postmodernism at the v&a

3 October 2011 § Leave a comment

Or to give it its full title Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970-1990.

Strangely the V&A select a date period for the exhibition as postmodernism has always been a slippery thing to pin down. Does anybody really know when it started or when it finished – if indeed it has? It’s very nature – drawing heavily on the past whilst at the same time rejecting it with pastiche, irony and the subversion of the title – makes the whole era confusing to define and explain. In the sad absence of any attempt at definition by the V&A here is a copy of an amazing and almost unknown document that provides one of the only theoretical definitions.

Entitled ‘The Postmodern Manifesto’ and found, unpublished, by Jacques Derrida’s deathbed, it is also signed by the hugely influential thinkers Roland Barthes and Michel Foucauld (courtesy Brian Sewell in the Standard):

1. The art of the past is past. What was true of art yesterday is false today.

2. The Postmodern art of today is defined and determined, not by artists, but by a new generation of curators, philosophers and intellectuals ignorant of the past and able to ignore it.

3. Postmodernism is a political undertaking, Marxist and Freudian.

4. Postmodernism is a new cultural condition.

5. Postmodernism is democratic and allied to popular culture.

6. Postmodernism denies the possibility of High Art.

7. Postmodernism deconstructs works of High Art to undermine them.

8. Postmodernism is subversive, seditiously resembling the precedents it mimics.

9. Postmodern art is pastiche, parody, irony, ironic conflict and paradox.

10. Postmodern art is self-consciously shallow, stylistically hybrid, ambiguous, provocative and endlessly repeatable.

11. Postmodern art is anti-elitist, but must protect its own elitism.

12. To the Postmodernist every work of art is a text, even if it employs no words and has no title, to be curatorially interpreted. Art cannot exist before it is interpreted.

13. Postmodernist interpretation depends on coining new words unknown and unknowable to the masses, on developing a critical jargon of impenetrable profundity, and on a quagmire of theory with which to reinforce endowed significance. Vive le Néologisme!

Brian Sewell, clearly not a fan, dismisses postmodernism  thus in an excellent essay in the Standard: “Once the distinctions between the visual arts and other forms of intellectual sustenance are blurred in the pan-cultural soup of Postmodernism, nothing means anything precisely, everything is individually interpretable by anybody, and the deliberately obscure language of this anybody or group of anybodies becomes an art form in itself, for in Postmodernism art and language are one and the same and everything is text.”

Oh well, but like it or not postmodernism has existed and been represented in many different ways in the fields of architecture, art, design, theatre and music. The V&A here attempt an overview of the whole movement, vastly ambitious and only vaguely successful. You leave no more knowledgeable about postmodernism but it is still an enjoyable ‘romp’ though the era – bright, brash, colourful and theatrical.

Art-lovers will note an almost complete absence of works but will find a nice sense of period. Working from a supposed beginning in architecture the exhibition runs helter-skelter through design, music, art, film and more. There are wonderful Sotsass pots, memorable pieces of Italian design and Memphis furniture. A clip from Blade Runner plays next to costumes from the film: Rachel’s office dress and the window-crashing replicant’s plastic mac. There are clips from Grace Jones, Talking Heads and Devo music videos plus items of costume – my highlight the ‘big suit’ of David Byrne‘s.

Eventually, after passing through a section on money – the Warhol dollar sign is of course there – the exhibition ends with a Robert Longo film and a large portrait featuring one of his convulsive figures (David Byrne drew on theses convulsions in his stage act by the way). The image is unsettling – is he falling, dancing or perhaps just been shot. We are of course not meant to know. The exhibition asks us therefore  ‘Are we all post-modern now?’ Probably.

At the V&A until 15 January 2012

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