It may be difficult for people who lived through the 1980s to believe this, but scholars are increasingly seeing the decade of Reaganomics, Iran-Contra, and the end of Studio 54 as pivotal in the art world.
It seems everyone has an image of the 80s and not necessarily a complimentary one. Just ask Bart Ryan of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where a new exhibit opens Saturday to explore why.
"You can picture, you can visualize it, you can feel it, and sort of understand it, but there is this real sense of discomfort about going back there," Ryan said. "Even though there is a lot we love about the 80s there is a lot about it we didn't."
Ryan is the coordinating curator for "This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s." The show was put together by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, but it's Ryan's job to install it in Minneapolis.
There is an astonishing variety of material around the Walker, with the work of more than 90 artists represented. There are photographs, sculptures, videos, drawings and paintings. They range from some of the controversial nudes of Robert Mapplethorpe's and Jeff Koons' stainless steel rabbit, to advertisements altered to make a political statement.
The artists of the 1980s make a point by mixing the corporate and the political. The show includes images of Ronald Reagan and street protests, Andy Warhol and the Marlboro man.
Ryan describes its as a monumental time.
"Because you have all of these social forces sort of butting up against each other," he said.
The Reagan era brought new prosperity to many people, and an end to the counter culture born in the 1960s, Ryan said. The mass media took on an ever more powerful cultural importance. Early evidence of globalization began to appear.
It was also a time when art really hit the street, through graffiti of artists like Keith Haring, and in less obvious ways.
Ryan stands near to a huge metal cutout of a familiar-looking man's head. Is that the Rev. Jesse Jackson? But he's white.
"He has nice blue eyes, the same color as his suit and blond hair," Ryan said. "And he is looking out at us and there is a kind of graffiti signature on his suit which reads 'How ya like me now?' like someone has just come along and graffiti-ed the piece."
Originally the artist displayed on a street in Washington, D.C.
"And actually a number of youth came along and saw it, African American youth, and found it very offensive and attacked it with sledgehammers," Ryan said.
The hammer marks are now part of the piece, which is also protected by a guard rope, strung between the handles of sledgehammers.
The 80s were also a time of appropriation — artists taking work done by others, adapting it, sometimes only minimally, and then presenting it as their own commentary on the world. It scandalized the old guard.
And then there was identity art: the demand for recognition for people underrepresented in the media: woman, racial and ethnic minorities, the gay and lesbian community.
On top of that was a new and terrifying tide of HIV and AIDS on the rise.
"You have artists at very desperate times in their lives trying to come to terms with what was happening," Ryan said.
Music from the soundtrack of photographer Nan Goldin's "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" floats through the galleries. It's a slideshow of pictures of the loosely knit group of New Yorkers which became her de facto family in the 80s. Many of them are no longer alive, Ryan said, a sad fact true of many of the artists whose work is on display. He said the exhibit has a thematic continuity which links the 1980s to today.
"I mean the show is called 'This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s' And those three words, art, love and politics, I think are just fundamental words to think today about in our current climate politically," Ryan said. "I think there is a lot of humor in this show, and a lot of beauty in this show, but it's a very serious show."
Even those ambivalent about the 80s have to admit there are lessons to be learned.