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For this essay, you are asked to consider whether or not the late-70s / 1980s return to recognizable imagery in postmodern and post-Modernist art was indeed public-friendly. Or did it follow the pattern that Steinberg observes? Can we say that this art “invit[es] us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish, while the positive cause, for the sake of which the sacrifices are made, is rarely made clear”?

In “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public,” Leo Steinberg describes the plight that any new art creates for all of its viewers—art professionals and uneducated bystanders alike. Steinberg writes: Contemporary art is constantly inviting us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish, while the positive cause, for the sake of which the sacrifices are made, is rarely made clear. So that the sacrifices appear as acts of demolition, or of dismantling, without any motive…. (Steinberg, 10) Steinberg argues that the phenomena of shock and outraged response recur: each new art innovation temporarily exasperates the public. In the 1950s and 1960s contemporary artists astonished audiences with seemingly absurd and perturbing tactics like incorporating junk in artworks, vandalizing valuable musical instruments, using their own bodies as material, etc. At the end of the 1970s, postmodern and post-Modernist artists returned to recognizable imagery, something that had disappeared from advanced art. Wasn’t this return to imagery friendly to the public? Could the new work be called “contemporary” art if it did not disturb the public? For this essay, you are asked to consider whether or not the late-70s / 1980s return to recognizable imagery in postmodern and post-Modernist art was indeed public-friendly. Or did it follow the pattern that Steinberg observes? Can we say that this art “invit[es] us to applaud the destruction of values which we still cherish, while the positive cause, for the sake of which the sacrifices are made, is rarely made clear”? This is an expository essay. That means you must take a position on the issue. Whatever position you take, you must justify it in a logical argument backed up by evidence taken from three artworks. This paper is an opportunity to argue your position by thoughtfully selecting and strategically discussing artworks. Your essay must begin with a fully elaborated thesis paragraph in which you introduce the question, state your position, and detail exactly what you will discuss in order to prove your argument. Choose three artworks: You may write about artists presented in class, but not the specific artworks shown in class.* You must choose three different artists: for any given artist, write about only one work. The date of the works is crucial. DO NOT write about works made before the late 1970s or after the 1980s! The controversy over the return to recognizable imagery does not begin before the end of the 70s, and it is resolved by the end of the 80s. If you are not certain whether a work is suitable for your essay, email me a jpeg well before you intend to write the paper. Assume it will take 24 hours for me to respond to email. *You cannot write about any of the photographs in Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980) and Centerfolds/Horizontals (1981) series. (She made many more works in the 1980s to choose from.) Likewise, you cannot write about Longo’s Men in the Cities series. 1 This is not a research paper. You don’t need to do in-depth research into the artworks. Just make sure that you know the facts. Be certain to reread Steinberg’s essay before beginning to outline your paper. You should review your lecture notes on the return to recognizable imagery, parts I and II, and on activist art in 1980s New York. You must acknowledge any and all sources that you quote or paraphrase. Write proper footnotes or endnotes to acknowledge the ideas and quotations you have borrowed from other authors. A complete bibliography is required. Use whichever style you want (Chicago, MLA, etc).

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