According to the Victoria and Albert Museum (it’s British + I’m abroad this term = your WKND view peg), I missed postmodernism by five days. An exhibit there, which closes this Sunday, could double as a tombstone epitaph for the movement: “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990.” Being born on Jan. 5, 1991, I apparently came into this world right when that cultural wave was ebbing, and so grew up snot-nosed and screaming on the hot sand of the beach of civilization, my skin burning in the rays of a pseudo-intellectual sun, with no real relief from a wave of my own. I have shored these fragments against my ruins, blah blah blah. (Disclaimer: the abrev ‘po-mo’ appears nowhere in this article.)
Of course, there are those who would claim postmodoernism is still kicking (Elvis lives!), and others who say the vultures only started circling on 9/11. Regardless of the exact birth- and death-dates (to be haggled over for that hallowed and dusty ledger of art and literary tradition), the V&A offers up one well-curated funeral. There, postmodernism has been de-fanged and de-clawed and caged in that zoo of art known as the museum. It was hung with string and wire on nails, like meat on butcher’s hooks. Plucked of its feathers and stripped of its fur, postmodernism was boiled down for the masses and served up in bite-sized portions through audio guides (sound-bites) and information placards, with the full menu available for your perusal in one pricey, glossy catalog (£40).
In captivity, disoriented and horny, the art bred an offspring of posters, prints, and postcard reproductions for slaughter and consumption in the museum shop. No longer exactly ‘subversive,’ but certainly still stylish, you may purchase a scaled-down version of Jenny Holzer’s anti-consumerist piece “Protect Me From What I Want” (£9.50), New Order and Eurythmics CD’s (£12 each), or a case for your iPhone shaped like a 1980’s mobile phone (“Simply slot your iPhone into the custom-made holder and capture the look and feel of the 1980s ‘house brick’ without losing any of your 21st-century specs!” — £18), along with the complete works of Bret Easton Ellis and other formerly transgressive authors. T-shirts with slogans (“I’m a dedicated follower of fashion” — £75) and barcode cufflinks (£12.50) outfit mannequins that wave a static goodbye on your way out the door.
Back in the main exhibit hall, design, architecture, fashion and furniture are cellmates with music and its associated artifacts (videos and album covers especially). But literature seems to have made a run for it. The UK-based magazine “Philosophy Now” (the hottest tabloid I know) bagged that prize. In 2006, the publication ran an article titled “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond” that identified the same trend in the literary world. Wrote Alan Kirby:
“Most of the undergraduates who will take ‘Postmodern Fictions’ this year will have been born in 1985 or after, and all but one of the module’s primary texts were written before their lifetime. Far from being ‘contemporary’, these texts were published in another world, before the students were born: ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ ‘Nights at the Circus,’ ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller,’ ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (and ‘Blade Runner’), ‘White Noise’: this is Mum and Dad’s culture. Some of the texts … were written even before their parents were born. Replace this cache with other postmodern stalwarts — ‘Beloved,’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot,’ ‘Waterland,’ ‘The Crying of Lot 49,’ ‘Pale Fire,’ ‘Slaughterhouse 5’… and the same applies. It’s all about as contemporary as The Smiths, as hip as shoulder pads, as happening as Betamax video recorders.”
Once a set of artistic principles and ideas has had a major museum exhibit or been canonized in the college curriculum (or even the high school reading list), its credibility as being remotely avant-garde is shot. The cutting edge, it’s well-mythologized, exists in fringe galleries and underground exhibitions, the shared studio apartments of ramen-fed artists and broke writers, their work still taboo and as-yet undiscovered, too radical for mainstream praise or acceptance. Once the checks and invitations start arriving, whether or not you cash them in or show up at the openings, someone somewhere will proclaim you’ve $old out. Then they’ll put that on a T-shirt and charge the next generation £75.