PhD Oral Exam - Stephen Lyons, Art History
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
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 development of new forms of artists’ self-organization—from small-scale counter-institutions to artist-run agencies and publishing ventures—this thesis focuses on an overlooked phase in New York’s art history. Each chapter examines an identity crisis that began to emerge when the first wave of alternative art institutions formed at the beginning of the 1970s was confronted by a second wave that set out 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), variably railed against the bureaucratization of existing alternative spaces (Chapter One), the continued exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities (Chapter Two), the widespread refusal of artists to engage in radical politics (Chapter Three), and the complicity of alternative spaces in gentrification and displacement (Chapter Four). By examining how conflicting positions and ideals coexisted during a short period of time, this study exposes the “alternative” as a site of contestation—an unstable keyword struggled over in art discourse and practice. More broadly, this thesis recovers 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,” charting 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.