“To Put Things into Order.” Review of exhibition This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, February 11 - June 3, 2012.
Published in Studija 84, no. 3 (2012).
View the article on Studija magazine online archive here.
More about the exhibition This Will Have Been on the website of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
To Put Things into Order
Organizing things is a universal activity, because it is impossible to draw a strict boundary between the material and non-material world. Any conscious reflection on things means putting them into order. Thoughts become deeds and vice versa. Absolutely everything could be put into order – if only we knew how! Unfortunately it is impossible to determine if the order that we have introduced is adequate, objective or correct – our understanding of these notions is inconstant, subject to constant arranging and rearranging. From the modern perspective there is quite a substantial difference between ‘The Etymologies’ by Isidore of Seville, ‘The Encyclopedia’ of Diderot and Wikipedia, but at the time of their creation each one of them was considered to be an adequate way to organize things.
The exhibition This Will Have Been is an attempt to organize things mostly in American art (also a little German art and other) between the years 1979 and 1992. The background events often take place in East Village, New York, but not only there. The thematic focal point brought forth by curator Helen Molesworth is the AIDS crisis and the reaction of American political leaders, society and artists, as well as the development of feminist theory. “In 1981 the HIV virus is identified. This is the beginning of what will become a major health and political crisis of the decade”, she has said.(1) The title is borrowed from philosopher Roland Barthes and “his way of talking about the sense of time that is conveyed in a photograph. It’s very melancholic,” according to Molesworth.(2)
Molesworth begins her theoretical motivation for the exhibition with the statement that “until recently the art of the 1980s has often been regarded as a kind of embarrassment – excessive, brash, contentious, too theoretical, insufficiently theoretical, overblown, anti-aesthetic, demonstrably political – as though the decade were just too much.”(3) Enough time has now passed for museums to canonize and mystify the phenomena of the 1980s, and to wrap them up into a package as historic drama, similarly as with the previous decades of the 20th century. Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson are among the classic pop icons who have passed away, so at least something could already be classified.(4) In this aspect one can draw parallels with the campaign-like exhibitions that have been held in Europe over the last few years, dedicated to the year 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. It cannot be denied that the historical drama of Europe and Latvia, too, is very different: if we were to put it in simple and general terms, the topics of homosexuality, women’s rights and racism just about did not exist in the public discussion space of Latvia in the 1980s.
At the same time, if one wishes to do so, it is possible to find things in common. The curator emphasizes that “for many 1980s artists, making art was itself propelled by the desire to participate, in a transformative way, in the culture at large”(5) and that culture itself can influence the whole of society. In this sense the politicization of art, albeit in a more gentle form, can also be discerned in the 1980s works of several Latvian artists.
The theoretical foundation of the exhibition – an introductory article by the curator and essays by other art historians in the exhibition catalogue – represents an art history indoctrinated by feminism, Marxism and Freudianism. The most frequently mentioned names in the essays are from the influential October group: Rosalind Kraus, Hal Foster, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp and others; Marx, Barthes, Lyotard and Lacan are quoted as well. Besides AIDS and feminism, which according to Molesworth significantly changed American art and society in the 1980s, just as important are the issues of racial equality, gay and lesbian rights and gender issues as such, postcolonial territories, the crisis of democracy, destabilization of narrative, etc. Even though the attempts to seek out references to class, gender or racial issues in every piece of art can at times become if not tedious, then at least predictable, we don’t have an alternative, do we?