Postmodernism is a notoriously difficult idea to pin down; sometimes it feels like the best you can do when asked for any kind of definition is to roll your eyes and say how tricky it is to get to get to grips with, thus proving how well you understand the complexity of the subject. The strength of the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 is that by focusing mainly on architecture and design – the forms that first spawned the postmodernist idea – it follows a relatively straightforward narrative. So, by the time you get to the very end of the exhibition and see the large neon sign saying ‘SHOP’, you get to feel thoroughly postmodern as you enjoy the irony of the curators sending up the new centrality of the gift shop in the contemporary world of the public gallery.
The show begins with what is rightly considered the key to unlocking postmodernism, which is: in order to understand the concept, you must first understand what is meant by Modernism. The first panel neatly encapsulates the relationship thus:
The modernists wanted to open a window onto a new world. Postmodernism, by contrast, was more like a broken mirror, reflecting surface made of many fragments. Its key principles were complexity and contradiction.
Thank you; job done!
From here the exhibition details the death of Modernism, as cited by architectural theorist Charles Jencks, on 15 March, 1972, with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe Modernist housing project in St Louis a social disaster that was blown up just 16 years after completion. Next, we see a life-size reconstruction of Hans Hollein’s façade from the Strada Novissima, Venice Biennale 1980, which playfully logs histories across five classical pillars. However, it’s as postmodernism spills into the 80s and the work of artists, musicians and designers that we start to see overload. And by the time we get to the room containing, among other things, Grace Jones’ brightly coloured, angular maternity dress (designed by Jean-Paul Goude), David Byrne’s big suit, and other items of ’80s paraphernalia, the sensation that the exhibition is perhaps just a little too The Face and iD-centric becomes nagging. In spite of the undoubted impact and importance of those publications in that decade, the suggestion that this particular brand of ’80s style-bible sensibility was the apotheosis of postmodernism is a little hard to credit; the philosophy’s monumental lightness and heartbreaking irony is undersold by yet another eccentric piece of couture or design.
In contrast, one of the best moments in the show occurs around Warhol’s depiction of a dollar bill. As is to be expected, he presents the image with the requisite degree of amoral detachment literally pronouncing the relationship between money and art; but what is so powerful is the juxtaposition of a quotation by Fredric Jameson about Warhol’s 1981 silkscreen painting: ‘…they ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, one would certainly want to know why.’ The deep unease and seriousness of Jameson’s comment feels like a very convincing critique of the worst excesses of the kind of amorality which postmodernism arguably let in by the back door during the 1980s. Just ‘the clever hopes’, as W.H. Auden referred to similar evils in the 1930’s, ‘of a low, dishonest decade.’
So, having brought your catalogue (and felt gratitude to Barclays Wealth for their very visible sponsorship), the success of the exhibition resides in the fact that the postmodern idea now feels locked down and largely understood. Having looked and seen the story, perhaps the next time someone asks about the subject you can, having rolled your eyes, say convincingly that, slippery concept or not, postmodernism is definitely something that has been and gone. You can then turn your attention to trying to figure out what on earth is happening right now.