PoMo: Everybody's doing it

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The tag of postmodernism gets attached to buildings, art, food, even the way we communicate. Jay Merrick asks why we're in thrall to something so shallow

Forty years ago, we lived "modern" lives. Ideas, emotions and actions seemed ordered, and part of a zeitgeist of confident restraint that originated in the science, mass-production, architecture and art of the 1930s.

Now we are profoundly immersed in the tortuous, commercially controlled currents of postmodern design and thought, and its weapons of mass psychic deconstruction. Has this made our lives richer in meaning, or just richly vacuous?

One summer afternoon in San Francisco in the early 1960s, I was rollerskating along a pavement in California Street when I heard a song booming from a loudspeaker somewhere behind me:

Here's Little Oscar in his Wienermobile!

Beep! Beep!

Little Oscar! the world's greatest chef!

I pirouetted to a halt. A 20ft-long, oxblood-red aluminium hotdog melded to a Dodge cruised past. That was the first time I saw and heard the Wienermobile. Thus, a decade before the architect-academics Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas, their bestselling celebration of the vivid superficialities of postmodern architecture and signage in the Nevada desert, I'd got the PoMo message direct from Oscar Mayer, the weenie maestro.

A year or two earlier, my family had taken a small holiday detour on Highway 101 to ogle the Madonna Inn at San Luis Obispo, which Umberto Eco described as "the Sagrada Familia for Dolly Parton". By the mid-60s, the artist Ed Ruscha was producing books of deliberately banal road-trip photography: Twentysix Gasoline Stations and Every Building on the Sunset Strip.

All this stuff was way beyond surrealism. It was deliberately indiscriminate weirdness: the ordinary was made to seem in some way excessively other, like stage props for a chaotic rather than reasoned reality. It was almost pose-modern. And by the start of the 1970s, many designers and thinkers were reacting against clean-lined technology and clean-limbed lives in search of the Right Stuff; the virtues of a die-stamped, mass-produced world were in meltdown.

Why? Techno-modernism had failed to do what it said on its then 30-year-old tin. It hadn't stopped wars, inequality, poor housing and diseases such as cancer. The developed world was no longer dominated by visions of progressive utopias in which we would all exist in what the architect, Le Corbusier, referred to as machines for living in; we didn't want mile-long apartment blocks raised on pillars above empty tundras of concrete and inner ring roads. Steel, glass, and concrete? Too sharp-edged, too coldly definite. Art? Adieu, Mondrian, bonjour semen-stained beds and spider-like lemon juicers that sort of worked.

Postmodernism duly arose in an uncoordinated blitz of individualistic artistic and intellectual objections to the more or less failed idea of rationalised lives and environments. The novelist Martin Amis warned us that postmodern people "over-existed". Our postmodern, supposedly self-designed lives are embedded in these modes of over-existence. We've accepted the commercial, social and semiotic propellants that have ensured over-consumption in the guise of entertainment. Blizzards of imagery and opinion form a chimera of endless, conflicting possibilities without beginning or end; we seem to crave maximised senses of fractured movement, overlay, ennui and nowness. Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, has an illuminating take on postmodernism. Speaking of its original design genetics, he says: "People wrote supportive and indignant manifestos about the intellectual standing of figurines, tiaras and napkins. It was as though everything that had been denied the right to seriousness in the visual arts for 60 years was now fighting for – and winning – space. We all confidently celebrated our lack of confidence about things: suddenly, it seemed, none of us knew exactly what was beautiful or everlasting; or if we thought we did, none of us were prepared to say so."

Hence Jeff Koons' airbrush-enhanced penis, photographed in precisely posed coital interruptus with the Hungarian porn star Illona Staller; Pop Art; Alessandro Mendini's concrete suitcase; David Byrne's padded shoulders in Stop Making Sense; American Psycho; Frank Gehry's "crazy" Santa Monica house in 1978; the architect Charles Moore describing Los Angeles as "a model of the new un-hierarchy that poured itself willy-nilly across the landscape"; Donald Rumsfeld talking robotically about things that we don't know we don't know. And it's the hundred times a week we hear, or utter, that most uber and craven of postmodern words – whatever.

Modernism's either/or mindset has been obliterated by this pervasive whateverness. Few of us now imagine any prospect of lives in which ideas, behaviour and outcomes can be clearly determined. To many, the details of the present must seem increasingly indeterminate or ambiguous; which duly turns our perceptions of the past and the future into cabinets of equally trivial curiosities, rather than illuminating points of perspective.

Postmodernism glimmered even at the height of the modernist period. In the late 1950s, William Burroughs, stoned on marijuana and opiates in Tangiers, was cutting up and pasting texts randomly to produce his first masterpiece, Naked Lunch. Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist poet, carried out similar experiments in the 1920s. The arrival of the Apple Mac and Windows in the 1980s hardwired this cut-and-paste flat-screen "creativity" into our postmodern psyches; so did the cut-up narratives of films such as Last Year In Marienbad and Reservoir Dogs. Today, Google is the opiate and the mouse-click has replaced scissors and glue.

The and/but vibe now suffuses almost everything we think and do. Surface has become more important than depth. Style – or, more accurately, stylee – trumps coordinated articulation; disbelief is more acceptable than belief.

When postmodern idea-surfing allows one to keep talking, texting, or tweeting, how very dare you say anything final and irreversible when there's obviously no need to? More than ever before, ideas, opinions, objects, buildings and behaviour have become existential decor. We've become relativists, but not in the scientific or creative ways that Albert Einstein or James Joyce were. We make connections between disparate, and mostly trivial, facts or ideas to demonstrate how very coolly alert we are, and how interesting and ironic every fact and figment must surely be – for the moment, anyway. It's this pick-and-mix approach that generated the meaningless architectural train-smashes of the 1980s, especially those hideously decadent mixtures of gleaming surfaces and crudely over-articulated 19th century industrial pastiche. Postmodernism's collage mentality paved the way for supposedly radical eclecticism (Ian Schrager hotels with 12ft high flower pots or chairs in the foyer). And it set the scene for the development of carefully contrived, faux-flakey personas: messy hair, carefully mismatched clothing; and the now ubiquitous dead-eyed, too-ironic-to-speak manner designed to suggest that you've either just had extremely disinterested sex with a tap-dancing astrologer, or are about to consider doing so.

It seems that what the cultural commentator Jon Savage wrote in The Face in 1984 remains uncomfortably relevant: "Craving for novelty may end in barbarism, but this [postmodern] nostalgia transcends any healthy respect for the past: it's a disease all the more sinister because it's unrecognised and, finally, an explicit device for the reinforcement and success of the New Right."

What happened to the serious and radically disruptive ideas that originally informed postmodernist ideas and design strategies? Even that most rigorously challenging of postmodernists, the Italian designer Ettore Sottsass, has sometimes felt beaten down. "Now that I am old," he once complained, "they let me design electronic machines and other machines of iron, with flashing phosphorescent lights and sounds which could be cynical or ironic. Now I am only allowed to design furniture which sells."

Glenn Adamson, co-curator of the V&A's Postmodernism show, speaks of postmodernism's artefacts as "undecidable things... at once avant-garde and kitsch, handmade and artificial, funny and hostile, completely embedded in the manipulative sphere of consumption, but also alien and disruptive."

This view would be encouraging if there was much in postmodern art, architecture and behaviour that actually seemed alien and disruptive enough to give us pause for thought.

On the other hand, here's Denise Scott Brown, writing this year, almost four decades after co-authoring Learning From Las Vegas: "Although we feel that flat is good, that Ugly and Ordinary is usually the way to go, and that the Decorated Shed is a paradigm for much (but not all) building in our time – yet high aims must go with high jinx. We use our 'worst things' not only to open our eyes and refine our judgement, but also to keep our purposes honest."

Bravo! And yet, one can't help fearing that the sheer psychic tonnage of postmodernity's "undecidable things" is rendering most of us terminally passive and far more interested in ephemera than, say, socio-political ethics, or the implications of Facebook's plans to calibrate and inter-link the media product preferences of their users. Facebook describes this, with breathtaking insouciance, as "social design". Could it possibly be ravening psycho-commercial market development? Not that Facebook's 750 million users, each with 130 "friends", and 8.4 trillion minutes online every year, will give a collective postmodern damn.

Meanwhile, there are only eight Wienermobiles left and Tracey Emin has become an auntyish national treasure who's kissed Dave. Postmodernism has obviously passed its sell-by date.

Next up? Postwhateverism, of course.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990, V&A Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, from 24 September to 15 January 2012. A book of the same title, edited by Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, is published by the V&A

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent