Most people find it extremely difficult to define Postmodernism. The term is sometimes used when making a reference to the shift in trends after Modernism, or it often comes up when referring to architecture. That’s where any clarity stops. Everything else from this point is a little confusing – especially when it’s used in areas such as fashion. Karl Lagerfeld’s recent extravagance – the Chanel takeover at Harrods – could be deemed to be Postmodern, but why? And what would we be saying, exactly?
The V&A will attempt to help answer this with its first in-depth assessment of the 1970s-1990s, entitled Postmodernism: Style and Subversion. The exhibition will be divided into three parts; architecture, club culture – encompassing all of fashion, design, art and music, and money – the excess catalyst of the era. The exhibition ticks a hefty box in presenting the vast mix that comes under the Postmodern umbrella, yet it makes it all the more clear that we are still challenged in finding a clear definition for Postmodernism.
Ruth Mason and Helen Kearney, MA students from the Royal College of Art, also recognise the complexity but raise a valid point that perhaps the lack of elapsed time is the problem in trying to decipher an era we’re still in. Essentially, we’re bound to fall into the temptation of categorising everything around us as Postmodern when we’re still very much part of it. Our constant state of revival doesn’t do much to help: in the space of 30 years we have done a 360-degree turn. There was the recess of the early 80s, the crazy excess of the late 80s through to the early 90s and now, of course, we’re back to recess again. We’ve arrived at a state wanting to relive the 70s -90s instead of moving away from it, hence the difficulty in making that separation.
Both students also identify Postmodernism as a real thing – not just made up, as some believe. It does describe a specific type of building in architecture but there’s a debate about whether or not we’ve moved on from there. “I think that [Postmodernism] is reference to architecture, I think that it makes sense in that you can see that it is a very tangible, obvious thing that you see these incredible modernist buildings and then you see that change. There are some writers that would say there is no such thing as Postmodernism, it’s just all Modernism and it’s just the next stages. I don’t believe that, I think we can see a very clear difference in style and in theory with what’s going on in architecture. This is something that has come after modernism, and not only that – it’s a rejection of Modernism so in that sense it’s Postmodern,” says Helen.
But if we take a progressive stance we might see another point of view, Helen goes on to identify. The mix-up and general obsession with Postmodernism could be less about comfort and more about trying to move on. “Maybe we’re saying, these were the Postmodern excesses but we’re actually a little bit different now and we’re keen on things like revival not for any aesthetic sense but actually to reuse things and have more of a consciousness and not be so consumerist because we’ve gone through this recession that’s hit everybody really hard. I wonder if part of it is about reflecting on something that we don’t want to return to – we kind of want to say ‘well, that happened but we don’t want to return to it again’.”
Along with the current trends to take us back to the 70s, 80s and 90s, this exhibition will not only transport us back to relive Grandmaster Flash and Grace Jones, it also moves us forward in raising the right questions about Postmodernism. And although at present the term can mean a lot of different things, one thing is clear: there was a moment in history when things changed from bare to lush in an instant. The idea to buy and keep buying was desirable and the superficial was popular. Fashion, arts and design were honest, exaggerated and controversial. Most of these elements are real and still tangible today, making it tricky to compartmentalise and build a definition. Perhaps what comes next – after Postmodern – will allow us the distance to look back and pinpoint the big players in the genre and help us to develop a clear narrative – one with an end.
Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, is open until 15 January 2012, V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL. Website.