The most instructive detail about Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 is that it is held in a museum. It is a display of assorted relics; historical artefacts that tell us something about the times in which they were conceived; artistic merit is only tenuously relevant, and a far smaller venue would have sufficed for a showcase of postmodern art as such. Like postmodernism itself, this exhibition overwhelms you with colours, sounds and brash statements only to disappoint you with the poverty of its ideas. Visitors to the show may find themselves leaving under a cloud of jaded moral apathy, perhaps coupled with a gnawing resentment at having been party to a rather unconvincing swindle. For, just as its multidisciplinary currency – a product of its conceptual simplicity – speaks to the breadth of postmodernism’s appeal, so the speciousness of its insights lends itself to a refutation of a singularly total kind. It was, all along, something between a mirage and an outright fraud, and the only certain fact about this nuanced philosophical movement is that it subverted precisely nothing.
The intellectuals who invented and framed the idea of postmodernism – not so much Habermas, Lyotard or Baudrillard themselves but a coterie of their mediocre acolytes in various social science faculties in Europe and the United States – did so by attributing a unique historical specificity to the cultural output of a single generation of academics, thinkers, authors and film-makers. The unifying agent was the very barest of connecting threads – a zeitgeisty notion of a society that had turned in on itself in a listless system of broken narratives. The grand conceit of the postmodernist genre – to the limited degree to which it may be treated as a contiguous thing – consists in the founding notion, central to the very idea of a ‘break’ with modernism, that this was the first generation in modern history to experience feelings of nervous fragmentation, and of profound alienation from hitherto established narratives of culture, morality and ethics. This has, in fact, been happening throughout centuries of human existence; the only thing that was new, in the 1960s,’70s and ’80s, was the platform provided by an unprecedented level of material wealth following the post-war boom, facilitating – through grants, government-backed projects and privately-funded initiatives – such a vast quantity of cultural production as would inevitably overshadow the preceding decades through sheer volume of light and noise, and in such a multiplicity as to all but preclude a unifying narrative or focus. Although this sense of purposelessness was of an essentially personal and professional nature – the struggle of artists and intellectuals to carve out a new niche for themselves as practitioners – the theorists of postmodernism saw fit to ascribe it to society as a whole.
So, at the V&A show, an appropriately disaffected soul may find something like the giddy thrill of a sixth-form prank in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s Schuylkill River Corridor Studies, a series of photo-montages comprising an enormous colour image of a Hoagie (a type of sandwich) superimposed upon various black-and-white cityscapes in an affectionate tribute to the artists’ home city of Philadelphia. There is, of course, a skill to ‘reading’ works such as these, and once you understand the explanations they can be quite rewarding. That this is the also essential ethical premise for your common or garden cult is perhaps merely an unfortunate coincidence – what is beyond dispute is how utterly dreary much of this looks today. Step away from the theory for one moment and it hits you: in the relatively short time since their heyday, these works have, for the most part, dated rather badly. The overriding impression is of the palpable immaturity of a gaggle of artists constantly seeking to send up their predecessors without any apparent purpose, just as some insecure adolescents compulsively mock, or attempt to shock their elders without quite knowing why they are doing so. Imitation without satire, as Fredrick Jameson has pointed out, is little more than pastiche; and perhaps the only thing more dull than a pastiche is a large room full of especially tiresome pastiches that have grown so familiar they almost do credit to the thing that was being mocked – yes, come to think of it, the cityscape on its own would look rather pleasing, if someone would only remove the giant Hoagie. Could it be that their predecessors were simply more talented, more technically diligent?
It is difficult to pin down the common theme that connects the colourful array of pop culture relics and novelty domestic appliances on show: from the symbolically anachronistic plastic colonnades of Hans Hollein’s façade from Strada Novissima ( The Presence of the Past) to Peter Saville’s wilfully garish album cover artwork for New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies; from Marin Bedin’s Super Lamp Prototype (a kind of toy car with light bulbs attached to it) to grotesquely misshapen drinks trolleys that people, lest we forget, actually used in the 1980s.
Perhaps the closest thing to a notion of a postmodernist ‘ethic’ is the idea of a morally neutral presentation of cultural symbols, blending high culture with low, and treating the mundane as a legitimate historical subject. And, if human existence had begun in 1960, this would be a highly satisfactory explanation, and the proponents of postmodernism would be worthy pioneers. But Flaubert had done this already, 150 years ago, in Madame Bovary, elevating the banal tale of an unimportant provincial woman to the status of high art. He did it with flair, because he was sufficiently preoccupied with beauty, in a traditional, high-art sense – in a technical sense. By contrast, the postmodernist obsession with ugliness gives us the discomforting cityscapes of Blade Runner, a dystopia so unrealistic that no human being will ever relate to it as anything more than a sensory experience, a sort of introverted collective nightmare in which degradation and fragmentation are placed centre-stage, not as a means of communicating or representing lived human experience, but as ends in themselves. The postmodernist project was never about rendering life as it was, or life as it could be; it was about the fetishisation of cultural symbols, essentially for the hell of it. It is, therefore, only fitting that a suitably bleak clip from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film classic forms part of this exhibition.
To the extent, then, that it represented the cultural logic of an intellectual class (although not a society) that had stopped believing in itself, or in anything at all, the postmodernist oeuvre serves a valuable function, providing an interesting mirror for the ideology and theory of our recent history. And it contains the kernel of a cleverly self-reinforcing idea – in that the more brazenly redundant it appears as a label and as a system of understanding, the more vigorously its proponents will claim this as evidence of its historic significance; but its totalising nihilism will come, in time, to be subsumed within a grander and more human narrative, and the ugly word – postmodernism – itself regarded as an aberration.
Houman Barekat is a historian and writer based in London