By: Cristina Bogdan
The postulation of the exhibition “Postmodernism. Style and Subversion, 1970-1990”, curated by Jane Pavitt and Glenn Adamson, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, is that Postmodernism is essentially defined by design, from the point of view of design. Even when Postmodernism is seen through the art, architecture, literature it produced, the fact that this is thought of as a design exhibition implies that what unifies all these manifestations of Postmodernism is design. A very bold affirmation for anyone trained in the traditional – or better yet, modernist – optic, according to which the Arts (with capital A, of course) embody an epoch’s Zeitgeist. Having myself studied in the traditional-critical milieu of the French capital, I saw this as a provocation, only to understand later – after an exchange with the curator – that this is by no means the main point of the show, rather a normal viewpoint in a culture in which the crafts have played a significant role since the beginning of
Modernism. The discussion that follows highlights issues about the understanding of this show and of the cultural premises that made it possible. “Postmodernism” is a Wunderkammer of objects of the 70s and 80s, chosen from the emblematic practices of the period – architecture, object and costume design, video and film, printmaking, graphic design, plus reminders of ‘traditional’ practices such as painting and
sculpture. In a dim light setting, shiny sparkling objects attract the eye at every pace. Smaller environments are created for specific situations – such as the Las Vegas project of the architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi – but the general impression is that the multitude of items accounts for Postmodernism’s the renewed interest for the object, as opposed to the previous attempts of “dematerializing” art
But can we understand by the fact that Postmodernism’s avant-garde is represented by design movements (especially Radical Design in Italy, a movement that bears a striking resemblance to the artistic avantgarde of the beginning of the century) – that design has taken art’s place, first mimicking it, then reaching its ideal form and eventually pushing art away from the scene, replacing it? In a written and verbal exchange about the show, Jane Pavitt states “there is some truth in this – certainly in Italy in the 70s. There are economic and social reasons for this too, as well as intellectual
ones. But postmodernism also signalled a retreat from a clear concept of an ‘avant-garde’ – think of Habermas!”2 But when questioned whether design had actually taken art’s place, the curator explains that
this question is not really necessary if design is considered in the “expanded field”3 it has been occupying since the late 60s: “I don’t think it true at all to say that all design is uncritical – and it certainly isn’t the message of the exhibition. It is also not the reason we chose to give fine art a lesser role. This is an exhibition about design because it is in the V&A – if we had done this at the Tate, it would be different, of course. I think that design as a discipline (or cluster of practices, including fashion, graphics, product etc.) does acquire greater levels of criticality and selfconsciousness during this period – ‘design’ (as a practice, concept and value) also gains greater public visibility – hence the frequent description of the 80s as the ‘designer decade’. Sometimes those two effects seem contradictory.”4 To put it simply, postmodern design sets out to negate the modern established conceptions about the discipline, such as good taste, the visible functionality of the object – Memphis teapots can certainly be used as teapots, although one would not be quick to tell that from their appearance –, or even the necessity for the final product of design to be an object at all. From the standpoint of contemporary design, which has taken this route among others – which resulted in its
weakening – it is perhaps less obvious why design should be so concerned with its proximity with art, but certainly the artistic paradigm made sense in the postmodern context. Fine art, according to the curators, is not distinct from fields such as design and publicity, but it does have a critical element that design doesn’t always have. They state in the catalogue’s introductory essay: “Equally telling was the fact that the world of fashion responded in kind, claiming the status of an avant-garde, but without the dimension of radical social critique usually implied by that phrase.”5 Fashion and design here are terms describing the same reality. Further on, a third term is introduced as an equivalent to the previous two, namely ‘publicity': “Dick Hebdige took aim at the magazine (The Face) in his 1988 follow-up to Subculture, a book entitled Hiding in the Light: “The Face is a magazine which goes out of its way every month to blur the line between politics and parody and pastiche; the street, the stage, the screen; between purity and danger; the mainstream and the ‘margins': to flatten the world. For flatness is corrosive and infectious … To stare into the flat, blank Face is to look into a world
where your actual presence is unnecessary, where nothing adds up to much anything anymore, where you live to be alive. Because flatness is the friend of death and death is the great leveler… Advertising takes over where the avantgarde left off and the picture of the Post is complete.”6 This lamentation hints at another issue, which is outlined throughout the exhibition: that of “postmodernism eating itself”7, which supposedly is its finest achievement. Postmodern irony, obsessive quotation and nostalgia for the past (“a disease all the more sinister because unrecognized”, according to Jon Savage8), plus its increasing fascination with money and the business world, claim a complex reading of the objects displayed in the show. Eventually, every teapot, every chair, every video is postmodern as much as it is modern, is critical as much as it indulges into an excessive care for appearances – is alive as much as it is already dead. The fact that this show should be put together less than 30 years after the official ‘death’ of Postmodernism (or the shift in paradigm we are still striving to explain), allowing the children to be in the same room as the parents, with the former watching the latter’s culture deploy before their eyes, is a comment on exactly the statement that Postmodernism is at its best when it fails. Children both recognize elements of their own cultural clichés – MTV, Photoshop-like collages in magazines, etc – and laugh at the outmoded look of their older versions. At times, a 30 year-old video seems harder to watch than a silent movie: who can watch a New Order video clip and not feel the desire to push a little amused laugh? The “subversive” logic behind certain Postmodern creations seems to have been sabotaged by the proximity with the market, even/especially when this proximity was dictated by the logic itself. Style seems to wear out quicker than form, subversive style being no exception to that – such could be a rather pessimistic reading of the exhibition title. A question that arose from this analysis concerned the curators’ intention to make Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez „Maternity dress for Grace Jones”, 1979. Foto: © Jean-Paul Goude visible in the display the obsolete character of the pieces. Already in the introduction piece, they mention that “Pesce’s idea that an object might offer an elucidation of its own eventual obsolescence or decay was a key to the postmodern strategies of the period. The tactic of designing objects that seemed hardwired to self-destruct was both an articulation of the problematic of modernism, and a materialization of the punk slogan ‘no future’.”9 Furthermore, they had mentioned their strategy was not to make a postmodernist show, but I wondered whether they had chosen the more subtle approach of borrowing certain critical models from Postmodernism, such as the one above. Jane Pavitt answered: “I think the effects of ‘museumification’ – i.e. putting objects on display or in cases – can have a similar effect to the ‘elucidation of obsolescence’ – i.e. they are fossilized! But postmodern objects do seem highly aware of their exhibitionary potential – in a sense they are longing for the glass case (putting it all out for display perhaps). I think there are two effects of postmodern objects worth noting – first, we wanted the visitor to see this as a historical show – a movement or impulse that is in the past, even if it demonstrates a strong relationship to current themes. This is because there has been a tendency to talk about postmodernism as a kind of vague ‘contemporaneous’ – and, as historians, we wanted to put it in its place, so to speak. So, everything in the show that you see was made before the advent of the WWW, before digital processes were commonplace, etc. But postmodernism was often premonitory, as it was predicated on an idea of a sped up, connected, globalized world which hadn’t quite arrived yet. So we wanted to show both aspects of this. It is inevitable that certain aspects of the recent past will look ‘quaint’ – Sony walkmans, fax machines, giant mobile phones etc – we tried to avoid too much 80s stereotyping, but people will bring their own memories and preconceptions to a show which is about a period of recent memory. And, as curators, we think that’s fine.”10 And now we can ask: what is Postmodernism?
According to Glenn Adamson11, Postmodernism is a movement. His take on the matter is that Postmodernism exhausted the concept of a movement, even though many of those involved denied – at the time, or now, 30 years later – that they were starting anything like that. The question can be tackled from another point of view, that of certain “effects” of Postmodernism, among which, that of the resulting (architectural) homogeneity is also discussed in the catalogue’s introductory essay: “Among the points made by (Ada Louise) Huxtable (the powerful critic of The New York Times), perhaps the most incisive was that postmodernism’s embrace of difference, once it was processed according to the exigencies of profit margin, was actually producing an urbanism of soul-crushing homogeneity.”12 Since we cannot believe this was the intention of the artists, architects, designers, etc, how can we explain this homogeneity? My personal explanation lies in the usage that is being made by models, and consequently by History. In the exhibition, this is referred to as sampling. “If one that ‘PoMo’ architects abandoned 1960s ideals of social responsibility and instead decided to ‘license indulgence’ (echoing David Harvey’s concise statement that ‘postmodernists design rather than plan’)”14. Sampling, mixing are categories of Postmodernism that have changed society and culture entirely. What seems to have happened is this: when everyone mixes everything, it is just the process/attitude/structure that finally matters, not the content, and especially not the content of the different fragments that create the final object. Therefore, all objects, different from each other as they may be, end up looking/feeling/meaning the same; they are mere images – or signs, if one chooses the Baudrillard terminology. Signs devoid of content, therefore interchangeable. One may even say – identical15. Yet today it seems that artists are trying to go beyond these categories, to eliminate the lack of responsibility they bring about. The new sampling is a conscious, even tragic use of models. Where models would only be quoted for their visual/superficial aspect, they are now deconstructed in order for their structure to be unveiled. Quotation is replaced with reconstruction, video clip aesthetics with a new aesthetics of the narrative. As a personal hypothesis, I would say that there is a renewed interest for the document, in the sense that what was previously an image is now a document (a sign of the loss in terms of emotion, and the gain in terms of theory?). Contemporary quoting is responsible, and even when it produces fiction, false fiction or false documentary, the critical purpose is never sacrificed to the pleasure of quotation.
There is a certain loss of the playful attitude in behalf of one that is more serious, tragic – or stuck up, when it misses its point. To be sure, this tragic tendency of contemporary art is announced by Postmodernism itself. (Laurie) Anderson’s work, with its eclectic bricolage of performance disciplines, is all about assuming different guises – a fragmentary persona built around a teasingly unknowable core. Her work might be considered a polymorphous, staged equivalent to Cindy Sherman’s rather more focused photographic project Untitled Film Stills (1977-80). With their combination of specific narrative and absent identity, these images are an inevitable reference point for postmodernism in art history. (…) David Harvey’s concise description of Sherman’s work could apply equally to both images (Sherman’s and the portrait of Boy George): ‘They focus on masks without commenting directly on social meanings other than on the activity of masking itself.’ (…) In each case, identity is shown in the process of its own construction from raw material. It consists entirely of pre-existing codes.”16 What underlies these constructions can be more clearly analyzed today, when the question of identity has reached a certain paroxysm. The obsession for the archive and its usage as a means to (re)construct identity – in Deimantas Narkevicius’ work, for example – comes from the understanding of the contemporary as a void place which one needs to fill with narratives in order to make it livable. The present is a construction, indeed made out of pre-existing codes, but the focus is no longer on the mask as in Sherman’s work, but on the clash between this mask and its context. The condition of the contemporary man is not that of being a skeleton with a mask, but a complete alien in a world he is too aware of and which does not answer to any of his questions. Hence the obsession for the archives, a pseudo personal (or personalizable) history. History teaches us nothing – is what Post-postmodern man seems to experience. The show on the whole is not heavy with theory – in most cases present in the form of text, whether it is posted on the wall or printed on papers that are given to the visitor – but instead favors the visual aspect, which is more appealing and easier to digest The narrative that spans through the show – we are being told the story of Postmodernism through its main characters, settings and objects – adds to the familiarity of the subject and aids its comprehension.
Yet this does not signify that we are faced with an impressionistic and idiosyncratic attempt of exhibiting Postmodernism; the show rather proves an assimilation of one of the most fruitful tendencies in postmodern cinema: analysis of images through images. It can be said that the objects of the show, in whatever media they are fashioned, are already images, and the show itself is a critique of these images through their montage. One necessarily thinks of Godard’s theory of montage, but perhaps the greatest exponent of this tendency in the latest years is German film maker Harun Farocki. His didactic intentions – to be understood more in the sense of critical (philosophical)17 – match those of the curators of this show. Nowhere are we confronted directly with theory, but always our attention is awakened (this can be done by deranging as well as by beautiful images), and finally what we face is the question of what it is that we really see. Another aspect that the curators obviously cared for was not to make a postmodern exhibition about Postmodernism, thus avoiding the stylistic dead end which late modern and postmodern critique reached. A tendency once exceptionally fruitful – think of the seminal reading of Kafka that Deleuze and Guattari attempted through the creation of a machine desirante to match this author’s literary demon18 – has, in recent years, turned into a stylistic device, which functions as follows: the critic, instead of addressing the object of his inquiry directly, creates an analogous form of this object in his writing; he thus constructs a new object, analogous to the first one, supposedly able to reveal it without destroying its mystery. What sounds like the ultimate poetical reading is in fact a complex new manner of hiding away from the object (and oneself), not attempting to know it under the excuse of ‘poetry’. It is also a false understanding of creation on the part of the critics, who mistake style for form.19 What makes the exhibition at the V&A so pleasing to watch is precisely the direct manner in which its object is addressed. I asked Jane Pavitt to conclude about her intentions: “If one could define the category under which this exhibition falls, would it be: index / narrative / celebration? I make the hypothesis that it s the three of them, but you only mentioned the narrative in your talk.” Her answer was: “I’d still go for narrative. But the other two have their place – certainly – exhibitions/museums are about a taxonomic impulse, so there is a tendency to want to classify, document, the objects. That’s a process of the retrieval of information that is necessary to the curator, I suppose, and is presented in the form of catalogue and labels. But I would say it’s a sideline, not the main show. Celebration? In the sense that it would be hard to mount an exhibition of a subject that you disliked, or were indifferent too – then yes, it has celebratory aspects. But it’s tempered with a desire to put the objects into context, to tell stories of making, dissemination and reception which is done with a critical and historical apparatus.
We did want to bust some of the myths of post – modernism.”20 A text in the structuralist sense, the exhibition “Postmodernism” is the contemporary take on a historical period: it defines it as an object of knowledge and, in this process, necessarily takes sides, places borders and evaluates. Eventually, it also creates a myth: postmodernism as a world in its own or, as Jameson put it, the “cultural logic of late capitalism”21. Now – is it the world anyone ever lived in?
1 One thinks, of course, of Lucy Lippard’s account of the 60s avant-garde, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, University of California Press, 1972.
2 Jane Pavitt in conversation with the author, November 2011.
3 This is an expression used by Rosalind Krauss to define the new practices associated with sculpture during the 60s and 70s. See Rosalind Krauss, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic, Bay Press, 1983.
4 Jane Pavitt in conversation with the author, November 2011.
5 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990. Introduction, p. 60.
6 Idem, p. 58.
7 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Idem, p. 59.
8 Idem, p. 59.
9 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Idem, p. 31.
10 Jane Pavitt in conversation with the author, November 2011.
11 Open class with the RCA research students, October 2011.
12 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Idem, p. 64.
13 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Idem, p. 54.
14 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Idem, p. 65.
15 For the established formulation of this theory, see Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press Books, 1990.
16 Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, Idem, p. 53.
17 See Harun Farocki, Reconnaitre et poursuivre, Ed. du Théâtre Typographique, 2002.
18 Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Kafka. Pour une literature mineure, Ed. du Minuit, 1975.
19 All the critical pieces that opt for a fragmentary form, supposedly in accordance with the fragmented character of their object, fall under this category. It is the kind of writing one finds in art writing journals such as ‘The Happy Hypocrite”.
20 Jane Pavitt in conversation with the author, November 2011.
21 Frederic Jameson, idem.
(the full version of this article appeared in the printed magazine no. 4-5)