PoMo: Everybody's doing it

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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

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