Review: Postmodernism at The V&A

by Chris Lowthorpe in ,

Postmodernism at the V&A (Flyer)

I have a love/hate relationship with Postmodernism. So I was slightly dubious as I headed for the V&A last week to view Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. 

Postmodernism’s genre bending and splicing, its mixing of fiction with non-fiction, its blurring of the lines between high and low culture, has resulted in some wonderful art, design, music, film, and literature. The world would be a poorer place without Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman, Neville Brody and Peter Saville, Bladerunner, The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, Mclaren’s Madame Butterfly, or The Crying of Lot 49. Of that I have no doubt. But before I get too gushy, let's look at the downside.   

Postmodernism’s blank stare and inherent knowingness can get irritating, fast. Its unwillingness to either criticize or celebrate, or take a political or moral standpoint, can leave the work feeling deeply empty. And the less said about the often impenetrable accompanying theory the better. Personally I often suspect the obfuscation and awful writing was deliberate, an attempt to hide a weakness of ideas. But despite my reservations I found myself enjoying this exhibition more that I expected, for two main reasons.  

The first is Postmodernism’s ability to still confuse and outrage ‘Middle England’. I was preceded through the V&A by a gaggle of ladies about to lunch, dressed in obligatory twin-sets and pearls. In a well curated and contextualized exhibition they remained utterly bewildered. Perms were scratched and gold buttons twiddled as they passed from Venturi and Scott-Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas, to Jarman’s The Last of England, Anderson's O Superman, and on to Westwood’s Punkature. Exclamations of ‘I don’t understand it’ or ‘I don’t get it’ issued from glossed lips. The nearest to a discussion consisted of one lady asking the other if she’d ever been to Las Vegas. ‘No...’, the other replied, ‘...and I wouldn’t want to’.  

Now there's a surprise.  

The bending, splicing, and mixing that form the best of Postmodernism is the exact thing that confused them. To truly appreciate postmodern culture you need extensive cultural capital – and not just of high culture. You need to know about popular culture too. If you’re not interested in Las Vegas, street fashion, popular music, commercial graphic design, or Sci-Fi movies, postmodernism will leave you feeling excluded. Sure, there are myriad references to classical art and high culture, but without understanding the context these are employed in, you’re lost. And that’s a good thing. It puts the boot on the other foot. If only for a minute. 

The other reason I enjoyed the exhibition is more personal. I was born in 1971, at the beginning of the period defined as Postmodern by the curators. I became an adult as this period ended in 1990. The exhibition I walked through – arranged chronologically – was really a journey through my life. I had studied the earlier stuff at University, but once the exhibition got to the 1980s a curious sense of nostalgia hit me. My life was on the walls of a museum. On this wall record sleeves that reside in my collection, on that a T-shirt I once wore, and in this cabinet a copy of The Face salted away in my cupboard somewhere. I expected this to a degree – I’d even bet with myself on which Peter Saville sleeves would make the final cut – but it still gave me an unsettling yet rather comforting feeling.  

The Face May 1984 – Design, Neville Brody (Author's Collection)

And that’s the brilliance of this exhibition. It's curated in away that elicits that most postmodern of emotions: nostalgia. The end of the exhibition has the heading “Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?” This lyric from New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ introduces the final exhibit, the promotional video for the same song. The curators discuss nostalgia here, but the genius is that they've been carefully cultivating the emotion throughout the exhibition. It’s a very clever and rather knowing piece of design. 

And ultimately, truly postmodern.  

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 is on now until January 15 2012 at the V&A Cromwell Road, London.