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

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

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.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible