Part of the picture of New York in the post-AbEx era includes artists’ mid 1960s revolt against galleries and gatekeepers. Artists who were producing unsalable works or cheap multiples, doing performances not to be documented, organizing artists’ unions, making demands on museums, demanding recognition as workers, and so on. Throughout those years and the possibly exhilarating 1970s, artists were quite often doing as they pleased, as the art-making paradigm shifted away from the masterworks of genius, executed in painting and sculpture, toward art rooted in what we might call cognitive processes, as in Conceptual Art. Dealers were frustrated, trying to figure out how to sell seemingly noncommodity art, such as video or performance. Howard Wise transformed his gallery into the nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix, helping video artists disseminate and even produce their work, but when, after the invention of home video technology in the 1980s, Leo Castelli’s still-commercial gallery tried to sell VHS tapes by or of some of his best-known US boy artists, hardly anyone was buying.
Alternative spaces, or artist-run spaces, proliferated widely in the US, Canada, and Western Europe. In the US they were often made possible by grants from the relatively new National Endowment for the Arts, or NEA. After the oil shock of 1973, US President Carter ramped up grants through CETA (the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) to include workers in these spaces, who received training while being paid by the government. When Reagan came into office, he canceled the CETA grants and turned them into state block grants, as part of the attacks on workers’ autonomy, and coincidentally, perhaps on artists’ autonomy. And then began the Culture Wars.
At around the same time, at the end of the 1970s, a small clutch of enterprising New York dealers, with European ties, determined to take back the art world. They put a shot across artists’ bows by exhibiting imported Italian and German neo-neo-Expressionist paintings, work that not only seemed to shriek FASCIST at a largely dumbstruck community of artists, but also it was huge and expensive… and composed of unique, hand-made objects, the very characteristics artists had determined to leave behind.
Thus began the new disciplining of artists … galleries had the sense to look to recruit young artists straight out of school, promising them a good return for their effort, if they would only make salable paintings. To nascent collectors they promised the chance to get in on the ground floor of a genius’s career, the IPO.
A word about the term young artist: The definition of a young artist until just about that moment was someone under forty. Work before that was considered juvenilia. Think what having one’s work not only emerging into the public, out of the studio and beyond one’s circle of friends, but also being treated worthy of elevated prices does to the whole conception of the role of art in society and the reasonable expectations of young artists— especially those just emerging from school. The content of what it meant to be an artist was completely upended.
Artists’ long-faltering, sporadic, but not inconsiderable identification with the working class was largely forgotten, and mainstream criteria of success—identifying with your collectors, or at least their bankrolls — were adopted just in time for the emergence of punk and club culture to provide an outlet for unruly excess, with large doses of cynicism and irony. But other changes were afoot.
Here come the culture wars: The 80s also brought about an assault on art funding, driven by congressmen such as the reactionary senator from North Carolina Jesse Helms, as part of the Republican assault on “liberal” (or sometimes “secular humanist”) values. In that era of identity politics, attacks centered especially on gay and lesbian performance artists but also on photography seen as blasphemous or sexually perverse. After repeated campaigns, the NEA ceased offering grants to individual artists or even to critics (the latter apparently because the arch-reactionary Hilton Kramer thought that Marxists were getting grants). The official ideology of the NEA was that artists should support their work by selling it.”