Irony Bites

Irony Bites

Postmodernism: Style & Subversion, 1970–1990
Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London
Through January 15, 2012

Chunka-chunka-chunka, chiboom-chiboom-chiboom. John Richardson once said that the most depressing sound he ever heard was of cash registers in the lobby of The Met. He had not heard eighties dance music in the lobby of London’s V&A. What few subtleties the music has are filtered by Edwardian architecture. Then Annie Lennox sang.

This was the opening of the Post-Modernism exhibition. Over-served with Green Point fizz, uninhibited bankers bopped as Lennox crooned. Barclay’s Wealth is the sponsor of this exhibition, the last in the V&A’s synoptic surveys of art history’s agreed chapters. To see capitalism’s commandoes in thrall to this final afflatus of the counter-culture was, I suppose, an authentic Postmodern experience all by itself.

“Avant-garde?” someone once asked derisively. Then added: “‘avant’ exactly what?” Thus the predicament of Postmodernism. What exactly is it following? This exhibition, like the cadaver of a brightly-painted transvestite tart on a mortician’s slab, may help us decide. Let me answer my own question. The Modernism we are now post was a call-to-order after the confusion of the 19th century when, for the first time, mass-production opened-up consumption to all social classes. In design, the idea of a single (aristocratic) standard of taste was disrupted.


In architecture, new technology allowed structure to be separated from style, not always helpfully. Modernism was not so much a violent break with the past as an attempt to return to a lost classical tradition. It was, as the literary critic and novelist Malcolm Bradbury put it, “clearly more than an aesthetic event.”

And Modernism had its origins in the epicenter of all mass-produced confusion: mid-Victorian Britain. What became Lennox’ V&A began as a government department intended to reform taste among (depraved) manufacturers and (ignorant) consumers. With absolute moral certainty, The Department of Practical Art put good and bad design on a perp-walk in what became known as “The Chamber of Horrors.”

This made the V&A unusual among major museums: from the beginning, it was campaigning ideas that were essential to Modernism—from the unlikely source of imperium’s capital. So it is nicely appropriate that an ambitious—possibly over-ambitious—survey of Post-Modernism is on show here. Immediate impressions? How very bad so much of it is: a revived chamber of horrors.

Typical Postmodern object? Michael Graves may have shot his reputation in the foot with some poorly judged endorsements of supermarket apparel, but he should have been shot in any case for the leaden whimsy of his atrocious 1983 tweety-bird bollitore for Alessi, the General Motors of Postmodern accessories. Unnecessary, perhaps, to add that this kettle is unpleasant to handle and dangerous to use.

Typical building? Robert Venturi’s 1985–1991 extension to London’s National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, two miles down the road. Hailed by some, including The Prince of Wales, as a remedy to architectural carbuncles, those with eyes to see are now wincingly aware of what the fastidious always knew: it is a pitiably ill-proportioned and architecturally illiterate dollop of pious schmaltz. It is also, among the citizenry, generally unloved, always a good test of quality in buildings. Snake oil!


Postmodernism’s booster is Charles Jencks, the London-based American critic whose 1977 book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture popularized what was hitherto a collegiate hermetic cult. Jencks’ tutor in London’s Bartlett School of Architecture was the great Reyner Banham who, as the intellectual godfather of Pop Art and influential celebrant of Los Angeles’ epic mess and clutter, has some personal claim as a pre-cursor to Postmodernism’s schizophrenia. Banham told me, “The thing I regret most is letting Charlie [Jencks] have his PhD.” The academic accolade, in Banham’s view, lent unwarranted credibility to a bogged thesis.

On the other hand, no one is sure precisely where the term “modernism” originated, although some with a desire to impress suggest it belongs to an 1883 Danish literary text of impressive obscurity. “Postmodern” was perhaps first used by the historian Arnold Toynbee in 1939. Toynbee, however, is not mentioned in the V&A exhibition, although Donald Trump is. Many people will see here a direct connection between Postmodernism and heartless trash, although I must concede I have a track record in this area: In the early 1980s I was occupying a pre-minimalist white box of my own devising, known as The Boilerhouse, in the basement of this very same V&A. Since the later 70s, I had been regularly visiting Ettore Sottsass in Milan. A veteran subversive, Sottsass had been the darling of the Italian “anti-design” movement. Over several evenings in his girlfriend’s flat in the Piazza Diocleziano—you have to imagine magazine pictures of dinosaurs taped to the wall and a Rod Stewart vinyl LP playing while eating risotto—I heard Sottsass’ plans to be yet more subversive. “Why should homes be static temples?” he asked in his beautiful, lilting, poetic English.

In 1981 he presented his “Memphis” collection at The Milan Furniture Fair. I gave him my copy of Chuck Berry’s 1963 paedophiliac 45rpm “Memphis, Tennessee” for the occasion. A perfectly contrived publicity stunt, Memphis’ garish absurdity made public a huge insider joke of “quoting from suburbia.” In 1982 we brought it over to The Boilerhouse, its first showing outside Milan. In Italy and London, Memphis caused a sensation. At first, Sottsass was mischievously delighted by the fuss and annoyance. But soon he repudiated it. “E molto ironico,” he said in his beautiful, lilting Italian of Memphis’ fabulous, corrupting, temporary fame. Ironic it was indeed. Memphis is prominent in the deeply trivial V&A show.


The same Boilerhouse was also to host a show about Taste. Here we put “good” taste on classical plinths and “bad” taste on trashcans. In the latter category was Terry Farrell’s 1983 TV-am building, a ludicrous decorated shed, Postmodernism’s Chartres. Farrell threatened to hit me, so we called The Daily Mail’s gossip columnist and photographer. That same Farrell, designer too of the plethoric Thames-side MI6 building, explains today that Postmodernism was defined by “holistic connectivity and the broadening of all view points.” Maybe, but it was also defined by a lot of unprincipled, tendentious, look-at-me crap.

The most interesting analysis I know of Postmodernism appears in Ihab Hassan’s The Dismemberment of Orpheus (1971) which does not seem to be known to the organizers of the V&A show. Hassan sets up an interesting set of bi-attitudes to explain the Modernism/ Postmodernism schism. It goes like this:

Finished work/Performance

There’s no doubt in my mind on which side of the forward slash quality lies.

And the architect of TV-am? Now with an ornament of his own, “Sir” Terry Farrell tells us Postmodernism is all about “tolerance”: a portfolio approach to taste. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is tolerance. Still, if you are patient, visit Postmodernism to see an exercise in tolerance and discover that when anything goes, very little comes of it. Rules are an inspiration to genius, not an impediment. There were, it seems, few rules in Postmodernism. The installation has been designed in cavernous black chambers by the fashionable London architects Carmody Groarke. The crepuscular setting lends a spurious gravitas to what’s mostly meretricious tosh. With Lennox in the distant background, I walked the floor with Stephen Greenberg, an exhibition designer of a different cut. He was tutting and shaking his head and saying how much he wanted his palate cleansed by some Miles Davis. I said I’d go for Scarlatti. Then I was reminded of what Henry James said of Burne-Jones: it’s not painting, it’s literature. This isn’t design, it’s journalism: a lot of tired one-liners, as fatigued as old newspapers.

Look at Graves, Moore, Farrell, and Venturi and ask yourself what’s in common here. Alexander Pope had the answer: “A brain of feathers and a heart of lead.” Let this be Po-Mo’s epitaph. That, and the terrible sight of investment bankers getting hip to the beat.