Postmodernism and Making Things at the V&A: All that was vapid turned into money

God, did Mrs W and I hate the 1980s. This was the most horrible decade of our lives. Not personally, actually–our kids were growing up, and that certainly kept us busy and delighted. I accidentally became an elected public official of the State of New Jersey, which was a hoot for a while until we moved to Massachusetts. I changed careers as I was approaching 40, leaving academics to go into finance, and it pretty much worked out personally. But the decade was just a complete loser. No, worse—it actually set us back as a country and a society. Milton Friedman, Ronald “evolution is just a theory” Reagan, the gutting of anti-trust enforcement, the endless fascination with the wealthy, the Tisch-Steinberg wedding, the rise of Donald Trump, Oscar de la Renta and his “Living well is the best revenge” motto, Nancy Reagan, the trashing of the unions, Madonna, the rollback of sensible environmental enforcement, Barbara Bush, the elimination of all the measures that would have probably made us energy self-sufficient by now, James Watt, Studio 54, the cocaine epidemic on Wall Street, “cocaine chic” brought to us by Calvin Klein advertising, the fact that there was barely any music to listen to…the list goes on.

And then there was the art.

Maybe we were over-exposed to the New York cultural scene, living in New Jersey at the time. It was hard to avoid. And this all comes rushing back by a visit to the Postmodernism show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as good a catalog of the vapidity, hypocrisy and outright intellectual fraud of the art movement that dominated the 1980s in the US and much of Europe, if the show is any indication. Interestingly, we get little sense that there was much going on in Britain at the time. What we do get is largely the outright crap that was being peddled as art in the US, mainly New York, where money was suddenly everywhere. And where anyone, it seemed, could call themselves an artist, put together something completely banal, and sell it to the unsuspecting, or in some cases people who should have know better.

I tend to agree with Mrs W, as I often do, who thought that the inspiration for the show came about by someone at the V&A tripping over one too may boxes in the basement of stuff that people kept asking themselves, “Just what is all this stuff? And how did we get SO MUCH of it?” Because it’s all here—those happy looking but complexly non-functional tea sets, the poster of Philip Johnson’s ATT building (apparently an afterthought, or a late addition), lots of album jackets of that grisly art-rock put out by people like The Talking Heads (who were, of course, art students before forming what I’m constantly assured is a seminal rock band), lots of architectural models (I bet these take up LOTS of space in the basement or wherever they store this stuff). It’s a chronicle of what passed for the art and design establishment of the time essentially seeing what they could get away with.

You get the feeling that the V&A folks, whom I have been critical in the past for the sloppy organization of many of their shows, do get it this time. For one thing, they have a couple of rooms devoted to “Money,” pointing out that money was something of a problem, since there was a sense that much of the art and design of this period was somehow compromised by the sheer amount of money that many of these people were making. That’s putting it mildly, and is a bit of a distortion, actually. The whole point was money—it was the ethos of the decade, and lots of people started calling themselves “artists” because they figured out it was a quick and easy way to make money. Jeff Koons was a banker before he became an “artist,” and did pretty well on the basis of, well, nothing. This legacy persists, of course—that’s why we’ve still got Damien Hirst and Tract Emin being treated as major figures in the British art world of today—old habits die hard, apparently.

At least the V&A seem to know this. How else to explain the amazing and jaw-dropping text that accompanies the exhibit? Here’s an example:

Of all movements in art and design history, postmodernism is perhaps the most controversial. This era defies definition, but it is a perfect subject for an exhibition. Postmodernism was an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical. It was visually thrilling, a multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.

What does that even mean? It’s a collection of buzzwords strung together. No one could actually write that with a straight face, so we’re assuming that much of this is a very sly comment on the art and design criticism of the time—much of which we’re still saddled with. Or this?

Postmodernism, by contrast, was more like a broken mirror, a reflecting surface made of many fragments. Its key principles were complexity and contradiction.

Honestly, who talks like this? It’s an interesting show, because it amply demonstrates what a waste of time and space this all was.

So it’s a great relief to wander of to another gallery at the V&A to the Power of Making exhibit, which is about, well, making things. These two shows couldn’t be more unlike. The Power of Making is a collection of objects, really, simply presented to show the craftsmanship of the object, or the uses to which many craftsman are putting modern technology. And how they do it–adding, subtracting, transforming. Saddles, shoes, shotguns, whatever—these all involve processes, and many of these processes are now digitized. And the materials may only have existed for a couple of years–or perhaps are even being created as part of the process. The show itself was curated by the Crafts Council, which tends to know a thing or two about the process of crafting objects, useful or not—but mostly useful.

There’s some great stuff here—not just the objects that can only really be made by craftsmen, like saddles and shotguns. There’s also the stuff that stretches the imagination a bit—the knitted rug with needles the size of baseball bats, the mahogany bicycle, and he bicycle made entirely out of fibre, the sugar sculpture created by the chefs at the museum, the prosthetic suit for Stephen Hawking, the crocheted life-sized brown bear. And the printers—these were great. There’s a whole set of printers that you can download the instructions to online (which I assumed would be in the catalog, but are not, so I’ll have to go back and take scrupulous notes). It’s hard to say what my favorites were, but I’m pretty partial to the frog dissection composed of Legos, which has the advantage, as pointed out, of not smelling of formaldehyde, or the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic.

It’s a fascinating show, not only for the objects themselves, but also for the films—40 short films on making many of the objects in the exhibit, which you can find here. It’s 71 minutes, pretty long for people to sit in front of for that long—but many people seemed happy to sit there a quite a while.

It’s also fascinating for the reaction of the people in the show, especially to the films. Rather than the blasé distance of the folks wandering through the Postmodernism show, often looking puzzled or aghast, the people in this large room are totally caught up what they’re seeing—everything is getting scrutinized, teenagers stare at the films is rapt attention, dads hold up their kids to explain stuff to them (there’s lots of stuff for the kids, by the way). It’s a brilliant show because it does what a museum show is supposed to do—thoroughly engage and enlighten its audience.

Yes, yes, I do tend to drone on about the importance of making things and its cultural significance. These two shows demonstrate why. Actually, the Making show cheered me up quite a bit—on the basis of this, there’s quite a lot going on. I think as long as we don’t call it “art,” it will be ok.

Categories: Arts/Literature

3 replies »

  1. I’d like to thank you for taking the bullet for the rest of us. Because I damned well assure you, I’LL not be visiting any postmodern art shows. Hell, the “art” may have even been as self-indulgently pointless as the social theory was…..

  2. Never again. It was really just to confirm my already strong bias. The Power of Making show made the trip worthwhile.

  3. Wonderful post. Thanks for this, not that I’d be able to see it anyway, but I know what I’m (not) missing!