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Postmodernism: Fragmented fashions from a decade of dashed hopes

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Colin Wilson reviews the Victoria & Albert museum's new exhibition on postmodernism.
Issue 2273

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s postmodernism exhibition concentrates on the 1980s, when postmodernism was new and fashionable.

The decade started with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It saw unions defeated, the welfare state attacked and the growth of Aids.

The hopes of the 1960s for radical change were dashed. That disappointment was reflected in ideas about art and philosophy. Notions of looking forward to a better society now seemed naive and utopian, and were rejected.

Modernism, the trend that had dominated 20th century art, extolled the promise that technology and social progress would deliver a better future.

Postmodernism rejected this utopian vision—and with it often dismissed all possibility of progress. The science fiction film Blade Runner—whose Vangelis soundtrack echoes through the exhibition—depicted the future as grim and shabby.

The postmodernists played with contradictory remnants of past cultures. Postmodern buildings featured stray classical details—big stripes or pointless geometric forms. Design was separated from function and became a matter of pure style.

Postmodern practice was often justified by pretentious references to theory, exemplified at the V&A in a “Proust armchair” and a “Lévi-Strauss dress”. This mix of high and low culture was typical of the movement, as were knowing references to consumerism.

These playful combinations could be interesting, but it‘s an exaggeration to call them “subversive”, very much a postmodernist buzzword.

The section on music is perhaps the most positive aspect of the exhibition, reflecting the advances women and LGBT people made in this period. But even here there are limitations. Photos of a bored-looking Grace Jones are remade until she becomes an objectified idol.

And Jones is the only black artist in the show. This is art for rich white people combined with theory for clever academic people. It is always concerned to be “subversive” or “edgy” but of no real relevance to those who are poor, black or in struggle.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Some of the films and artworks at the V&A are personal favourites.

But seeing them all together and in context makes me like them less, not more. It makes me deeply glad the 1980s are over. If only postmodernism were too.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990

Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Exhibition runs until 15 January

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