London’s Victoria and Albert Museum explores the 20-year rise and fall of postmodernism in its new show, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, which brings together 250 objects from the worlds of art, fashion, architecture, and music. From Peter Saville‘s famous cover art for New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies, to the flamboyant furniture of Milan’s Memphis Group, the show highlights postmodernism as an influential and important design movement. BULLETT spoke with Glenn Adamson, the co-curator of the exhibit, to find out more.
BULLETT: What are the origins of postmodernism?
GLENN ADAMSON: We show a few beginning points in the exhibition, including the 1973 destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis, Missouri. This failure of a rationalist housing block was used by Charles Jencks in his book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture as an example of a destructive act that made it very clear a new set of ideas was needed. As he put it, modernism was dead, so “we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse.”
Do you think that postmodernism was as superficial as its critics make it out to be?
The postmodern designer Alessandro Mendini said that “superficiality when considered properly is the most profound issue in human life.” The postmodern concern for the surface is really about the power of objects, buildings, fashion, and graphics to communicate. Yes, it did prioritize surface over substance, but there was a set of complex philosophical ideas behind this preference.
What were the main techniques used by its devotees?
1) Quotation. It’s like sampling in music, or appropriation in art.
2) Bricolage. This is the vivid juxtaposition of unlike things, as in a Rauschenberg painting or a piece of postmodern graphic design in which various pieces of image and text collide in unexpected and exciting ways.
3) Self-referentiality. This is key, especially in the context of mediated postmodernism (as on MTV), when celebrities often nodded knowingly to their own fame, or the televisual delivery system itself. A postmodern object is often like a cartoon character with a thought bubble above its head. It operates on two levels at once, both offering you a form and ideas about that form.
What have been the main reactions to the movement?
Postmodernism was not intended to be easily digestible. It was, after all, intentionally subversive and provocative, and so reactions to the movement were often hostile. Critics accustomed to modernism enormously disliked postmodern architecture such as the former AT&T Building, which was seen as a cartoon or a corporate logo rather than as a serious exercise in historicism—which it was too. Of course the reaction among other groups was very different: teenagers of the 1980s likely got to postmodernism via music videos, or perhaps the sleeves of vinyl records designed by the likes of Peter Saville or Malcolm Garrett. So for them postmodernism was something to embrace, the means of building new forms of pluralist identity.
What is the legacy of postmodernism?
Though the effects of postmodern provocation are still with us, we end the show in 1990 for a few reasons: the incipient rise of digital design, changes in the political-economic landscape (with Reagan and Thatcher’s departure, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 1987 stock market crash all within five years of one another), and an exhaustion with the term postmodernism. It had become a corporate style instead of a radical one by the late 1980s. As David Byrne put it in his essay for our exhibition book, “It became a look—time to move on.”
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, will be on view at the V&A Museum September 24-January 15.