30 November 2011

'Under the Weight of Its Own Success'

Gail Day, writing about the exhibition "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990" at the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) over at MetaMute...

"Sure, I found plenty of pleasures to revel in – vicarious and otherwise. Tapping toes to Talking Heads, snippets from Blade Runner and The Last of England, issues of The Face, a Buzzcock’s single, and reminders of the Hacienda: it was a retro fairground of an earlier life. Lots of stuff I'd thrown away. My own petty possessions and experiences of the '80s were raised to a second power under the museological gaze named 'postmodernism'. At least I had enjoyed using the commodities back then; with their fetish nature transmuted, they looked back at me from their cultic vitrines and display monitors. Interestingly, the temporal economies invoked by the items of popular culture (the mags, the films, the sounds, the looks) didn’t accord with those of the furniture and household objects. If coming across the former felt like rummaging at a jumble sale, the later was more like window shopping in one of today’s emporia, with their Alessi franchises, devoted to designer products. Not all commodities are equal. Of course, for anyone of my generation, the show inevitably had a melancholic underpinning. But, irrespective of when we were born, Postmodernism treated the reminder of death as a deliberate leitmotif. [Charles] Jencks' words, stencilled on the wall, set the scene from the outset: if modernism is dead, 'we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse'. Later, Derek Jarman's voice-over was used to echo the sense of historical caesura and closure: 'Even our protests were hopeless'."

Though I haven't seen it, I was dubious about the exhibition when I saw it announced some months ago, and Day's review gets to the why of those misgivings. It was always a slippery matter, postmodernism -- meaning one thing in literature, another with architecture, and yet another in visual art; with a limited number of overlapping critical concepts to connect them all. A problem that Day addresses quite squarely, especially with:

"'Style and Subversion' was posed as the overarching 'ambiguity' – the all round refusal to be categorised – that was (allegedly) postmodernism. Postmodernism, we were told, was 'a new self-awareness about style itself'. But it transpired that Postmodernism, the show, reduced 'style' to an unreflexive, art-historical category which was used to pin down a period of 20 years: strange to see because, if the debates over postmodernity did one thing, it was to distinguish 'ism' from 'ity'."

But outside the realms of critical discourse and theory, one generally felt at the time that it -- "postmodern" -- amounted to little more than a buzzword. And admittedly trying to curatorially corral much of it into a coherent exhibit would be no easy task. Since you can't exhibit a novel, and seeing how so much of the art of the 1980s carries a tainted stink that continues to repel canonization, why not just shovel in fashion and jewelry and music videos instead? And really, as far as the 1980s are concerned, that seems the most appropriate thing to do. In which case, perhaps the most fitting name for such an exhibition would be: "Postmodernism -- It Was All Just a Bunch of Stuff."


debaucheryandsloth said...

Funny, Adbusters just used altered versions of these images in their latest issue: http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/99 (page 3)

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, those are by the same artist -- from Robert Longo's "Men in the City" series of photos and drawings. Iconic NYC uptown art of the '80s, included in the exhibit in question. (Cross-reference with his video for New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle," which is also apparently in the show.) Like much of what came out of the NYC art scene during those years, Longo's career didn't pan out so famously after decade's end.

Mr. Kasper said...

Surely that (funny) last line could be applied to modernism/ity too?

Greyhoos said...

@ Mr Kasper: I wouldn't necessarily agree. Modernism, by some accounts, would at least attempt to strike some pose of resistance -- against easy commodification or institutionalization, against desublimation or whathaveyou. Or it least tried to generate the myth of doing so. Most often, postmodernism's attitude was, "That's a strategy for losers -- I'm gonna go for mine." Cynicism, essentially. Which is why the "Style and Subversion" part of that exhibition title rings so hollow/sounds a bit daft. (And admittedly, there were some artists in the latter camp who tried to slip something more substantial under the radar. But much of the time it was surface being passed off as depth.)

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