Heaven knows where we are now. Avant-gardists used to be able to call themselves Modernists and people knew what it meant. Then they became Postmodernists and no one really knew any more. What they are now is even trickier. How many Pos past the Mo have we moved? Po-Po-Mos? Po-Po-Po-Mos?
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is attempting to put some rigour into the definition with its new exhibition, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990. And good luck to it, since there was never an agreed style in the first place. Postmodernism was many things – self-indulgent, silly, inventive – but it was never coherent. So the show will take in everything from architecture (the Ur-form of the look) to furniture, clothes, art, magazine design and music.
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that while Modernists saw style as an adjunct (form following function and all that), for Po-Mos style was everything.
If there are common denominators to the Postmodernist aesthetic, they include angularity and bright colours, historical references and ‘wit’. It had a tendency to define its practitioners too: Michael Graves, for example, is revered as the designer of the cult object of Postmodernism, the Alessi kettle with a bird whistle, but not as an architect of some stature. Name a building by Philip Johnson, another architect, and it will surely be the AT&T building (the pink New York skyscraper with the Chippendale broken-pediment top).
Grace Jones will forever be linked with Jean-Paul Goude because of the comedy frocks she wore for their various music, video and photographic collaborations. Ettore Sottsass, the maker of Memphis furniture – bubblegum-bright tables and sofas that looked as if they had escaped from children’s drawings – was Postmodernism’s short-lived house interior designer. Art director and font fanatic Neville Brody will always be associated with The Face – PoMo’s house magazine.
In many ways there was nothing particularly new about Postmodernism; it was simply an updated version of the old Victorian notion of Art for Art’s sake. Its objects were not practical: decades too late to be fashionable, I became the proud owner of a Graves kettle and then was foolish enough to use it (the bird melted in the spout).
And who has ever put a book on a Sottsass bookcase? They were all about the look. This makes them at heart vacuous, and the very fact that there is an exhibition devoted to Postmodernism shows how quickly its moment passed.
Its legacy, however, can still be felt. There are some 250 objects and installations in the V&A show and what they express is one particular attitude which – when the pretension is removed, and admittedly it takes some effort – boils down to nothing grander than fun.
V&A: Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 (24 Sept-15 Jan 2012)