Postmodernism is the star of a new exhibition at the V&A, but what's it all about? What are its landmarks? And why is it so heavy on the irony?
1972: The demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing scheme
The modern world died at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972. The dynamiting of the notorious Pruitt Igoe housing scheme was a noise that resonated around the world, at least according to architecture critic Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. You probably didn't hear it expire because you were crazed on cola-flavoured moon-dust sweets listening to Bowie's new Ziggy Stardust LP. Or weren't actually born.
After Pruitt Igoe fell, a new architecture arose. What was it like? Think of James Stirling's pink-and-yellow striped limestone building No 1 Poultry in the City of London. Completed in 1997, it is arguably Britain's leading po-mo edifice. Its colour scheme has been described as "acidulous", as if that were a good thing. Inside, it has a ramped floor conveying an ancient Egyptian aura, while its main staircase quotes the Vatican's Renaissance Scala Regia. Outside, it has a clock that quotes the Ffascist-era main post office in Naples and is surmounted by a turret that looks like a submarine conning tower. And yet it was a rebuke to all those funless corporate modernist buildings teeming with identical Le Corbusier chairs and sharp-suited drones. Even so, it was voted London's fifth-worst building.
And that was just architecture. After 1972, the rest of the hitherto modern world went nuts too. Out went social stratification, funless functionalism and, ultimately, male commitment to wearing neckties on formal occasions. In came an ironic mashup of stylistic quotations, artists dabbling in a playful cross-fertilisation from different eras, a pluralist cultural ethos, and, incredibly, non-ironic flip-flops as legitimate men's officewear.
1973: The birth of late capitalism
The world plunged into recession from 1973 to 1974, thanks to oil prices quadrupling in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war. Europe and the US's putative postwar golden age was over. I say "putative" because I was brought up in the Black Country. In the 60s. We were entering dire straits. Consider British car design. Yes, the Mini had been the jaunty expression of the reportedly swinging 60s ethos, but its 70s successor the Maxi was a tomb on wheels. And British Leyland's later cars, the Allegro and Marina, could only be understood as sick jokes perpetrated on patriotic British motorists by social deviants whose corpses would be bulldozed into the foundations of Spaghetti Junction in any rational polity.
This recession and the 1979-83 one led to the collapse of the previous Fordist model of integrated industrial production (think: a million Charlie Chaplins tightening a million wheel nuts on a million identical cars in a factory the size of Kansas for ever). Instead, short-term contracts proliferated, work was outsourced from Walsall to Warsaw and still further east. The information age supplanted the manufacturing age, capital flowed more freely across the world, companies expanded globally and, as a result, you work in a call centre for a loan consolidation abomination whereas your parents made worthwhile things for a living using now-obsolete skills.
Welcome to post-Fordism or, if you prefer, the era of late capitalism. These terms are, like deconstructionism and post-structuralism, if not synonymous with postmodernism, then synchronous with it. God, I love this stuff: it would have got me tenure at some poly in the late 70s.
But, as musician David Byrne argues in the V&A's catalogue to Post-Modernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, it's unfair to define post-modernism negatively. He writes: "[L]ike many others I felt [modernism] had both strayed from its idealistic origins and become codified, strict, puritanical and dogmatic … Besides, as lovely as it is, postmodern furniture is cruelly uncomfortable. If postmodernism meant anything is allowed, then I was all for it. Finally! The buildings often didn't get much more beautiful or the furniture more comfortable, but at least we weren't handed a rulebook."
1979: The Postmodern Condition is published
Meanwhile in Paris, a French penseur called Jean-François Lyotard stopped rummaging in his lover's black turtleneck to light his 37th Gitane of the afternoon. He inhaled deeply, breathed out, narrowed his eyes and said: "Bah, ouais," and started writing there and then his ground-breaking book The Postmodern Condition. Probably none of this happened, but who can resist sending up a man who has girls' dancewear for a surname?
Lyotard argued that the intellectual foundations of western thought as built by Kant, Hegel, Marx, though probably not De Botton, were teetering. Western societies since the Enlightenment had, he argued, been informed by "grand narratives" that were no longer convincing stories of human progress. He, like lots of other soixante-huitards, was disappointed by the failure of one of those grand narratives, Marxism, to deliver paradise. He glanced narrowly too across the Channel and, seeing Thatcher's policies (soon to be echoed by Reagan) of economic deregulation, selfish enterprise culture and the denial of society, thought that political progress – as he and like-minded beret-wearers had comprehended it since 1789 – might well be over.
Henceforth, he and the likes of Foucault thought, localised political interventions – feminism, environmentalism, identity politics – would replace mass progressive movements. And then, bored by his thoughts, Lyotard put his hands back up his girlfriend's jumper, like the French stereotype we've imagined him to be.
1984: Art is colonised by commerce
In 1984, literary theorist Fredric Jameson wrote his essay Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, arguing that art had been colonised by commerce. This was before adman Charles Saatchi started buying up YBAs and decades before Damien Hirst claimed to have sold a diamond-encrusted skull for £50m. Modernist art (think: Van Gogh transforming personal misery into beauty) sought to redeem the world, he suggested. Postmodern art (think: Jenny Holzer putting an electronic billboard over New York's Times Square reading, "Protect me from what I want" in 1985) was made by artists stuck in a world they could scarcely change.
1989: Jeff Koons gets jaded
Jameson also wrote about "the waning of affect" that he claimed characterised postmodern subjectivity. Artists don't cut off their ears these days, more's the pity. As if to prove Jameson's point, in 1989, Jeff Koons put up a poster to advertise his exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum. The billboard image bore the headline Made in Heaven and depicted him having sex with his porn star wife, La Cicciolina. But Koons was hardly in the throes of passion: his affect seemed to have waned to nothing as his blank gaze met ours. Koons's properly ironic po-mo statement about the work was that it would initiate spectators into the "realm of the Sacred Heart of Jesus". Koons had created a Baudrillardian system of simulacra of sexual passion, religious ecstasy, semiotic overload and voguish kitsch, while suggesting that to the blank-eyed stiff who has it all, nothing, not even Viagra, will get him going any more. Such is the postmodern male condition. Boo hoo, am I right?
1992: The End of History
Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, writing: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the cold war, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such … That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." He argued that there could be no large-scale wars over fundamental values since "all prior contradictions are resolved and all human needs satisfied". He was, you may have noticed, wrong in all leading particulars, but no matter: his thinking fitted into the prevailing postmodern mood. If the west had won, if nothing was worth fighting for, if all values were relative and eternal, then what remained was merely humans choosing fatuously between consumer goods that contributed negligibly to our flourishing until our species did the decent thing and did itself in.
2001: Apple launches the iPod
The iPod was born and digital culture – which is neither synchronous nor synonymous with postmodern culture but kind of related – had its ur-fetish object. Digital technology accelerated and enabled individuals to manipulate every aspect of the media environment. In the digital world, you the consumer could do what cultural producers had hitherto done: you could be your own DJ, photographer, film-maker. Better, you could do what the Man said you shouldn't: sample, pastiche, cut and paste others' work, riff on the results and pass it off as your own.
2002: Dr Evil embraces hip-hop
During the film Austin Powers in Goldmember, one of Mike Myers's characters, a Belgian criminal mastermind called Dr Evil, performed a parody of a hip-hop music video. It went out to his "homies in Bruges", but that's not important now. What is important for our purposes is that it pastiched Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life, itself a parodic quotation of a tune from the musical Annie.
Dr Evil's intervention here typified postmodern culture: ironic, knowing, quoting from a source that was already quoting from another source and – perhaps this the main point – thereby cannily making a packet for a film franchise that, if one can be serious for a second, really didn't warrant a third outing. Such "bricolage", as Lyotard would put it (ie assembling artefacts from bits and pieces of other things from unexpected eras and sources), was key to the hip-hop culture Myers pastiched. And hip-hop culture, which is postmodernism's ironically adopted child, is everywhere – clothes, graffiti, poetry, dance, your iPod, my iPod, everybody's iPod. Everywhere apart from on Classic FM, because Classic FM doesn't roll that way.
Then things got ugly. Postmodern ugly. Producers fired off angry texts to consumers asserting their intellectual capital rights. Consumers jokily texted back a link to an online version of Roland Barthes's seminal essay The Death of the Author. Producers then put down their BlackBerrys and reached for their lawyers. For instance, last year EMI issued a copyright claim insisting that YouTube take down the video of Newport State of Mind, the marvellous pastiche of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys's insufferably bombastic expression of civic pride, New York State of Mind. Late capitalism didn't really like the way postmodernism was heading, and postmodernism stopped sending late capitalism Christmas cards.
2011: Pop-up culture goes mainstream
Last week in Covent Garden, I saw a sign in a shop window. "Coming soon, a pop-up store." Goody, I thought with affectless postmodern irony, more pop-up stuff. But hold on. Wasn't the whole point of pop-up things (theatres, shops and, in olden times, books) that you didn't have to wait for them to pop up? They popped up sharpish then pushed off? Was this sign postmodern irony? Or, what usually happens, publicity for a dismal late capitalist enterprise appropriating a funky-sounding idea a year after it was fashionable and annulling its raison d'etre in the glum way so common in recent postmodernism culture? It must have been the latter.
What next? David Byrne argues in the V&A catalogue that in postmodernism's heyday "anything could be mixed and matched – or mashed up, as is said today – and anything was fair game for inspiration. That, to me, seemed as it should be. A taste of freedom. At least that's the way I took it, though one could see another rulebook being written even as we tried to say: 'No more damned rulebooks!' Before long, there was, according to some, a postmodern rule book. Time to move on." No doubt. But what could post-postmodernism mean?
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 from 24 Sept until 15 January 2012.