Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

Feb 11–Jun 3, 2012

The idea of “the end” was pervasive in 1980s culture. Art magazines were filled with talk of the end of painting (what could this centuries-old medium tell us in our mass-media age?) and the end of the avant garde (the image of the artist as an “outsider” had begun to feel naive). The most hotly debated version of the end was the emergence of the term postmodernism. Postmodernism signaled the end of a belief in history as either monolithic or a set of objective facts and instead saw history as a narrative that always contains a distinct point of view. Meanwhile, the culture wars, which resulted from government attacks on art that explicitly addressed sexuality, were seen by many artists as an attempt to end the social and cultural advances of 1960s counterculture. In the early winter of 1989, the Berlin Wall was gleefully dismantled. With its collapse came the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and a realignment of power, culture, and finance on a global scale. New York (although it did not know it yet) was in the midst of being displaced as the center of the art world, as growing awareness of German art and the rise of Los Angeles as a major art center underscored the increasingly global character of contemporary art. Yet despite the 1980s’ various harbingers of “the end,” by the close of the decade, activists wearing T-shirts and buttons with the slogan “Silence = Death” made it clear that for thousands of Americans with AIDS, the end had already come.