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
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor