The 1980s: a decade of excess wealth and interminable longing



Richard Prince Untitled (cowboy)
  • Richard Prince Untitled (cowboy)

As I was riding the Chicago bus the other day, I noticed a reflection of the advertisement along the bus’s side. “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” At first glance, the image looked current—three hipster couples who have overzealously reclaimed the 1980s aesthetic. And the “greed and indifference” rang true, but I couldn’t pinpoint the kissing reference.

Turns out the ad is an extension of a current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, “This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s,” curated by Helen Molesworth. The "Kissing Doesn’t Kill" campaign was originally a political art action orchestrated by artist and activist collective Gran Fury. Gran Fury used a strategy similar to advertising to spread information about AIDS. They called the campaign "Act Up." The graphics appeared all over the country and came to Chicago in 1990 on more than 60 CTA buses and in 25 el stations throughout the city. When the campaign first launched, there was a large adverse reaction from the city bureaucracy. This time around, when the MCA proposed the relaunch, the CTA board approved the images but with the stipulation that the posters credited the MCA as the sponsor.

As commuters continued to crowd the bus, I realized that many of them may have ridden the number 66 in 1990 and experienced the original campaign firsthand. For some, the 1980s is the recent past and for others, like myself, the decade is a mythologized period characterized by fabled rock star hairstyles and excessive amounts of wealth.

This is why teasing out themes from both “This Will Have Been” and the Court Theater’s current production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is particularly interesting. How does one represent the economic, political, and social trends of such a specific and recent time frame?

The most immediate parallel between Angels and “This Will Have Been” is the “Desire and Longing” section of the exhibition. This particular section articulates the desire for visibility among the queer community, desire for fame, health, and a legacy. Richard Prince exemplifies said desires in his 1987 piece Untitled (cowboy). Prince appropriated images from Marlboro advertisements—images that connote the idea of traditional American masculinity and stoicism. Prince’s work captures the seductive nature of advertising and its power to influence the American imagination.

Kushner's characters grapple with this exact problem in Angels in America. Louis Ironson—who is ironically weak when faced with his boyfriend Prior Walter's AIDS diagnosis—crumbles under the difficulty of watching Prior die. Louis longs for the healthy Prior, saying "Please don't be sick anymore. Please get better. Please. Please don't get any sicker." Roy Cohn, despite the rapidity of his illness—he is also diagnosed with AIDS—goes to great lengths in an attempt to uphold his image as a ferocious and powerful lawyer. His greatest fear is losing his reputation as macho and confident. Kushner peels away his characters' health and stability and shows how people behave, what they long for, and what they desire when stripped of the lives they thought they’d lead.

Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill also hangs in the "Democracy" section of “This Will Have Been.” It sits over the door frame next to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s, Untitled (Perfect Lovers) . Gonzalez-Torres’s work is quiet and heartbreaking, while Kissing Doesn’t Kill is loud and political. Kissing Doesn’t Kill is a vocalized, ubiquitous response to the individual private struggles of AIDS victims like Gonzalez-Torres.

When Rabbi Isisdor Chemelwitz recites the obituary for Louis’s grandmother, Sarah Ironson, within the first few minutes of Angels in America, he speaks about the Jews' struggle to assimilate into America. He notes that many Jews abandoned their cultural past in order to live in a cultural place that does not exist or accept them. While the rabbi speaks about the Jewish people, Kushner foreshadows the similar political and cultural pressures put on the queer community to mask their identity and fold into “societal norms.” Something that still holds true. (Read my Grit + Glitter piece as an example.)

There are countless ways to talk about art as activism in the 1980s. From gender politics to American foreign policy, both Angels in America and "This Will Have Been" go much further in their critique of American culture. And whether the 80s are already a "historical" moment, I think viewing Angels in America through the lens of "This Will Have Been" helped me recognize what moments and concerns seem dated and what themes remain today.

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