Michelangelo fridge magnets
Materials: moulded plaster, magnetised metal
Dimensions: average, 5 centimeters
Place acquired: novelty gift shop, London
Place of manufacture: not known
Michelangelo completed his David, in Florence in 1504. It's a famous masterpiece of renaissance sculpture, a huge, eroticised male nude, and the sculpture’s youthful features epitomise a western ideal of male beauty. To take those distinctive features, the eyes, nose, lips and ears, reproduce them in miniature in ersatz marble, and market them as novelty refrigerator door magnets, invites some examination.
The intention is jokey, but these items make some cultural demands too. We are expected to recognise what artwork is being quoted, and to be sophisticated enough to appreciate the mixture of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture that this creates. I found these little novelty magnets in 2005, but they would fit happily into a world of, say, the mid 1960s or later. Any earlier and they would have been rather puzzling, and not just because of the lack of refrigerators. It's because they are, in a word, ‘postmodern’.
Postmodernism is, or should I say was, fascinating. It now seems like no more than a brief fad of the recent past, but in many ways it represented a radical break with a long line of Western thought. In the world of architecture and the arts (which is where these decorative objects come from) postmodernism seemed to be little more than playful pastiche, a self-conscious quoting and mixing of historical styles in a knowing way that refused to commit to any one look. It was the opposite of modernism’s rigid certainties.
But as a philosophical system, developed mainly by a generation of French thinkers, postmodernism was more trenchant. It attacked the very concept of ‘truth’ on which much Western thought has been based. It saw ideas, knowledge, certainty, all as relative, and refused to privilege one over another. This made it subversive but, by definition, apolitical. It rejected truth and so rejected ideology. Ironically its refusal to take sides could be seen tacitly to favour the dominance of globalised capitalism, and the playful eclecticism of postmodern design was a gift to the advertising industry that serves that dominant culture.
But the challenges that post-modernist theory threw down to the arrogance of ‘truth’ (and some of the ugly forms it has taken over the centuries) remain valid. Even these fridge magnets carry an echo of this. Michelangelo’s David is the epitome of the European classical ideal – a perfect white male, in perfect white marble. To isolate his features and stick them on a fridge door is a gentle mockery, and any ‘truth’ that the sculpture is supposed to represent has been subtly challenged.