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Rezoning the Alternative: Art and Politics in New York at the Dawn of the Reagan Era


Rezoning the Alternative: Art and Politics in New York at the Dawn of the Reagan Era

Lyons, Stephen (2018) Rezoning the Alternative: Art and Politics in New York at the Dawn of the Reagan Era. PhD thesis, Concordia University.

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This thesis studies the history of alternative art spaces in New York, with a particular focus on the changing use and understanding of the term “alternative” at the turn of the 1980s. Exploring the impact of New York’s 1975 fiscal crisis, funding cuts in the public sector, gentrification, and the professionalization of established alternative spaces on the formation of new forms of artists’ self-organization, this thesis reveals the brief period of 1978 to 1981 as a lynchpin in the history of alternative art in New York. Each chapter examines an identity crisis that began to emerge when the first wave of alternative art institutions that formed at the beginning of the 1970s was confronted by a second wave that was poised to replace it. Representatives of this second wave, which included Collaborative Projects, Inc. (1978-1985), Fashion Moda (1978-1993), Group Material (1980-1996), and Political Art Documentation/Distribution (1980-1988), railed in different ways: against the bureaucratization of existing alternative spaces (Chapter One); against the continued exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities (Chapter Two); against the widespread refusal of artists to engage in radical politics (Chapter Three); and against the complicity of alternative spaces in gentrification and displacement (Chapter Four). By examining how competing ideas of the “alternative” coexisted during this brief period of time, I expose the “alternative” as a site of contestation—an unstable keyword struggled over in art discourse and practice.

More broadly, this thesis asks how the austerity politics instituted in the aftermath of New York’s fiscal crisis left its trace on the organizational forms and institutional positions established in the New York art system at the turn of the 1980s. What marks of neoliberal ideology appeared before Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency of the United States? What assumptions guided artists and art critics working during this period—about the role of the alternative space, the position of the artist in society, and the potential for artists to act as agents of social change? Recovering the imprint of ideology on New York’s alternative art sphere during a moment affirmed by many artists, curators, critics, and politicians as “post-ideological,” this thesis charts the blind spots, limitations, and political consequences of ideals inherited from 1960s counterculture in the New York art system, as well as the unexpected convergence of these ideals and the nascent political imaginary of neoliberalism at the dawn of the Reagan era.

Divisions:Concordia University > Faculty of Fine Arts > Art History
Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Authors:Lyons, Stephen
Institution:Concordia University
Degree Name:Ph. D.
Program:Art History
Date:April 2018
Thesis Supervisor(s):Langford, Martha
ID Code:983962
Deposited On:31 Oct 2018 16:45
Last Modified:31 Oct 2018 16:45
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