Postmodernism is Dead: Essay

Written for Prospect Magazine


I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” Wait, I hear you cry. How do they know? And what was it? Postmodernism—I didn’t understand it. I never understood it. How can it be over?

You are not alone. If there’s one word that confuses, upsets, angers, beleaguers, exhausts and contaminates us all, then it is postmodernism. And yet, properly understood, postmodernism is playful, intelligent, funny and fascinating. From Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, from Andy Warhol to Gilbert and George, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace, its influence has been everywhere and continues. It has been the dominant idea of our age.

So what was it? Well, the best way to begin to understand postmodernism is with reference to what went before: modernism. Unlike, say, the Enlightenment or Romanticism, postmodernism (even as a word) summons up the movement it intends to overturn. In this way, postmodernism might be seen as the delayed germination of an older seed, planted by artists like Marcel Duchamp, during modernism’s high noon of the 1920s and 1930s. (Seen in this light, the start-date that the V&A offers for postmodernism—1970—is quite late.)

Thus, if modernists like Picasso and Cézanne focused on design, hierarchy, mastery, the one-off, then postmodernists, such as Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning, were concerned with collage, chance, anarchy, repetition. If modernists such as Virginia Woolf relished depth and metaphysics, then postmodernists such as Martin Amis favoured surface and irony. As for composers, modernists like Béla Bartók were hieratic and formalist, and postmodernists, like John Adams, were playful and interested in deconstructing. In other words, modernism preferred connoisseurship, tended to be European and dealt in universals. Postmodernism preferred commodity and America, and embraced as many circumstances as the world contained.

In the beginning, postmodernism was not merely ironical, merely gesture, some kind of clever sham, a hotchpotch for the sake of it. It became these things later in lesser works by lesser artists: Michael Nyman, Takashi Murakami, Tracey Emin and Jonathan Safran Foer. Rather, in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

Above all, it was a way of thinking and making that sought to strip privilege from any one ethos and to deny the consensus of taste. Like all the big ideas, it was an artistic tendency that grew to take on social and political significance. As Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian-American philosopher, has said, there moved through this (our) period “a vast will to un-making, affecting the body politic, the body cognitive, the erotic body, the individual psyche, the entire realm of discourse in the west.”

Architecture is perhaps the easiest way to see some of these ideas in practice. In London, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (1991) is typical: the classical facets all stand in counterpoint to one another, offsetting and undermining and re-emphasising other more vernacular features like the gaping warehouse-door style entrances and the high non-windows; some of the columns are visible from one direction only; there’s redundancy; everything is over-determined and mannered; styles clash, mix, mingle.

The most contentious example of postmodern design, however, is the AT&T building in New York which was completed in 1984. The story of its reception is symbolic. In essence, the AT&T was considered a betrayal of everything positive and progressive that had been achieved since the war. It was a dissent from the implicit modernist notion that we would all march forward together into those bright and boxy skyscrapers glinting so functionally in the sun. What was this classical pediment with a circle shape cut out of the centre? What were the vast arched entryways and the pink granite detailing? The architect in question was the great Philip Johnson, the same Philip Johnson, it should be remembered, who was previously America’s most celebrated champion of modernism. Johnson died in 2005 but I met his artistic collaborator, Judith Grinberg, the woman who worked on the original drawings with him, and she recounted the impact of the building as we walked through its mighty halls.

“The terrible roar of objection centred on the top—the broken pediment,” she explained. “They hated it. There were people fighting each other in the pages of the press: aggressive, personal, vindictive, often nothing to do with architecture. Some people petitioned. Others denounced us. A lot of people attacked the authorities that had allowed construction… it went on and on.”

Grinberg remembers Johnson coming back from a trip to Italy with pictures of Florentine buildings and recalls the fundamental change in his thinking. “With all that reflection and refraction, modernism creates the illusion that there is an illusion when in fact it is a straightforward statement of money and power. But we wanted to get away from that. We wanted to say something else. There was a return to ornamentation—and there was a frivolity—something over and above the brutal structural form of the old modernist designs. You could say that the AT&T legitimised postmodernism to the whole world. The building became a lightning rod for what was happening, socially maybe, as well as architecturally.” This was a building that challenged the modernist premise of functional power by referencing other older, European styles, a building that collated and collapsed previous strictures, but was also something entirely new and radical and, in this, subversive. It was a provocation.


Thus apprised, we can now begin to identify postmodern artworks elsewhere in the period. The ceramics of Betty Woodman, are one example. In her work, the object and the image cohabit and references are made to both the history of colour and the history of ceramics. But no style or shape is privileged—or not for long. The Memphis-Milano movement (an Italian design and architecture group founded by Ettore Sottsass) also generated strongly postmodern work. One such example was the Casablanca sideboard from 1981, which is made out of plastic laminate so as to imply that design itself is theatrical, skin deep, kitsch.

But the attack against modernism was not merely negative. Perhaps the most positive and compelling example of postmodernism—postmodernism at its best if you will—is to be found in the world of dance; specifically, the truly amazing 1981 work, Drastic Classicism, choreographed by the great dancer Karole Armitage. The show begins when four electric guitarists and a drummer come on stage, and begin to crank out a voiceless punky cacophony which has no exact rhythm or melody. Oh Christ, we think. But then on come the dancers and suddenly the performance explodes—detonates—on the senses. Whatever dance was doing before, we realise, it won’t be doing it in quite the same way ever again. There is so much raw energy on stage: classical ballet combines with street dance, punk with folk, hip-hop with moments of ballroom, and then back again to ballet. There are leaps, grimaces, erotic posturing, ballons, brisés, bourrées. Sometimes the dancers dance alone, sometimes together. We begin to see classical ballet in the light of punk and punk in the light of hip-hop and hip-hop in the light of folk…

And thus, through powerful juxtaposition, the constituent parts of the performance, each of which is individually familiar, are renewed in front of our very eyes. We see them in fresh and startling ways. They garner new meanings and suggestions and resonances. That energy, that detonation, that de-favouring of one form over the other, that dissonant reassembly, the reappraisal that must follow, all of this taken together is pure and, yes, beautiful postmodernism.

The pop culture of the time deals in similar ideas. The classic example is David Byrne singing “you may ask yourself: how did I get here?” in the trailer for the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense (1984), which then asks “why a film?” while he wears that famously huge suit (a statement about over-statement) and the images are interrupted by another question “Why the Big Suit?” and he begins to dance, but doesn’t really, until the next interruption “Why the odd movements?” and so on. Or again in, say, the 1988 video for Neneh Cherry’s song “Buffalo Stance,” which tells us that “no money man can win my love” while Cherry wears a gold dollar sign around her neck and the tune is stopped for her to say “know what I mean?” in an English accent.

The apogee of postmodernism pop, though, is of course Madonna. She is Marilyn Monroe at one moment, Marlene Dietrich the next; she is sadomasochist, virgin, material girl, wearer of the cross; she is the iconoclast feverishly invoking iconography, the eternal shape-shifter obsessed with her body, the image maker; she is brilliant; she endures; and yet she is a terrible actor, a clumsy and effortful dancer and an unexceptional singer. The over-styling, the celebrity-from-scratch, the referencing, the collation of images, the intensely self-conscious mediation with the audience, the whole stopping-making-sense-while-saying-something-about-sense-itself—that’s postmodernism.

So, let’s now turn with a little more confidence to the quagmire of sociology, politics and philosophy—Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault and so on. Postmodernism first appeared as a philosophical term in the book The Postmodern Condition (1979) by Jean-François Lyotard, the French thinker. Lyotard drew on Wittgenstein’s idea of the “language game,” which had pointed out that different groups of people use the same language in different ways, which in turn can lead to their looking at the world in quite separate ways. So, for instance, the priest might use a word, say “truth,” in a very different way to the scientist, who in turn would understand the term in quite a different way to the policeman, the journalist, the philosopher, or the artist. In this way, the notion of a single, overarching view of the world—a dominant narrative (or to use the jargon, meta-narrative)—vanishes. There is no single narrative, no privileged standpoint, no system or theory that overlays all others. Hence, Lyotard argued, all narratives exist together, side by side, with none dominating. This confluence of narratives is the essence of postmodernism. (Lyotard was an adherent of Marxism, one of the most potent meta-narratives of the modern age. But he turned his back on Marx. In this way, the origins of postmodern thought can be seen as, in part, a rejection of the totalitarian impulse—also, and not coincidentally, at its most powerful in the 1920s and 1930s.) Sadly, 75 per cent of the rest of the stuff written about postmodernism is nonsensical, incoherent, self-contradicting or otherwise emblematic of the crap that has consumed the academic world of linguistics and “continental” philosophy for too long. But not all.

There are two important points. First, that postmodernism is really an attack not just on the dominant narrative or art forms but rather an attack on the dominant social discourse. All art is philosophy and all philosophy is political. And the epistemic confrontation of postmodernism, this idea of de-privileging any one meaning, this idea that all discourses are equally valid, has therefore lead to some real-world gains for humankind. Because once you are in the business of challenging the dominant discourse, you are also in the business of giving hitherto marginalised and subordinate groups their voice. And from here it is possible to see how postmodernism has helped western society understand the politics of difference and so redress the miserable injustices which we have hitherto either ignored or taken for granted as in some way acceptable. You would have to be from the depressingly religious right or an otherwise peculiarly recondite and inhuman school of thought not to believe, for example, that the politics of gender, race and sexuality have been immeasurably affected for the better by the assertion of their separate discourses. The transformation from an endemically and casually sexist, racist and homophobic society to one that legislates for and promotes equality is a resonantly good thing. No question.

The second point is deeper still. Postmodernism aimed further than merely calling for a re-evaluation of power structures: it said that we are all in our very selves nothing more than the breathing aggregate of those structures. It contends that we cannot stand apart from the demands and identities that these structures and discourses confer upon us. Adios the Enlightenment. See you later Romanticism. Instead, it holds that we move through a series of co-ordinates on various maps—class, gender, religious, sexual, ethnic, situational—and that those co-ordinates are actually our only identity. We are entirely constructed. There is nothing else. And this, in an over-simplified nutshell, is the main challenge that postmodernism brought to the great banquet of human ideas because it changed the game from one of self-determination (Kant et al) to other-determination. I am constructed, therefore I am. But here we come at last to the trickiest question of all: how do we know postmodernism is over and why?

Let’s go back to the arts, the front line. It is not that postmodernism’s impact is diminished or disappearing. Not at all; we can’t unlearn a great idea. But rather, postmodernism is itself being replaced as the dominant discourse and is now taking its place on the artistic and intellectual palette alongside all the other great ideas and movements. In the same way as we are all a little Victorian at times, a little modernist, a little Romantic, so we are all, and will forever be, children of postmodernism. (This in itself is, of course, a postmodern idea.) All these movements subtly inform our imaginations and the way we discuss, create, react and interact. But, more and more, postmodernism is becoming “just” another one of the colours we might use. (Lady Gaga uses it, for example; but Adele does not.) Or, to switch metaphor, just another tool in the artist’s kit. Why? Because we are all becoming more comfortable with the idea of holding two irreconcilable ideas in our heads: that no system of meaning can have a monopoly on the truth, but that we still have to render the truth through our chosen system of meaning. So the postmodern challenge, while no less radical, somehow feels less powerful to us. We are learning to live with it.

Perhaps the best way to explain the reason for this development is to use my own art form: the novel. Postmodernism has informed literature for as long as I have been alive—Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Italo Calvino, Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco and so on through the alphabet. Indeed, the way I have written this article—self-consciously mixing both a formal and informal tone—is indebted to its ideas: the high style and the low style coexist for purposes of creating moments of surprise or unsettlement, or obscenity, or insight, in an effort to engage. But—and it’s a big but—the problem, which has been getting worse, is what we might call the postmodern paradox.

For a while, as communism began to collapse, the supremacy of western capitalism seemed best challenged by deploying the ironic tactics of postmodernism. Over time, though, a new difficulty was created: because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times before, accommodates all needs. So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace. What then becomes sought and desired are fictions that resonate with the widest possible public: that is, with as many discourses as possible. This public can then give or withhold approval measured in sales.

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

And, of course, there’s a parallel paradox in politics and philosophy. If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.

Looked at in this way, it’s easier to see why its power has been diminishing. The postmodern solution will no longer do as a response to the world we now find ourselves in. As human beings, we avowedly do not wish to be left with only the market. Even billionaires want art collections. (Interestingly, that’s often one of the first things they want.) That conversation between artist and the public is therefore changing again, hastened by and in parallel with the dawn of the digital age.

Certainly, the internet is the most postmodern thing on the planet. The immediate consequence in the west seems to have been to breed a generation more interested in social networking than social revolution. But, if we look behind that, we find a secondary reverse effect—a universal yearning for some kind of offline authenticity. We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word “proper” on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word “legend” as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. (The elevation of real life to myth!) We can recognise it in advertising campaigns such as for Jack Daniel’s, which ache to portray not rebellion but authenticity. We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. A culture of care is advertised and celebrated and cherished. Values are important once more: the values that the artist puts into the making of an object as well as the values that the consumer takes out of the object. And all of these striven-for values are separate to the naked commercial value.

Go deeper still and we can see a growing reverence and appreciation for the man or woman who can make objects well. We note a new celebration of meticulousness, such as in the way Steven Wessel makes his extraordinary handmade flutes out of stainless steel. We uncover a new emphasis on design through making in the hand-crafted work of the Raw Edges Design Studios, say, with their Self-Made collection, objects that are original, informed by personal stories and limited edition. Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write. Jonathan Franzen is the great example here: a novelist universally (and somewhat desperately) lauded, raised almost to the status of a universal redeemer, because he eschews the evasions of genre or historical fiction or postmodern narratorial strategies and instead tries to say something complex and intelligent and telling and authentic and well-written about his own time. It’s not just the story, after all, but how the story is told.

These three ideas, of specificity, of values and of authenticity, are at odds with postmodernism. We are entering a new age. Let’s call it the Age of Authenticism and see how we get on.