On Postmodernism: by AHA tutor Andy MacKay

To the Postmodern thinker anything is worthy of consideration; in artistic terms the sweet wrapper or the graffiti on the walls of a public loo are equally as ‘worthy’ of attention as a Rembrandt or a Leonardo masterpiece. Postmodernism was and is symptomatic of dissatisfaction with the ‘Grand Narratives’ which have guided the Western world for past five hundred years or more. Its genesis is difficult to locate, but its manifestation in both theory and practice emerges just after the Second World War. It is, rather like German ‘Dada’ of the 1920s, an anti-movement. It is an attitude more than anything else – a performative position, a way of seeing the world, at turns both endlessly liberating and soullessly sterile.

Jeff Koons 'Louis XIV' (1986)

What interests me is what others might describe as the ‘sterile’ bit – Postmodernism’s philosophical and critical flipside which necessitates a negation, for example, of the very concepts of ‘good’ ‘bad’, ‘worth’, ‘value’,  ‘masterpiece’ or even ‘art’ itself. Realistically ‘everything’ may mean – or signify – absolutely ‘nothing’ at all. It’s this aspect, the giddy ‘levelling’ implicit in Postmodernism – its intellectual ‘death wish’ if you like – which I find most intriguing. It is liberating to question things. The rigour of the questioning forces us to challenge and defend conventionally held assumptions and beliefs, and nothing is worth believing – in and of its self – unless it has been scrutinised.

'Indeterminate Fascade' for the Best showroom in Houston, USA (1975)

The philosophical and scientific ‘revolts’ of the 19th century (emerging directly out of 18th  century Enlightenment patterns of thinking) had a profound impact on the 20th century. During the inter-war period, French Existentialism – finding so much initial nourishment in the work of Nietzsche for example – brought European intellectuals to the garden gate of a Postmodern condition.

Leigh Bowery

The Second World War was like a full stop at the end of the Old World sentence. Modernism itself was of course a necessary break with the past, but Modernism wasn’t conscious that it had in fact internalised a Euro-centric, pseudo-Christian, post-Romantic teleology thereby sowing the seeds of its eventual demise. Just as if one believes in good, one must also believe in ‘bad’; if one believes in ‘progress’ one is stalked by a fear of ‘regress’. Recognising that in essence Modernism was just another great European fallacy, by the 1960s thinkers and creative-types began to revel in the ‘regress’: to question the very concepts of ‘good’ ‘bad’/’progress’ and ‘regress’. Postmodernism is really the end of ‘style’ as traditionally conceived – in fact it is difficult even to describe it as a coherent artistic or philosophical ‘movement’. It is an attitude. Through this final ironic severance from the past and with an ‘end time’ attitude curiously its own, new and divergent potentialities were created. Postmodernism’s greatest legacy is the internet itself: we live with it every day and ultimately it makes our lives better.  It is odd then that Postmodernism began to lose its critical potency just before the invention of the internet and very soon after Francis Fukuyama famously announced we’d reached ‘the end of history’ itself.

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