Postmodernism Pastiche and Subversion

Victoria & Albert Museum move on to the next chapter

The V&A’s autumn show ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’ represents the climax of a  long-running series of exhibitions devoted to exploring the ‘style movements’ of the twentieth century. From Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, through Modernism and Post-war Modernism, we have now arrived at that movement which ultimately defies ‘movement’ status – Postmodernism –, spurning, as it did/does, stylistic unity and internal coherence. It is indicative of the character of this ‘movement’ that the great majority of artists, designers, and musicians approached by the V&A, would add the disclaimer, ‘Well, I was never a postmodernist’: to accept inclusion within the fold of a movement – even one that embraced diversity –, would, of course, have defeated the whole object, compromising the freedom principle which underlay this historical period in art and design.

Given this reality, it has been necessary for the V&A to work with a negative, rather than positive, definition of ‘postmodernism’; namely, ‘a movement in art and design that reacts against Modernism’. These reactions, as we see in the course of the exhibition, saw the overthrow of consistency, simplicity, and depth, in favour of eclecticism, vibrancy, and a fascination with surface; as Robert Venturi, the man who built a suburban house for his mother punctuated by alarmingly over-scaled elements and absurdly decorated mouldings, explained of his own work, ‘obvious unity’ was to be supplanted by ‘messy vitality’. In the place of those earnest, futuristic utopian visions characteristic of modernism, the postmodern world was to one of historical quotation, parody, and pastiche.

The exhibition brings together over 250 objects and is arranged in three broadly chronological sections. The first gallery focuses largely on architecture as the discipline in which the aesthetic principles (or lack of principles!?) first emerged, and especially privileges the role of avant-garde Italian designers Allessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, tracing their respective Studio Alchymia and Memphis design collectives through the 1970s and early 1980s. The second gallery is devoted to the proliferation of postmodernism through design, art, music, fashion, performance, and club culture during the 1980s. The final section examines postmodernism’s encounter with money, and its transformation from a radical, subversive style – one that expresses the identity of subcultures and the avant-garde – into one appropriated by the corporate world, enlisted to serve the hyper-inflated commodity culture of the 1980s.

A key point of interest is the periodization of this exhibition, which implies that postmodernism came to a rather sudden halt in 1990, and it is indeed true that, since the late 1980s, a great many have proclaimed the death of postmodernism. So where does this leave us? What comes next? Plausibly, we could conceive that next time the V&A would take a ‘world approach’ – that is, a post-colonial, global perspective exploring the merging of cultures, and the collapse of geographical distance in the present day via the internet etc. But, as co-curator Glenn Adamson concedes of the current exhibition, ‘Dubai and Lady Gaga are more postmodern than anything you will see in this show’. Evidently, Postmodernism is anomalous within the canon of twentieth century ‘style movements’ for reasons even beyond its internal inconsistencies. It cannot simply be dismissed as another movement – the new Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Surrealism, or even Modernism. Rather than any of these, its historical twin is the Enlightenment, representing an umbrella principle of creative freedom (countering the Enlightenment’s principles of reason and progress), capable of housing a multitude of ‘style movements’ of its own.

For this reason, the V&A’s ‘Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990’ is profoundly timely. Some 40 years on from when the first ideas of what we now know as Postmodernism began to emerge, this is the first time that an in-depth survey has been attempted. The exhibition’s triumph is that it grants us the analytical distance required to reflect on a postmodern condition that is here to stay; in the words of Adamson, it functions like ‘an early warning system for our own lives’. Nowhere is this more evident than in the marriage of postmodernism and commercial interest, an aspect that the V&A’s postmodern show dramatises beautifully; not only is Barclays Wealth a primary sponsor, but the exhibition ends with the word ‘SHOP’ emblazoned in neon and indistinguishable in style from the show’s internal signage, drawing attention to the ever-more blurred distinction between the ‘inside’ of integrity, and the ‘outside’ of interest. The V&A have even collaborated with EMI Music, one of the world’s leading music companies, to create the first ever postmodern music compilation, available for £14.99, or £25 in limited edition Vinyl. And why not check out the other goods available from the Postmodernism range? Words/Photo Thomas Keane © ArtLyst 2011


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