How The 80s Changed The Art World

Back To The Eighties

how the 1980s changed the art world blog cover image
A decade of technology, new art forms, and neon leg warmers...

The 1980s was a decade of questionable fashion, global change and technical innovation, all of which greatly influenced the way art was created. Art became less traditional as technology advanced and artists began experimenting with new materials, tools, and techniques, all while venturing on to the path of creating entirely new art movements that would become symbolic of a decade that would also give us the Rubik's Cube and neon leg warmers.

This time…

This time, we explore how the 1980s changed the way we produced, purchased, viewed, and even thought about art. We also explore how the technological advances of the 80s influenced the art world and how the decade inspired a legion of young artists.  We also take a look at the brand new art movements that began at the very same time that Hill Street Blues, Dallas, and Miami Vice were showing on TV in the days before we had reruns and inferior remakes.

Whether you are anchored in the traditional practice of creating art using a brush and canvas or you are a digital artist pushing and pulling pixels, the 1980s had been a pivotal moment for the art world, even if those of us who lived through the decade hadn’t realised it at the time.

If you create art in the 21st Century, it’s fair to say that how you create, view and sell your work today owes a great deal to the disruption that technology and creativity was responsible for during that neon decade of mass consumerism, consumption, and a thirst to find out what was next. So, we’re heading back to the 1980s to find out what exactly went on.

art print juxtaposition of 1980s toys and technology with an ice cream van
That Was The Eighties By Mark Taylor

A Rose Tinted Decade…

I was born in 1969, not long after the moon landing. My recollection of the 1970s is a rose tinted history of reading the Disneyland Annual, the hot summer of 1976, a picnic on the school sports field to celebrate the Queens Jubilee in 1977, and the Atari VCS and for me, that was the beginning of my lifelong affiliation to all things tech, and quite bizarrely, my lifelong addiction to creating art.

By the 1980s, affordable home computers were widely available and even if those computers were mostly being used by the kids to play early video games, the inadvertent and almost subtle exposure to art that by proxy of the ephemera that came with them would provide, couldn’t be ignored. As a child, I had no idea just how much the art that accompanied the marketing materials was influencing me to set out on a creative career path.

The Atari VCS, an early (but not the earliest) video game console, was strangely one of the inspirations that pointed me towards a career in the arts. The artwork adorning the boxes that held the game cartridges was incredibly powerful, but more than that, these images perfectly summed up the power of illustration and its ability to say the same thing in any language without using words. It was an almost perfect demonstration of how art could be effectively used in marketing campaigns to tell the back story quickly and form a deep connection with the buyer.

At the time, I hadn’t quite pieced together how or why the style of the art used in the packaging could carry so much influence when it came to selecting new games. It was bold, colourful, and full of imagination, but more than that, there was a consistency in the packaging and the design. As a child, it just looked very cool. As a professional artist reflecting on the period, it was a masterclass in design.

When you made the pilgrimage to the video games store you would be met with a display of titles that would spark any youngsters imagination. It wasn’t until many years later that I recognised the design and style choices used for the boxes had been an act of savvy marketing that felt very different to anything that had come before.

Looking back now, we can see that the original Atari 2600 game boxes had been a masterclass in creating brand recognition. Atari’s logo, sometimes called the Fuji logo is still an iconic image today and instantly recognisable, even to those who didn’t grow up through the Atari generation.

Created by George Opperman, Atari’s very first full time graphic designer, the logo was designed to represent the letter A, created in a way that represented two players competing on the video game, Pong. The advertising executives who designed the marketing campaigns understood that focussing on building strong brand identity should be front and centre of their design choices and so they masterfully crafted designs that felt almost futuristic, yet today remain timeless.

The boxes used a recognisable font called "Harry" and artwork which told the story of the game inside. This made them visually appealing and helped to create a consistent look for the Atari 2600 brand, the same principles were followed throughout the marketing campaigns of a number of their subsequent products. As a result, the boxes almost begged you to collect them all. People didn’t play video games, they played Atari, and that was the confirmation the designers and marketers needed to confirm Atari’s dominant position as number one.

This consistency of design also made it feel like everyone who bought into Atari was part of something bigger. It created a sense of community among gamers who knew that they were all sharing the same experience, and the visual appeal of the packaging meant that the products lent themselves to being collectible even though millions of units had been sold. The downside, the 80s was a decade of consumerism and it was disposable. Collectible or not, these boxes would usually end up in the trash, leaving the games to gather dust on the shelves inadvertently leading to everyone who owned a game console to blow the dust of the cartridges when they didn’t work.

As an artist, I’m not sure I have ever found a better way to understand the importance of telling a story in your work than through studying period specific video game ephemera and box art, especially from the 80s and early 90s.

Art played a pivotal role in early video games marketing, with game boxes often including physical items such as maps, user manuals, and in some cases, even full length books which would provide you with the back story to the game. 

Again, it was another marketing masterstroke for the time, it meant that something that was primarily  a mix of a plastic case and a digital file on a silicon chip, also came with something that was tactile, even useful, to the extent that the ephemera included in the package was often what made the product more desirable than the game it contained. I lost count of the number of games I collected on the premise that the included feelies represented way better value than anything else on the shelf.

art print of boy riding a bicycle in the 1980s
Time To Go Home by Mark Taylor

The Dawn of New Processes and the Advent of Print…

Most of the artwork produced for marketing at the time would have been airbrushed or even sketched by hand, digital mediums had yet to fully evolve and we were nowhere close to being able to create anything that we would take for granted today. 80s art had quite a distinctive look, not only were creative processes different from today, printing processes were very different too.

In the 1980s, colour printing was much more expensive than it is today, it was more difficult to print complex designs with multiple colours, although the likes of Mattel and Hasbro would use more expensive bright and colourful packaging to appeal to children. Using fewer colours made the printing process simpler and much less expensive, but there was also an upside to using a limited colour palette, it lent itself to creating strong brand identity, a design choice that is still used today.

From advertisements for the local supermarket to product packaging, everything had historically been created by the hands of traditional artists who had far fewer tools than we do today, which kind of proves that it is possible to create art with almost anything. Paints and pigments were also less advanced during the 80s than they are today, yet the designs created during the eighties across all sorts of packaging still remain iconic to this day.

It really is a testament to the skills of the many artists who would become involved across a very young industry, especially when you consider the limitations they were working with. There was no internet to influence an artists creativity so everything felt arguably more original than it does today, and also arguably, it was maybe a time when artists still had to think deeply about creating something unique.

Today, creating art has become comparatively easier, we have the tools but we’re often blinkered by some level of digital influence. Be it following a trend that attracts likes and followers or remaining in the comfort zone of a safe demographic, and I think that really does take a lot of the creative uniqueness away from the art world.

Who needs an artist…

When we look back at the technology, computer, and video games industries, there was no clear path for traditional artists to play a role, at least initially. Most artists at the time would have been working in other creative areas or would have already have become established artists, often working on project after project anonymously and then falling into the industry almost by accident rather than seeking the industry out as a vocation that they could anchor their creative skills within.  

Artists such as Oliver Frey, Cliff Spohn, Steve Hendrickson, and Susan Jaekel had been amongst the early pioneers in creating marketing materials and artwork for the industry, each of these already had a remarkable talent and a level of artistic provenance. The industry attracted relatively new artists too, some would join the industry perhaps accidently, some through helping out a friend of a friend, it was an industry that was simply too young to realise that it needed artists, yet artists would become pivotal in the marketing efforts that would eventually make the video game industry financially more valuable than Hollywood.

Many of those original artists who had worked on the ephemera and marketing materials used throughout the industry have long since established cult followings for their work especially amongst video game and popular culture collectors. Much of their work today is highly regarded and sought after within the industry and by collectors. Today, their artistic styles are often replicated, but I often get the sense that those original artists are not celebrated anywhere near enough.

It is only relatively recently that some of their work is finally being seen as collectible, not just for it’s artistic style but also for what the work represented during the 1980s, and it’s becoming increasingly more challenging to find any of their original works, some of which probably won’t have even made it to the 90s. The eighties was, amongst other things, a disposable decade.

What ephemera hadn’t been thrown away during the 80s was extremely affordable up until around 2013, around 2010 it was literally being given away. Since then there has been a steady increase in value, and it remains just about affordable to collect right now, but values are escalating and it might not be quite so affordable for much longer because of a recent new focus on retro and preservation amongst collectors. Of course that collector bubble could burst, but the sweet spot for collectible years at the moment seems to be any ephemera created between 1977 and 1986, especially when it comes to VHS video cassette tapes.

It’s often cited by key industry insiders who had been involved with the industry at the time, that most of what was produced in the early 80s was thrown away when the next new thing came along. For todays collectors, thankfully a lot of what was produced had been produced in high volumes, so it’s not always especially rare whenever you do come across items from the 80s, but what still exists usually ends up in private collections which reduces the overall supply.

Back in the 80s, as a society, we had no real concept of preservation, neither did we have the technology that makes preservation quite as easy as it is today.  Even those who had been pivotal in building technology empires during the early part of the decade have since admitted they had thought that this new wave of technology would be just a passing phase, and there was no compelling reason to save or preserve things. Attitudes were very different, this was as much the golden age of making a fast buck as it was the golden age of technology.

boy on bike in the 1980s with rain
Riding in the Rain by Mark Taylor

Art began to shape product marketing…

Many of those original artists who had suddenly found themselves in this very new and unfamiliar tech-industry brought something fresh to what for a while had been a very narrow niche. They also introduced art to an audience who perhaps wouldn’t have considered themselves as being previously appreciative of art, but there was just something very different about box art and the ephemera that accompanied many of the products.

It wasn’t  just games, even the instructions for the latest kitchen appliance would have had hand-drawn illustrations, but the stories that were being told through the art that accompanied video games appealed to the younger generation and had massive appeal to inquisitive young minds who had mostly enjoyed the wave of B movie sci-fi during the 70s.

The art had to convey a story, it had to appeal to a specific demographic, yet a lot of the marketing strategies from these new industries were having to be made up on the fly as the industry expanded. I think there was some element of the industry being taken by surprise at its rapid growth.

The illustrations and art that would appear on marketing materials at the time appealed to young people for a variety of reasons. It was colourful, vibrant, dynamic, exciting, aspirational, and then it would be placed front and centre in a social setting. If you need art to appeal to the TikTok generations of today, that’s still kind of the recipe for success that you need to follow.

Despite a lack of experience across the industry in marketing this entirely new technology, the successful manufacturers and publishers very soon came to understand that art can connect with people on a deep level, just as it has with traditional art forms for centuries. They embraced this principle, creating vibrant and dynamic art that appealed and resonated with those they wanted to reach.

There were no huge, or even accessible data-sets that could be mined to figure out who would be more likely to buy into any of this stuff, neither was there any sense of just how big the technology monster would become, and even above this,  there were simply no rule books that set out how to do any of this which led to even more innovation and a lot of what we take for granted today has roots back to these almost experimental marketing campaigns.

Retailers and manufacturers only began to introduce what we would know today as loyalty schemes, in the early 90s. Prior to this, loyalty schemes had mostly been about rewarding buyers with something like Green Sheild Stamps, collect enough stamps and trade them in for a gift, and some retailers would hand out more stamps then others which meant that buyers would be more likely to shop at one store over another.

By the early 90s, the schemes and developed into mass data gathering tools that would allow retailers to identify not just shopping habits, but also people and they began to realise that by piecing together this data they could better understand what else connected a person to a product.

The technologists, the programmers, the scientists, the manufacturers, the publishers, and let’s not forget the artists, whatever product they were working on at the time, were unknowingly the pioneers of the modern technology industry that we know today but they were also pioneering a lot of what we see today beyond the world of technology. They were writing the book on how to connect a product with a person, they were learning how to influence before the world had an influencer around every corner, they were creating something that modern day marketing campaigns owe a great deal to.

art print of juxtaposition of 1980s and 1990s technology
The Retro Hoarder by Mark Taylor

Marketing Got Smart and Technology Invaded The Home…

It was, as Bob Ross would say, an happy little accident that the industry grew into what it has become today.  In the 1960s and 1970s, unless you had been using mainframe computers in school or tended to live your life in a lab, the very idea that computers could actually be useful in the home would have been a completely alien concept. But by the 1980s, things had changed, technology had advanced and it was miniaturised to the point that it was finally affordable enough to be brought out of the lab and into the front room.

The next problem to overcome would be to figure out how and who these boxes of silicone would be sold to. Some of the early manufacturers would bundle a recipe program that would allow you to maintain a small database of cookery ingredients, others would appeal to time-poor executives and bundle rudimentary accounting programs into the box, and the savvier ones, well, they realised that they could appeal to children by bundling in brightly coloured game boxes that promised hours of interactive fun.  They literally threw everything at the wall and surprisingly, everything stuck.

The even savvier one’s would also bundle in education software that would appeal to the parents of the children who really just wanted to play games, and some of those manufacturers would also target schools to drive forward the concept that computing would be the next big thing and they should be placing computer science on the curriculum. That alone ensured that schools would be continuously buying the technology, but the manufacturers had probably miscalculated that a schools typically low level of funding wouldn’t always stretch to an upgrade down the line.

Given that there were no rule books, no precedent, and no historic references that could be consulted, collectively, maybe a little by accident, the technology industry had come up with a genius marketing plan but the competition was growing and companies, manufacturers, retailers and publishers knew that they would need to stand out.

It was big business, but the cake wasn’t quite big enough to feed everyone. One of the more recent historic studies determined that more than 500 companies had entered the same space during the early 80s, all selling broadly similar things, indeed, some were selling the same thing or an exact bootleg copy of it.

With an industry in it’s infancy, a lack of consumer confidence in the quality of what was being sold, the general lack of knowledge from the public as to how these technical things worked and little to no concept of  how and why they could be useful, the market became flooded and many of the original companies folded just as quickly as they had arrived.

Those who remained had to think differently. They had to address the quality control issues and they had to show people how the technology could make their lives better. They also had to work on the marketing materials which for a while in the late 70s and very early 80s was often created with a typewriter and a few badly drawn sketches.

A cover and instructions for some of the early video games and computer programs was often little more than a photocopied piece of paper, typed out on a manual typewriter together with very simple illustrations. The photocopy would be inserted into a polythene bag alongside a floppy disk or cassette tape and that was essentially how early software which had often been created by a single person writing code would be sold. The issue here was that any retailer taking on stock had the problem that no matter how they displayed the goods, everything looked the same.

Publishers quickly realised that in order for their product to sell they would need to create packaging that appealed to those who owned or who were thinking of buying a computer, and so they began to work on ever-more elaborate designs.

The packaging had to quickly tell a story, appeal to the target audience, and more importantly, it had to look better than anything else on the same shelf. For some, better also meant bigger and retailers were happy to display huge boxes containing all sorts of ephemera and instructions. This is something that rarely happens today, everything has to be an exact size, the smaller the better, so the artwork and illustrations that are used in product packaging today have become massively more critical to making the product stand out.

Today, retailers demand uniform, industry standard sizing that means you can fit an exact number of products onto a shelf and more if possible. Redundant shelf space from the big box products as seen throughout the 80s and 90 is now viewed as lost profit and logistics and supply chains work on volumetric controls because no one wants to pay to ship air. Environmentally, we have moved on since the 80s and 90s, but the principles of using art within packaging design which had been first used throughout the 80s are still very much evident today.

Artwork of cassette tape and cassette players
Magnetic Memories by Mark Taylor

You had to judge the book by the cover…

The 80s was the time when the cover really did sell the book and anything else. Buying decisions would be made based solely on how excited you were from the art on the cover of a game, on the side of an arcade cabinet, or on any other product packaging that needed to convince the buyer to part with their cash.

With little information available other than whatever had been written in physical magazines or by word of mouth, and with no such thing as online reviews, the artwork used in the packaging and marketing materials had to resonate with the target audience who would be browsing a flooded market. Today, internet hype and a well financed marketing campaign seem to be enough to make the case for a sale for most things, and as I have always said, even the bad stuff sells with the right marketing strategy and enough advertising budget behind it.

The 1980s, The Birthplace of Affordable Technology and Modern Day Marketing…

As we reflect more on the 1980s, we begin to realise how attitudes to art and design would begin to re-shape the art world as we know it today. It inspired many who grew up during that decade to appreciate art more deeply, even if that initial introduction had been subconsciously made through something as simple as a video game box, or the cover of the  video you’re your parents had rented from the local video store.

Many of the early technologies that had emerged during the eighties such as computer graphics and video art, are now essential tools for artists. The art world and technical innovations we witnessed throughout the decade began to change the way artists approached their creations, they no longer had to be confined by the edges of the canvas, they could create a fully immersive environment and comparatively very quickly. It was a complete step change to what had been widely available and done before.

A new art movement seemed like it was created every 4.7 minutes…

Aside from the technology, entirely new art movements had been created throughout the decade and many of them nodded to technology or the mass consumerism we were witnessing at the time.

Neo-Expressionism was a reaction against the Minimalism and Conceptualism of the 1970s with Neo-Expressionist artists returning to figurative painting and sculpture, often using bold colours and expressive brushstrokes. Works created by Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are the standouts.

The Pictures Generation was a lose-knit group of artists who emerged in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were interested in appropriating images from popular culture and using them in their work. Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Laurie Simmons, and Barbara Kruger were amongst many artists who were influenced by a number of factors, including the rise of mass media and consumerism, the development of postmodern theory, and the work of earlier artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.

Street Art began to evolve as a significant art movement in the 1980s too and it was perhaps one of the most disruptive art movements to emerge. Using public spaces to create their work, often a juxtaposition of graffiti, murals, and stencils, we witnessed the likes of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Banksy quite literally turning what would have once been seen as vandalism into highly prized works of art that are now as sought after as the old masters.

Neo-Pop was a revival of Pop Art that had been the standout movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Neo-Pop artists used images from popular culture in their work, but they often did so in a more ironic or subversive way than Pop artists had in the 50s and 60s. Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol explored the relationship between high art and low art, and they often used their work to comment on consumerism, celebrity culture, and other aspects of contemporary society

Often characterised by its use of bright colours, bold imagery, and mass-produced materials, Neo-Pop artists often appropriated images from advertising, magazines, and television, challenging the traditional notions of beauty and taste.

Young British Artists (YBAs) was a group of artists who had emerged in the United Kingdom in the late 1980s. They were known for their provocative and often shocking work. Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Sarah Lucas have all become household names since.

Yet another that had been influenced by mass media and consumerism, the YBAs' style is often replicated today. But the movement's impact was rooted in its shock value. Attempts to recreate that shock today generally miss the point. Mostly, these new movements had arisen out of the popularity of the new technologies that had been rapidly evolving during the early part of the decade.

By the end of the decade, the technology had to have a significant impact on the art world. Both video art and computer art became increasingly popular throughout the 80s and by 1989, these explorations in the new media would be legitimised as valid art forms.

Artists such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill used video to explore themes of identity, memory, and perception. Artists such as Charles Baudelaire and Jenny Holzer used computers to create new forms of art, such as digital prints and video installations, yet less than a decade prior, art had been mostly talked about in a more traditional sense. It had been a sculpture or canvas, the concept of it being completely created with the aid of technology hadn't even been contemplated as something that would become mainstream so quickly.

artwork depicting joysticks from the 80s and 90s
The Joy of Sticks by Mark Taylor

Then the walls began to tumble…

It wasn’t just the Berlin Wall that came tumbling down in the 80s, and despite the developments in technology and art movements other factors began to affect the markets. While there was a  growing interest in feminist art, conceptual art, and postmodernism, there were also some sticky moments that led to art buyers losing significant amounts of money.

It wasn’t so much that there was a legitimate art market crash, it was more akin to an art market correction, something the industry witnesses periodically, but this time it was different.  The 1980's had seen a flood of incoming money from Wall Street, the Japanese Yen was strong, and auction houses were aggressive with their pricing to take advantage of the seemingly surplus wealth.

19th and 20th Century paintings had been attracting big money buyers, and the practice of speculating on the next big thing and then flipping it on to the next buyer for a healthy profit was very much the order of the day. The return on any investment was often significantly better than even the banks or stocks had been paying. The 80s was amongst everything else, one of the most money obsessed decades ever seen and the young, upwardly mobile had speculated hard and bet big.

If you were selling major works that were on collectors wish lists in the early to mid 80s, there really were no upper limits to the value of these works. The world was generating more billionaires than millionaires and no one seriously thought that the bubble would ever burst, but burst it did.

Wall Street traders thought they were untouchable, or at least they did until the 19th of October 1987, a Monday morning that would later be known as Black Monday. This was the day when the financial walls of Wall Street would come tumbling down, hard and fast.

Post-crash, the economy slowed and showed little to no signs of a speedy recovery. About 20% of the impressionist and modern works previously in demand had failed to sell through the big auction houses, a turning point that would initially send a shiver through the bones of art collectors around the world, but art is a long game and serious collectors knew what the speculators didn’t.

At the start of the 80s, art collectors had been largely outnumbered by speculators who had no real interest in the work, their interest extended only to the monetary value of the work. When Wall Street crashed, those who had placed their wealth in the game simply to make a fast buck found themselves mostly burnt.

The fallout from this is that the art world suddenly had fewer speculators, art prices once again began reversing back to near normal values that were somewhere closer to being realistic, and the art market began to heal from the frantic trading that had been happening for a number of years. Thankfully, for serious collectors, the market would begin to go through a process and period of correction, although the journey to that correction had left behind many casualties.

The art market depression continued between 1988 and it would be 1992 before any new shoots would emerge that would indicate it’s eventual recovery, the global nature of the art market would see the industry recover more quickly than other industries, such is the resilience of the art world.

There was then a period of gradually increasing values placed on artwork between 1993 and 1995, but by 1996, the market was once again buoyant and artworks began reaching record highs. A stark contrast from the historic lows of the previous years since 87.

artwork featuring old computer cables
Connected by Mark Taylor

The foundations of the future…

The eighties, for some of us at least, seems like it was only five minutes ago, but it wasn’t. I’m regularly reminded that the technology I bought back then and still use today is mostly functioning with the assistance of thoughts and prayers and a constant supply of old electronic components which are becoming more difficult to source.

But, even today it’s difficult not to see the influence and impact that the 80s had on modern day life, especially when you look at technology, and the crash and subsequent market correction between 1987 and 1996, serving as a reminder that art, like any other commodity that can be traded, is as susceptible and volatile as any other investment.

The value of art might have been more volatile during the late 80s, but that didn’t stop artists from pushing the creativity needle forward. It was technologies turn once again to disrupt the norm. It was during this period that creative communities would begin to look for new ways to engage with their audiences. While the internet did not exist in its current form at the time, early online communities were formed on bulletin boards that could be accessed using a personal computer, a telephone, and a device called an acoustic coupler.

This was essentially a precursor to the internet and it allowed people to communicate and share information with each other in a way that had never been possible outside of the military and academia before. Now, when I say share information, the information was often the latest text adventure game for a home computer such as the Commodore 64, but this rudimentary online access allowed real-life communities to incubate and share their thoughts and their work.

Almost any information you find on the internet today could be found somewhere in the world of bulletin boards throughout the 80s and early 90s, you just had to know where to look, and if you didn’t know where to look, you would quickly hear of online communities through word of mouth and user groups.

Out of these communities, various scenes would begin to take a foothold, often with groups collaborating on projects from around the world. Art and creativity had stepped into the next phase, despite the turbulent years in between.

Some of these communities were interested in the convergence of technology and art so they would create technical demos that would demonstrate their skills and create content that would appeal to broader audiences. These demo’s would frequently feature home brewed art and music created digitally by these usually small community groups.

Most, if not nearly all of these demo’s can still be viewed and seen today either through emulation or on YouTube. Second Reality, a demo created in around 1993 was celebrated at the time for bringing digital and video art to life with its ground-breaking technical effects, the likes of which were incredibly difficult to achieve when it first came out. Many of these demo groups had names, in the case of Second Reality, the group was called Demoparty who had entered Second Reality into an early PC demo competition.

The effects within that demo hadn’t been seen before, certainly not in a manner that presented such a seamless visual experience, and certainly not using a computer to generate the effects. With its bouncing polyhedron, Moiré patterns, demonic like rotating head, plasma effects, and more, and a soundtrack that would later used in commercial recordings, the demo scene had arrived and visual arts would once again deliver a change in the way we produce, create and think about art.

The demo scene at the time was ground-breaking in geek culture but it was also quite niche in that access was restricted to those who had an interest in technology and the means to access it. Yet, the scene had a significant impact on, and influenced the art world as we know it today in a number of ways. It pioneered the use of these new technologies despite those technologies being limited, the scene was as much about pushing creative and computational boundaries beyond what people had previously thought was possible.

The scene also inspired a new generation of artists, many of whom would go on to achieve major success in the art world for their creative and immersive projects that challenged traditional notions of what art could be. Other demo artists never really left the scene and continued creating demo’s on what are now vintage systems and others began creating demo’s on systems that were much more current.

Many of the artists who stuck around are still developing demos today, continuing to push old technologies beyond anything they were originally designed to do. A number of these demo artists continue to do great things and frequently come up with creative projects that have never been thought of, let alone done before, yet very few of them are widely known outside of the demo scene which is a monumental shame, and more so, because their work often inspires others to create similar works which others then get the recognition for.

Thankfully, even if you don’t have an easily accessible way to watch and listen to some of these demos, most of them end up on services such as YouTube where they can be viewed. The files are usually made freely available for those who continue to use old technologies, and there are emulators for these systems which can be loaded on to a home computer or even a Raspberry Pi. There’s no excuse not to take a look, and especially if you are into art that provokes conversation and thinking, or you’re into just plain old weird. Some of these demos can be a little out there, which is really the point of art, it doesn’t have to be all petals and landscapes, weird is really good too! These demos really should be celebrated and I think that they are worthy of opening up a new conversation around what art is, and should be.

artwork of a drawer containing vintage technology
The Retro Junk Drawer by Mark Taylor

The 80s was a monumental decade…

For art, and technology, the 80’s wasn’t just a bold decade of neon colours and excess, it was transformative in so many ways. There’s little doubt that the art world changed as a result of many of the artists who throughout the 80s would create work that really pushed the boundaries of anything that came before.

Artists throughout the 80s weren’t afraid of going there in terms of subjects that would have once been avoided, and then they embraced the technology, even though that technology, by today’s standards, was limited.

It was a challenging decade because everyone was kind of just making it up as they went along. There were no rule books, maybe some heavy text from a university lab, but remember this was also pre-internet and there was no such thing as a Dummies guide. The world was much smaller and to some extent, I think that was in part something that led artists to find their own inner creative souls, there was no point of reference that was easily accessible which could easily influence an artists hand.

There were other innovations and inventions that helped to define the 80s, many have been and gone but even those that are no longer used today had been pivotal in defining how we use technology today, and as artists, how we create our work.

  • Compact discs: CDs were first introduced in 1982, and they quickly became the dominant format for music distribution. CDs offered superior sound quality to vinyl records and cassette tapes, and they were also more durable and portable. Beyond music, CDs were used to store significant amounts of data, but more importantly, it would store this data at a much lower cost than had ever been possible before.  Your first hooky copy of Photoshop probably came on CD, and your first copy of Encarta or Encyclopaedia Britannica certainly would have.

  • Mobile phones: The first mobile phone was invented in 1973, but it wasn't until the 1980s that mobile phones became widely available. In 1983, Motorola released the DynaTAC 8000X, which was the first handheld mobile phone. Mobile phones became increasingly popular throughout the decade, and by the end of the 80s, there were over 10 million mobile phone subscribers worldwide. Today, we use them to live out our lives, run our businesses, tether them to a card payment device so we can sell our art, and allegedly, influencers on social media use them to feel good about themselves and be the best version of you (them, you know what I mean), which is a thing we definitely didn’t have in the 80s.

  • Video games: The video game industry exploded in the 1980s, with the release of popular consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Genesis, but the concept of home computing and it’s accessibility to businesses built the real foundations for the platforms and systems we see and use today.

 Video games became a popular form of entertainment for people of all ages, but they also helped to promote and gently introduce  new technologies such as computer graphics and artificial intelligence, and to some extent, the creation of interactive environments and massively improved in-game art has in itself become an art form.

Without those early pioneers creating video games, the development of Ai would certainly have stalled. These systems  provided a new platform for AI research and development and early video games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man used simple AI algorithms to control the non-player characters (NPCs). As video games became more complex, so too did the AI algorithms used to control the NPCs.

You also have the video games industry to thank (or blame) for providing the original funding for Ai research. In the 1980s, the video game industry was one of the fastest-growing industries in the world which led to a significant increase in investment in AI research, both from within the video game industry and from outside sources.

  • World Wide Web: The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 who had created the system of interlinked hypertext documents that are accessed via the Internet. This had a major influence on the art market becoming more accessible to more people, it democratized art and pretty much sealed the fate of many of the pre-internet-era gatekeepers to the art market.
artwork of joystick interface and joystick
Up, Down, Left, Left, Right, by Mark Taylor

Notable Events that changed the Art World…

  • The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City held a major exhibition of Neo-Expressionism in 1981.
  • The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) opened its doors in 1986.
  • The first Venice Biennale to feature video art was held in 1986.
  • The AIDS epidemic had a significant impact on the art world during the 1980s. A number of artists sadly died from AIDS, and many others created work that addressed the epidemic.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to increased cultural exchange between East and West Germany.

It wasn’t just the 80s…

I’m writing this as if the 1980s had been pivotal in completely shaping the lives we live today, and to some extent, certainly when it comes to technology and art, the 80s did play a significant role in shaping the way we live now. But other decades had a similar role to play in shaping the 1980s.

The concept of much of what came out of the 1980s had been played out for decades previously, digital art had been created as far back as 1952, Oscillon 40, created by American mathematician Ben Laposky is considered the first truly digital artwork, although I suspect it wasn’t his first attempt. Laposky used an oscilloscope to manipulate electronic signals and photograph them in the shape of waves.

Another early example of digital art is Hommage à Paul Klee 13/9/65 Nr. 2, created by German artist Frieder Nake in 1965. Nake used a computer algorithm to generate a series of abstract drawings, a very early pre-cursor to modern day Ai.

These early works of digital art were created using a variety of different techniques, but they all shared one common feature: they were created using computers. This made them fundamentally different from traditional art forms, such as painting and sculpture but it wouldn’t be until the 1980s that some of the new artforms would be legitimised as valid artworks, today these works for some collectors are as sought after as an original Old Master is to a traditional collector of fine art.

artwork of retro computer peripherals
20 GOTO 10 RUN by Mark Taylor

How did the 80s legitimise these new art forms?

Computers became accessible and affordable which made it possible for more people to experiment with these new media technologies, As the interest grew around computing, new software tools were created, not always specifically to create art, but to encourage people to buy into the concept of how computers could be used for things that had only ever been confined to laboratory environments and universities.

The emergence of digital art exhibitions and dedicated galleries had been established in the 1980s, introducing the new media artforms to a much wider audience than ever before. Those who had been creating technical demos would also contribute to raising the profile and awareness of computers and technology being used in art.

At the same time, a growing number of established and well-respected art critics and curators developed an interest in the works being produced at the time. This was even more evident with the establishment of the SIGGRAPH Art Show which took place in 1986. This was the first major exhibition of digital art.

The 1993 publication of the book "Art in the Electronic Age" by Frank Popper was one of the first major studies of digital art. By the mid-90s, the technical advances had really begun to disrupt the traditional art markets allowing traditional artists who would never contemplate using a digital medium, to at least make digital copies of their work. This would be a key moment in the supply of lower cost prints, but it also contributed significantly to the preservation of traditional art.

landscape through open windows
Open the Windows by Mark Taylor

In 1989, The World Wide Web would become the birthplace of art market disruption…

The other disruptor was of course the internet. The bulletin board user groups had mostly, by the mid-90s, transitioned to online communities on the world wide web which by this time could be accessed by steadily increasing internet connection speeds. This would be a significant piece of the jigsaw that saw one of the biggest changes in the way art was not only consumed, but the way art would be purchased too.

Non-represented artists looked initially towards online auction sites such as eBay to make their works available to a wider audience until the concept of print on demand was introduced by Café Press in 1999. Café Press had been one of the early pioneers to allow artists to upload scans, files, or copies of their work where online customers would order the work either as a traditional canvas or poster print and soon after, on a number of other products.

This service paved the way for other print on demand services to join the online space,  Red Bubble, Tee Public, Fine Art America, Zazzle, Society 6, had all been amongst the early adopters of online based printing services, and it was this disruption which finally tipped more traditional bricks and mortar galleries to go online.

Some of the most prestigious physical art galleries would even partner with the original print on demand services to offer prints of their gallery represented works which encouraged a global audience to embrace the online purchase of art, it was suddenly easier for artists to find a global audience than a local one.

abstract landscape art print, mountains, trees and sun
Pastel Valley by Mark Taylor

The Importance of Preservation…

The 1980s, was without any shadow of doubt, pivotal in the development of so many things that we take for granted today. Yet, there’s a real risk that much of what should be properly attributed to the decade becomes lost in history. As I said earlier, much of what had been created at the time was forgotten almost as quickly as it arrived as new iterations came along and that’s especially true when it comes to work from artists who really did set the standards for what we do today with technology.

So little of what really went on during the 80s was properly documented, it definitely wasn’t preserved for future generations with anything like the thought we give to preservation today. Partly, that’s because the technology for preservation was difficult and it was often a challenging and manual process that attitudes and people didn’t feel compelled to do.

A lot of digital media was preserved, not by anyone having some kind of master plan, it was preserved to all intents and purposes by software and video pirates. Whether it was a video game, computer demo, digital art, a film, much of it was pirated in some form. Whilst I would never condone piracy, without the volume of backups (OK…illegal copies)  that had been created by everyone from school children copying games to parents using a hooky copy of WordStar or Lotus 1-2-3, a lot of these historic moments from the 80s would have been lost long ago.

As we approach almost three decades since the end of the 1980s, many who were instrumental in pushing all of these boundaries are sadly becoming fewer and fewer. There’s a real risk that without capturing the history now, we might just end up losing it forever. Being mindful that some of that history might now be a little inaccurate due to the number of years of forgetting and re-remembering, often through a rose tinted lens, the importance of historic preservation should be central to every artists thinking.

I think preservation and the importance we should place on it is one of the 80s finest legacies. For hundreds of years prior to the 80s, preservation was almost second nature, but the 80s changed that. Fine art was safe enough but a lot of what had been created during the early 80s was lost very quickly which is a real shame.

If there is one thing that we should as artists, all take away from the 80’s, it’s that no matter how far your career has or hasn’t progressed to date, preservation of your work and proper documentation is so very important.

I think most people who had been involved with creating those bits of ephemera during the decade probably didn’t give preservation much thought, but one thing above all else I think we should all take from the 80s, is that we should never blindly bumble through a decade mistakenly thinking that it’s not significant, whatever you create is significant because it’s at least part of your own story.

About Mark…

Mark is an artist who specialises in vintage inspired works often featuring technology. He is also known for his landscape works and the occasional abstract, creating professionally since the 1980s. He is also a specialist in secure computing environments and is a globally recognised key note speaker.

You can purchase Mark’s work through Fine Art America or his Pixels site here:   You can also purchase prints and originals directly. You can view Mark’s portfolio website and see a small selection of his works at

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