Strategy in context : the work and practice of New York's downtown artists in the late 1970s and early 1980s
The rise of neo-conservatism defined the critical context of many appraisals of artistic work produced in downtown New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although initial reviews of the scene were largely enthusiastic, subsequent assessments of artistic work from this period have been largely negative. Artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf have been assessed primarily in terms of gentrification, commodification, and political commitment relying upon various theoretical assumptions about social processes. The conclusions reached have primarily centred upon the lack of resistance by these artists to postindustrial capitalism in its various manifestations. My investigation engages in a debate with these texts by challenging these assumptions by which the downtown artists have been understood. I address the work of Richard Bolton, Suzi Gablik, Hal Foster and Craig Owens, amongst others, by critiquing their differing conceptions of structure and agency and introducing the analytical dualist approach of sociologist Margaret Archer, one which theorises the agency of social actors within social structures in a superior manner. After making my case, I investigate five economic and political conditions facing these artists, including corporate expansion, entrepreneurialism, the entertainment industry, the rise of the neo-conservative political agenda and the struggle for dominance amongst critics themselves. In each, I investigate the production and distribution practices of a wide range of downtown artists in relation to the historical context, from groups such as Colab and PADD to individuals including Ann Magnuson, David McDermott, Jenny Holzer, Richard Hambleton, John Fekner, Jane Dickson and David Wojnarowicz, in order to illuminate the relationship between such practices and the social structures which shaped such activity. In so doing, I conclude that artists were both constrained and enabled by these contexts, thus providing a more complex picture of their place in art history.