IT’S BEEN NEARLY THREE years since Nicolas Bourriaud, curating the fourth Tate Triennial, declared, ‘Postmodernism is dead.’ It had been replaced, he said in an accompanying manifesto, by something he called Altermodern.
Whether or not ‘Altermodern’ is a conceit that will gain wide acceptance is still to be seen. But about the demise of postmodernism, there may be some reluctant – although by no means universal – agreement. Bourriaud began his work on the Tate exhibition in 2007 – which is also when curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt began working on the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-1990. Does a V&A exhibition bracketing those dates suggest a lifespan – and a kind of obituary?
If it does, Bourriaud’s idea wasn’t the inspiration for the V&A’s exhibition. As curator Glenn Adamson told the Fortnightly, the Altermodern show was ‘the latest (and perhaps most explicit) attempt to replace postmodernism with a related piece of nomenclature. We didn’t have the show in mind when curating our own project though…the material that Bourriaud was gathering there wasn’t really relevant to our thinking.’
But Adamson doesn’t necessarily dispute Bourriaud’s claim.
My argument is that as the central movement (or phenomenon) in art and design history, postmodernism had indeed run its course by the late 1980s. By this time, exhaustion had settled in around the term – which had perhaps suffered from overuse – and there was also a good deal of anger about corporate applications of the style and ideas associated with it, e.g. the AT&T Building. While the condition of ‘postmodernity’, as analyzed by theorists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey, could be said to be growing apace to this day, I think of postmodernism in art and design as a sort of ‘early warning system’ for that broader situation. The distinction I am making here parallels that between modernism (again, an art and design movement) and modernity (a much larger-scale phase in economic, political and social history). I think it is helpful to distinguish between these.
I should stress though that this is just my opinion. If you were to ask Charles Jencks for example he would say that postmodernism is alive and kicking.
It’s difficult, not to mention ironic, to consign ‘postmodernism’ to history. As for ‘Altermodernism’, the controversy seems to have passed (see designer Tim Holloway’s sympathetic analysis here), which is not to say Bourriaud’s ability to create controversy has diminished. Late last year, he was appointed chairman of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (ENSBA), apparently under the sponsorship of France’s Minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterrand. Traditionally, that post has been occupied by an artist, often an ex-student. According to AMA, the appointment of a controversial curator instead spurred a letter of protest from several European museum directors. Among them: Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern.
Our coverage of the exhibition:
A closing thought on the V&A exhibition: Notes on the complexities of Post-Modernism by Charles Jencks.
More: Glenn Adamson on postmodernism in The Telegraph (2011). Alan Kirby on ‘our post-postmodern culture and society’ in the Times Higher Education (2010). Sam Jacob on Radical Post-Modernism in Strange Harvest.