Would the last postmodernist please turn out the lights?


CULTURE SHOCK:Postmodernism means picking over the corpse of culture, using irony as the main tool. But in a time of economic crisis, art about art can feel irrelevant and disengaged, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

RECENTLY I WAS on a radio programme with the sculptor Antony Gormley, most famous for his great public works, such as Angel of the Northand Another Place. The general theme was reactions to the economic and political crisis, and Gormley spoke eloquently about the need for art to reconnect to society, for “art about life” rather than “art about art”.

After I left the London studio where the programme was made, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) to see its big show Postmodernism: Style and Subversion. Here, gathered in one place, was an awful lot of art about art. The conjunction of all this coolness with Gormley’s humane passion made me wonder whether it is now safe to declare postmodernism dead.

Part of the problem with doing so is that postmodernism was always postmortem. It was about what happens when something is dead – the grand, clean, industrial, utopian vision of modernity. The American architect Charles Jenks declared that modernism died at 3.32pm on March 15th, 1972, when a huge modernist housing project turned crime-ridden slum was dynamited in St Louis, Missouri. Jenks’s response was perhaps the best formulation of the impulses behind postmodernism: “Let us then romp through the desolation of modern architecture, like some Martian tourist out on an earthbound excursion, visiting the archaeological sites with a superior disinterest, bemused by the sad but instructive mistakes of a former architectural civilisation. After all, since it is fairly dead, we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse.”

Picking over corpses has been the essential postmodernist activity. The cadavers it has rifled include everything from modernist architecture to fictional plots, from classic pop to the idea of elegance in fashion, from the personal self to the grand narratives of nations. What does it do with the stuff it finds in the pockets of the dead? It raises them up and places them in a display case made of quotation marks.

At the heart of postmodernism is the notion that there is nothing left to be invented. What remains is to play with everything that already exists, whether it’s an architectural cliche or a naff gameshow to be enjoyed ironically, an old tune to be sampled on a hip-hop track or a literary style to be pastiched. The face of postmodernism wears a wry, knowing smile. Jenks’s “superior disinterest” plays about its lips. Its enemies are naivety, engagement and especially – my dear! – sincerity. It disdains high aesthetics, embracing kitsch – so long as it’s ironically appreciated. To Gormley’s “art about life”, it poses “art” and “life” as pure constructs.

But it wasn’t meant to be like this. The postmodern movement did begin with architecture, and architecture is inevitably a highly political and social form. The protest against architectural modernism wasn’t just a hipster vibe. It was a protest against the arrogance of top-down social planning that assumed there were people at the top who knew what was right and good and people at the bottom who would learn to understand this eventually, after they’d lived in the new cities being planned by their superiors.

Even the postmodern love of kitsch began as part of this protest. The influential architect Denise Scott Brown recalled playing a game in the late 1960s with her partner Robert Venturi, which they called “I can like something worse than you can like”. But it wasn’t just a game. Venturi and Scott Brown fixed on the Las Vegas strip as their “best worst thing”. The idea, essentially, was to look afresh at the way cities had developed and to engage with that reality rather than dismissing it as vulgar and taking refuge in pure aesthetics.

This impulse was actually quite politically engaged. It was a revolt against the way postwar modernist architects – either through rebuilding bombed cities or through the urban renewal that felt, to the ordinary people below its flight path, pretty much like a bombing – had arrogantly swept aside the whole notion that there was a patchwork human past contained in cities. They were trying to find an honest way to be, as Scott Brown puts it, “socially conscious in the 1970s”.

She still believed that the function of architecture was as it had always been, “to serve need and achieve a (possibly agonised) beauty”. But these concerns quickly dissolved as postmodernism became po-mo, a hip commercial style avidly embraced by corporate culture.

Even while Venturi and Scott Brown were being hailed as the parents of architectural postmodernism, Venturi was denying that he was a postmodernist at all and Scott Brown was denouncing the way po-mo architects “handled history self-indulgently, often humourlessly and by imitation rather than allusion”.

What happened is that while the early postmodernists were attacking modernism from below, corporate culture was all too happy to attack modernism from above. The revolutionaries disliked modernism for its arrogance and distance; the counter-revolutionaries disliked it for its seriousness and idealism. The combination was irresistibly powerful, but it created a profound sense of cross purposes. The artistic radicals were hoping to create something more playful, more humane, more open to the idea of human culture as a palimpsest with many layers of accumulated images. But their movement was quickly taken up by a corporate culture that just adored all that superior disinterest. And where all of this ends up is with a subversive movement that has nothing left to subvert, a protest that denies the possibility of protest.

Everything could be turned into a gesture. While theorists were getting excited about notions of the transgressive, commercial culture was gobbling it up. Sado-masochistic fetishism, for example, may have been an outsider culture, but it didn’t take long for fashion photographers such as Helmut Newton to turn it into glossy mainstream imagery. The result was not a subversion of patriarchal sexuality but a mainstreaming of violent misogyny: as often as not, women’s faces were cropped out of pictures and their bodies were distorted into the poses of shop-window mannequins. Was this a subversive questioning of constructs of the self or, more obviously, a new and more extreme way of depersonalising and objectifying women?

The biggest thing that happened to postmodernism, though, was its loss of a sense of humour. The playful allusiveness that was possible when postmodernism still had something to subvert became impossible when it became the mainstream style. It took itself terribly seriously. A wonderfully witty piece in the V&A show was Frank Schreiner’s Consumer Rest, a chair made from a shopping trolley. It makes an incisive comment while also being funny. But it stood out as a rarity.

In the end, consumer and celebrity culture defeated postmodernism by embracing it. When everything is ironic, nothing is ironic. If the movement was born on March 15th, 1972, it surely died on November 11th, 2011, when our very own Nama sold Andy Warhol’s silkscreen painting Dollar Sign in New York,having taken it from the property developer Derek Quinlan in lieu of unpaid debts. The Dollar Signpaintings were classic postmodern statements of the irony of a consumer aesthetic in which what we see in a work of art is the money it’s worth. Where’s the room for irony when the possession of such an image is embraced by one of the Celtic Tiger’s poster boys as a sign of his arrival?

Even the meditations on fame and personality by Warhol – or, more interestingly, by the brilliant postmodern photographer Cindy Sherman – have lost their subversive edge. Warhol’s statement about everyone being famous for 15 minutes is no longer a provocation; it’s almost a statement of fact. And the pop images that played with notions of the iconic, such as David Byrne’s appearance as a little man in a huge oversized suit, have now become iconic themselves. Seeing Byrne’s big suit on reverent display at the recent VA show was the ultimate reminder that yesterday’s provocations are today’s holy relics.

But what happens after postmodernism? Does culture pick over the bones of those who picked over the corpse of modernism? Or does it find the courage to be uncool, to come down from its mountain of superior disinterest and engage with a crisis that doesn’t feel particularly ironic? Could we be due a new Romantic age of passionate expression and social engagement?