Art of the 1990s
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.
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 Mapplethorpe. 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're made of.
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.
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.
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 and extremely famous 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.''
Broadly, the purpose of culture jamming is to disrupt the way that advertising has become a pervasive part of our everyday lives. Consider how many advertisements you see on a regular basis through TV, magazines, the internet, or billboards, most of which you probably don't think much about. The objective of culture jamming is to call attention to the influence that these images have, and make viewers think about how they are affected by corporate manipulation.
In a very general sense, styles like graffiti art, transgressive art, and culture jamming can often be put into a category known as activist art. As has been said, artistic social critique isn't unique to the 1990s, but activist art became a popular force throughout the decade.
The various styles that fall into this category use art as a means of making a political statement or calling attention to a social issue. The AIDS quilt, for example, is a massive international collective project that started in the '80s and gained popularity in the '90s. Its purpose is partially to memorialize those lost to the disease, but to also raise awareness of the AIDS crisis that has been occurring around the world since the early '80s.
All right, let's take a moment to review. The art of the 1990s was in many ways a continuation of the new styles that emerged throughout the 1980s, like the jarring work of Andre Serrano, among others. Serrano's style of transgressive art was influenced by earlier artists like Mapplethorpe, who used shocking imagery to make a statement. Similarly, styles like graffiti art, which involved the use of spray paint to compose what are often large-scale pieces on the sides of buildings or other highly visible areas, gave Black artists a means through which they could raise awareness of the historic and ongoing oppression and inequality that affected their communities.
Throughout the '90s, socio-cultural critique was a popular theme in art, particularly in the act of cultural jamming, in which artists would take popular images and subvert them to make a statement about things like corporate control or capitalism. In general, these styles of activist art, or artistic social critique, like the AIDS quilt, raise awareness of important social issues.