The A to Z of PoMo

What do Roland Barthes and Boy George have in common? Marcus Field presents his bluffer's guide to the V&A's Postmodernism extravaganza

A is for Architecture

What is Postmodernism? In its narrowest sense it's a movement in architecture and design which flourished in Europe and America in the 1970s and 1980s as a reaction against the rationalist principles of the Modernist movement. In Postmodernist architecture many of the key features of what became a wider cultural movement are writ large: Postmodernist buildings are playful and irreverent, with historical references plundered and collaged together in a shameless display of style over substance. The most notorious example is Philip Johnson's AT&T building in New York in which the roof motif is appropriated from a piece of Chippendale furniture. An original drawing for the skyscraper features in the V&A's autumn show, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990.

B is for Barthes, Roland

A role model for many students and journalists in the 1980s, Barthes was a French philosopher and theorist who anticipated Postmodernism's preference for pop culture over high culture. His series of essays "Mythologies", written in the 1950s, applied rigorous analysis to such unlikely subjects as steak and chips, the Eiffel Tower and the face of Greta Garbo. The trickle-down effect of his work can be seen today in many areas of the mass media, from fashion magazines to motoring columns.

C is for capitalism

The economic boom of the Thatcher and Reagan years created a new class of consumers with ready cash to burn, and shiny Postmodernist products were churned out to supply this increased demand. Function was less important than image in these boom-time goods, epitomised by the products of the Italian firm Alessi. Among its most iconic items are a teapot designed by the American Postmodernist architect Michael Graves which features a whistling bird on its spout, and the three-legged lemon squeezer, by the French designer Philippe Starck. The latter became the ultimate Postmodernist signifier, an object which was sleek and stylish, but far more extravagant than was strictly necessary to do its somewhat mundane job.

D is for Deconstruction

One of the buzzwords of Postmodernist theory. The invention of the word is credited to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who advanced the method of unpicking the multiple meanings of a literary text rather than accepting the intention of its author. Deconstruction was soon adapted and applied to any "text", from a film or an advert to a painting or a pop song.

E is for Easton Ellis, Bret

The books of this US novelist dissect the experience of postmodern life and are Postmodernist works in their own right. His most famous novel, American Psycho (1991), tells the story of a New York investment banker and serial killer who presents a veneer of perfection but whose moral compass has gone seriously awry. Easton Ellis's novels display many of the tropes of Postmodernist art, with a blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction (celebrities such as Bono and Tom Cruise appear in the narratives), as well as games with authorship. In Lunar Park (2005), the action centres on the life of a novelist called Bret Easton Ellis.

F is for fashion

Where previously fashions changed little from season to season, Postmodernism opened up endless possibilities as historical styles were ransacked for inspiration. Among the foremost fashion designers of the 1980s was Vivienne Westwood, who, initially with her partner Malcolm McLaren, produced wilfully outlandish collections featuring crinolines, pirate costumes and the "Buffalo" look – an entirely self-invented style which came with its own music and marketing strategy.

G is for graphics

Just as architects and fashion designers rebelled against the authoritarianism of Modernism, so graphic designers in the late 1970s began to challenge the established rules. Young designers started to appropriate historic styles and street graphics in order to create a lawless Postmodernist aesthetic. The best-known practitioner of the style is Neville Brody, the designer who mashed up typefaces and laid out spreads in a dramatic new way in The Face – the legendary style magazine which was itself something of a Postmodernist phenomenon.

H is for hyper

Mobile phones, answering machines, video players and personal computers all started to arrive in the 1980s, launching the frenzy of communications that was to culminate with the advent of the internet. Hyper became a buzzword to describe this frenetic Postmodernist environment and soon words such as "hyperreality" began creeping into k the lexicon. There was even a fashion shop on London's Kensington High Street called Hyper Hyper.

I is for image

If you could read a building or a book through its signs, then why not a person? In the Postmodernist world how you looked, rather than what you did, could define you. One of the most perfected Postmodernist personalities of the 1980s was Grace Jones, an American club diva who – with the help of her stylist boyfriend Jean-Paul Goude – peddled images of herself as a superstar. In one of her most revealing portraits she is wearing a dress shaped like a Postmodernist building with a red exclamation mark fixed to her head in a literal cry for attention.

J is for Jencks, Charles

Jencks is the American critic often credited with having defined Postmodernism as it applies to buildings in his 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture. He is also known for his "Cosmic" garden in Scotland, a Postmodernist landscape inspired by fractals, genetics and chaos theory.

K is for Koons, Jeff

Like architects and fashion designers, Postmodernist artists also plundered pop culture, rejecting old notions of skill and placing self-promotion at the heart of their work. The American artist Jeff Koons, who came to fame in the 1980s with works such as his porcelain figures of Michael Jackson, is the consummate practitioner. His highly finished pieces, made by assistants to look like mass-produced goods, have sold for more than $12m.

L is for Las Vegas

If not actually knowingly Postmodernist itself, Las Vegas is loved by Postmodernists for its themed hotels (including simulacra of Venice and New York), surface thinness, and for the way in which money and spectacle work together in perfect harmony. The American city also inspired one of the key texts of Postmodernist architectural theory, Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown (see Venturi, Robert).

M is for Memphis

Old-school designers were shocked in 1981 when this Italian design collective broke all the Modernist taboos with its first range of shiny, surface-thin furniture covered in highly patterned laminates. Among its most iconic pieces is the Carlton Cabinet by Ettore Sottsass, a Postmodernist building in miniature.

N is for New Order

The British band founded in Manchester in 1980 is as famous for its record covers as for its sound. These were designed by Peter Saville, a leading player in Postmodernist graphic design, and his cover for Power, Corruption & Lies (1983) is one of the most memorable. A still life by Henri Fantin-Latour is cut and pasted on to the cover in an ironic gesture, bearing no relation to the band or their music but clever and knowing in its unexpected juxtaposition.

O is for outrage

Part of the point of Postmodernist excess was to shock – witness the looks of Boy George, Leigh Bowery and the gender-bending New Romantics – and establishment outrage was often the result. Lady Gaga is the 21st- century heir to this tradition.

P is for pop

Pop music is the territory for some of the most overt manifestations of Postmodernist activity. Its key characteristics are a hyper-awareness of image – the fictional identities adopted by David Bowie in the 1970s, for example – and a marked referencing of other artists' work. A seminal example of this phenomenon occurred in 1981 with the release of Grandmaster Flash's "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel", a seven-minute track which spliced together recordings by Blondie, Queen and Chic with Grandmaster Flash's own music to create a clever and knowing artwork.

Q is for queer

Words, their slippery meanings, their use and misuse, play a central role in Postmodernist debate. Queer, for example, is an abusive term for gay men which has been appropriated by its targets and used positively as a way of stripping it of its negative connotations – hence the advent of queer theory and queer rights.

R is for Rap

Rap became a global phenomenon in the age of Postmodernism, starting with the Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight". The genre lent itself perfectly to the times, with rappers singing about their clothes and their shoes, their money and their cars. This self-referencing phenomenon reached its apotheosis with Eminem, a rapper who blurs fiction and reality in songs about his life and those of his fellow celebrities – much to the delight of Postmodernist academics and critics everywhere.

S is for semiotics

This system of study derives from linguistics but in the 1980s it became fashionable to apply it to all objects of cultural production, especially pop culture. Its vocabulary of "signs" and "signifiers" started to appear in many university disciplines, including the much-derided "media studies".

T is for theory

Postmodernism has probably produced more books about itself, its working and its ideas, than any other movement in history. Among these are a library's worth of volumes of critical theory by the likes of Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard which seem specifically designed to make students feel both battered and baffled.

U is for urban

Postmodernism was born in the city, and cities feature strongly in its iconography, most particularly in sci-fi films such as Blade Runner (1982), where the buildings have become giant billboards and reality and fantasy are blurred.

V is for Venturi, Robert

For architects, Venturi (born in America, 1925) is the Postmodernist's Postmodernist. Together with his partner, Denise Scott Brown, he challenged Modernist orthodoxy and called for a revival of symbolism in buildings via the languages of classicism and Pop Art. His influence was widespread and can be seen in many buildings of the 1980s, including the former TV-am studio in London's Camden Town, designed by Terry Farrell, which featured eggcups on its roof.

W is for Wolfe, Tom

The American journalist and novelist who invented the term "the Me decade" (for the 1970s) and introduced the present tense to profile articles. Wolfe can be regarded as an arch Postmodernist for his self-aware image (the trademark white suit and homburg hat) and for the way in which he plays with pop-cultural references and literary techniques in his writing, including The Bonfire of the Vanities, a seminal social satire of 1980s life in New York City.

X is for Xerox

Postmodernist imagery is all about sampling, mixing, mashing, and – before computers – how could you do that without photocopying? The delirious juxtapositions of type and pictures that appeared in magazines such as i-D were all there thanks to the Xerox machine.

Y is for youth

Youth culture – a phrase coined in the 1980s – is central to Postmodernist theory and practice. Young people wrote the novels, designed the look, made the television programmes – most memorably, in this country, the seminal and hyperactive Network 7 and DEF II programmes – and called most of the shots in a movement which led inexorably to today's all-pervading cult of youth.

Z is for Zoo Records

This Liverpool label set up in 1978 released work by Postmodernist rock bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes. More importantly it was the brainchild and launchpad of the maverick musician and artist Bill Drummond, who went on to star in several key moments of Postmodernist culture. With his band the KLF he made hit singles featuring sampled sounds, including crowd noise. After the band split Drummond established The K Foundation to continue its brand of Situationist-style events, most notably when he burnt £1m on a remote Scottish island and then screened a film of the process as an artwork. While drawing attention to the void at the heart of the Postmodernist project, this protest also raised a burning question: if attacking Postmodernism is also Postmodernist, can the movement ever end? "It says no to saying no," says Glenn Adamson, curator of the V&A's Postmodernism show, "which makes it very difficult to move on." 1

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 is at the V&A (, 020 7942 2000), from 24 September to 8 January

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