Cultural Intervention, Activist Art and Discourses of Oppositionality in the US, 1980-2000

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2004-01-27

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This dissertation examines the intersection of definitions of activist art with major discourses related to art production operational during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s in the US. The four parts of the dissertation consider how definitions of activism in art during this period shifted when considered in conjunction with notions of transgression, postmodernism, the avant-garde, and the monstrous/grotesque/abject. The emphasis in each part of the dissertation will be on the aspects of discourse that have been generated in publications of various kinds that relate to cultural production.

In Part 1, key discursive elements of the 1980s treated include 1) the relationship of market forces to "successful" transgressivity as well as "successful" activism in art; 2) when certain forms of art put forward as "activist" were seen as "transgressive;" and 3) debates over controversial content related to social and political issues of the day. In Part 2, activism in US art of the eighties and nineties is considered in relation to the fortunes of the artistic category "avant-garde." In this Part of the dissertation, the discussion tracks the development of interest in "progressive" postmodernism in contradistinction to a postmodernism of "regression;" and the generally negative valence "avant-garde" assumed in discourse over this twenty-year period. Part 3 explores the discursive relationship of activist art to the pronounced turn toward the body during the period: a particular kind of body portrayed as aggressively sexual, wounded, fragmented and imbricated with specificities of racial and gender identity. Part 4 proposes two works of artJudy Chicago's Dinner Party and Guillermo Gómez Peña's Temple of Confessionsas exemplary of how the discursive element of the monstrous/grotesque/abject can assertively mobilize and foreground the eclipsed and distorted presentation of the feminine and the "other" of color in dominant culture. The discussion seeks to demonstrate how, in two extremely complex works of art, the monstrous/abject/grotesque raises to high profile key issues of activism, postmodernism and the avant-garde. The discussion also addresses how ultimately conflicted and ambivalent it is to seek an unproblematically "progressive" outcome when attempting to mobilize monstrous/grotesque/abject thematics as apotropaic.

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