non-traditional sex acts. These works are sometimes categorized as transgressive art for their use of shocking themes and images intended as a social critique. These artists pushed the boundaries of what art was, and influenced a new generation.

Among those that shook up the art world in the early 90s, Andres Serrano is surely one of the first that comes to mind. Though less shocking than his earlier work, his first series of the 1990s, Object of Desire, featured a variety of different photographs (most notably one taken from the barrel of a gun). Objects of Desire was Serrano's statement on life, death, religion, and other strong themes - and are all beautiful until you find out what they are made of.

Andres Serrano, 2005.

While his are the most notable and controversial of pieces from the early 90s, Serrano is only one of many artists that used challenging themes and shocking images to make a statement on politics, religion, or culture, among other things.

Street Art

The birth of hip hop music in the late 1970s and its rising popularity throughout the 80s gave black Americans a new medium to voice their concerns in the public arena. With this came a number of fashion statements and styles, including a type of street art known as graffiti art. A popular style in urban areas, graffiti artists use spray paint to compose what are often large-scale pieces on the sides of buildings or other highly visible areas.

Graffiti art has become a popular means of making a statement through art.

Often associated with hip hop culture, graffiti art began as a visual means of conveying the culture's larger messages about racism, poverty, and oppression. Over time, the style has been embraced by wider audiences and artists who continue to use the method as a means of making powerful statements. For example, present day British artist Banksy uses large-scale graffiti and street art to make political statements and cultural critique.

Art as Cultural Critique

Despite its popularity in the 1990s, using art as a means of cultural or social critique is nothing new. However, one could argue that its blunt or overt nature by artists in the 90s was. With the rapid expansion in communication technology, like more television channels and the birth of the internet, people were flooded with information and advertising. This wealth of new images from the media and advertising industry quickly became source material for critical artists.

In a style known as culture jamming, artists would take popular images like Mickey Mouse or the Nike swoosh, and subvert them to make a statement about things like corporate control or capitalism. For example, in a famous act of culture jamming, artists altered the Coca-Cola sign that read 'Love' in the company's font, to read 'Love Profit.'

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