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By Patrick J. Kiger

Compared to the 1980s, in which the Postmodernist movement rejected the idea of overriding truth and maintained that individual interpretation was the only thing that mattered, the cultural world of the 1990s had a lot less drama. But it was still a period in which the visual and performing arts, literature and architecture produced creative works that reflected the sweeping changes occurring in the society around it.

In contrast to the 1980s art world, which painters created big, brash works and socialized with celebrities, 1990s artists tended to create less ostentatious pieces that focused upon ordinary people and everyday life. Sculptor Nari Ward, for example, built large installations, utilizing various items found in his New York neighborhood, as a way of exploring social issues such as poverty, race and consumer culture. The spread of the Internet and the global connections that it fostered helped inspire a 1990s art movement, Relational Aesthetics, in which artists created multimedia pieces that aimed to foster interactions among their viewers.

On the live stage, 1990s playwrights grappled with important social issues. A prime example was Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which debuted on Broadway in 1993 and focused upon the AIDS crisis. Another much-heralded play was Jonathan Larsen’s Rent, a 1996 musical inspired by Puccini’s La Boheme, which explored the travails of struggling artists, bohemians and drug users in contemporary New York.

Literature in the 1990s also tried to make sense of the seismic shifts that were taking place in America. Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X focused attention on the rising generation born in the late 1960s and 1970s, and how their view of reality differed from the older Baby Boomers. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 memoir Prozac Nation created a vivid and disturbing picture of teenage girls’ struggle with depression. Chuck Palahniuk’s hyperbolic, disturbing 1996 novel Fight Club explored the loneliness and disillusionment of the corporate worker-consumer lifestyle, by imagining a secret club in which similarly lost souls pummel one another to find a sense of belonging.

In architectural design, perhaps the most important development was the rise of “Green Architecture,” a movement focused upon creating structures that had a minimal environmental impact and blended into their surroundings.


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