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Postmodernism – An Movement of Cynics

by David Fox

Insofar as I think about postmodernism at all, and it doesn’t exactly keep me awake at nights, I think of it as something that happens to one, not a style one affects. We’re postmoderns because we’re not modernists.

The modernist writers Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Stevens, Yeats, Woolf, Williamsspoke, with a kind of vatic authority: they were really the last of the Romantics, for whom authorship itself was like being a solitary prophet in the wasteland.

Jonathan R.


What is Postmodernism?

Anti-authoritarian by nature, postmodernism refuses to recognize the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be. It collapsed the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, between art and everyday life.

Often funny, ludicrous or tongue-in-cheek; it can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself. Mixing different artistic and popular styles and media, postmodernist art can consciously and self-consciously borrow from or ironically comment on a range of styles from the past.

However, the term was not used in the contemporary sense until 1979 in The Postmodern Condition by philosopher J.F.Lyotard.

From the late 19th to the mid 20th century, literature, science, art and philosophy were defined by a sense of progress and technological advancement, brought about by the industrial revolution and affiliation with the positivity of modern life.

Artists such as Paul Cézanne and Piet Mondrian strove to find a universal means of expression through the increasing abstraction of their subject. Other artists who focused on the subjective and the forbidden, such as Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp were usually seen as outliners in this emphasis on progress and rationality; Dada artists ridiculed the art establishment with their anarchic actions and irreverent performances; the first signs of postmodernism were evident.

By the 1930s, the process of painting, once the means to depict a subject through the use of line, color and form, became the subject itself. Fundamental to the modernist avant-garde artists was autonomy, individuality and the tendency for radical experimentation in search of an ultimate meaning or truth.

Bye Bye Optimism

By the middle of the century the Western world had experienced a major paradigm shift: two devastating world wars, millions of lives lost, communist ideologies shattered and nuclear weapons utilized. The modernist optimism that had dominated in a pre-war world now doomed to fail, and seemed irrelevant and outdated.

Europe was no longer the center of modern art or the avant-garde; the focus of the art now moved to New York and to the Abstract Expressionists who were flourishing in a new era of reinvigorated post-war capitalism.

Once Abstract Expressionism became a mainstream movement, young artists began questioning it for its lack of reference both to the state of the world and to the flourishing popular culture of which its artists were a part.

Motivated by these feelings and with desire to create an art that acknowledged everyday life, artists began to experiment with new styles that borrowed and recreated imagery from the mass culture that surrounded them.

While modernism was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism was born of skepticism. It challenged the notion that there are universal certainties or truth. This new concept of thinking is distinguished by a questioning of the master narratives that were embraced during the modern period.

By rejecting such narratives, postmodernists reject the idea that knowledge or history can be encompassed in totalizing theories, embracing instead the local, the temporary and the contingent; other narratives rejected by postmodernists include the notion that only men are artistic geniuses, the idea of artistic development as goal-oriented, and the colonialist assumption that non-white races are inferior.

While you think about what all that means, you can watch David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Embracing Incoherence

Postmodernism cannot be described as a coherent movement. A new approach to the mass media and pop culture emerged in the 1959s, sparking a wave of art movements that reintroduced representation from disparate sources and experimented with image, aesthetic codes, spectacle, boundaries, authenticity and viewer involvement in ways that challenged previous definitions of art.

The arrival of Neo-Dada and Pop art marked the beginning of a reaction against this mindset that came to be known as postmodernism. This reaction took on multiple artistic forms for the next four decades, including Minimalism, Conceptual art, Performance art, Video art and Installation art.

These artistic concepts are diverse and disparate, but connected by certain characteristics: playful and ironical treatment of a fragmented subject, the breakdown of high and low culture hierarchies, undermining of concepts of originality and authenticity, and an emphasis on image and spectacle.

In fact, it could be argued that nowadays, postmodernism and pop culture have become one and the same. Behold! Cats watching cats watching cats watching Nyan cat!

High culture is a term used to describe traditional fine arts, commonly employed by the art critics to evoke class, quality and authenticity. It is also used to distinguish types of art disciplines and media from the kitsch, low or popular culture of mass-produced commodities, television, magazines and pulp fiction that took America by storm in the post-war consumerist boom.

In his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch Klement Greenberg warned the modernist avant-garde against association with what he considered philistine outpourings. He proposed instead that artists’ concerns should be reserved for an art that could transform society.

In response, the postmodernists embraced the ‘popular’ wholeheartedly and made it central to their work. Pop artists recreated the mundane objects of consumerism, but used irony and humor to transform these into gigantic soft form or into cultural icons, while the Minimalists used industrial materials to create repetitive forms reminiscent of the industrial production line.

Giant Hamburger, from 1962, was one of Cleas Oldenburg’s first soft sculptures, where he recreated common objects using cushioned materials that belied their solid structures. This piece uses the banality reminiscent of Dada’s readymades to elevate a piece of everyday life to the status of art.

In his re-appropriation of this object with discordant materials he underscores the larger than life quality of popular low culture, in this case junk food, in everyday life.

Worship Culture

The series named Marilyn Diptych, silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe were made in the months after her death in 1962, by Warhol who was fascinated by both the cult of celebrity and by death.

The color contrasted against the monochrome that fades out to the right is suggestive of life and death, while the repetition of image echoes her ubiquitous presence in the media. The use of diptych format, which was common in Christian altarpieces in the Middle age and Renaissance, draws attention to the American worship of images and celebrities.

This work can be seen as postmodern in many senses: its overt reference to pop culture, low art challenges the purity of the modernist aesthetic, its repetition is an homage to mass production, and its ironic play on the concept of authenticity undermines the authority of the artist.

The popular emerged as both the subject and the medium for many artists and commercialism was embraced. This focus on ‘’low’’ culture stretched the definition of art and providing social critique. Also, advertising and the mass media became increasingly pervasive.

Images on the screen were reflecting a new reality and it was often more difficult to distinguish between fiction and fact, especially with the widespread use of advertising. French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard called this situation hyperreality, likening postmodern existence to a flickering TV screen: immediate, shifting, and fragmented, with no underlying truth.

These new ideas inspired artists, such as Barbara Kruger, who began depicting the surface rather than any truth or deeper meaning; style and spectacle, rather than substance was where meaning was created. Her work Untitled / I shop therefore I am, from 1987, is characteristic of her style; the juxtaposition of found photographs with provocative and aggressive slogans in a photolithograph that appropriates the direct style and visual form of mass media communication and undermines distinction between the imagery, aesthetic and audience for high art and that of advertising.

The statement I shop, therefore I am, subverts René Descartes’ philosophical claim I think therefore I am, critically referring to the notion that consumerism rather than human agency is now the force that shapes identity; a person’s value and identity runs no deeper than the surface encompassing their purchases and the labels they wear.

Camp and Kitsch

Simultaneously, a camp aesthetic was born, especially evident in music and fashion that drew from past styles of Gothic and Baroque- the more dazzling, flamboyant and shocking-the more effective.

In Jeff Koons’ piece Michael Jackson and Bubbles, from 1988, Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles, who was also his closest friend, are shown life-size sitting on a bed of flowers. This piece is a good example of the excesses that characterize Koons’ art in terms of size, color and theme.

The work was done as part of of Koons’ Banality series and serves as a good example of the kitsch aspect of much of Koons’s art in that it valorizes the garish and the sentimental.

At the time, Jackson was at the high of his popularity, which Koons underscored by painting the figures in gold in order to make Jackson into a ‘god-like icon’ The white and gold coloring is reminiscent of Byzantine, Baroque and Rococo art; this hearkening back to past styles and deliberate theatricality is typical of the camp aesthetic that characterize some postmodern art.

Jeff Koons Michael Jackson And Bubbles
Jeff Koons Michael Jackson And Bubbles

With the advent of postmodernism, some artists began exploring past styles and media as part of the postmodern aesthetic that brought back both the subjective and the historical but with a purposeful lack of stylistic unity and integrity.

A popular postmodernist phrase was ‘’anything goes’, which referred both to this growing convergence culture as well as to the collapse of the distinction between bad and good taste and the difficulty of assigning value or judging works of art based on traditional criteria.

Artists adopted the mechanisms of both art and non-art forms, using a multitude of media to convey multiple messages.

For instance, Gerhard Richter playfully mixed aesthetic codes and genres, displacing existing meaning in structures and creating new ones; using parody and pastiche, old ideas could be recreated in new contexts. He was one of several German artists who revived painting as a medium, at a time when many artists had abandoned painting for installation or performance art, but in ways that challenged its traditional qualities, using his experiments to question basic assumptions about the notion and representation itself.

In Apple Tree, from 1987, he produces a traditional landscape such as one might find in German Romantic landscape painting, but he blurs the image so that information and details about the landscape are not obvious or even available, thus calling into question the point of representational art which is to represent.

His method keeps interpretational possibilities open by not limiting what the viewer can see.

In film, for instance, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, 1994, defies traditional narrative, drawing from multiple genres and offering a fragmented montage of characters and plots in an arbitrary order.

In 1911, Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal called “Fountain” signed with a fictional name in an exhibit and called it art. In doing so, he mocked the entire foundations on which the institution of art had been built.

Attack on the Elite

Traditionally, uniqueness and originality gave an artwork its value in symbolic and monetary terms, and was a concept preserved through modernist art criticism. In 1936, Walter Benjamin, a cultural theorist wrote an essay entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which radically reworked this view, laying charges of elitism at the feet of key figures such as Greenberg.

Benjamin claimed that reproduction through printing and other methods could achieve the democratization of art because of its lower commodity value and accessibility to the masses.

Pop artists, minimalists, conceptual artists and performance artists adopted Benjamin’s ethos, interpreting his words through a diverse range of media and techniques that undermined concept of authenticity and value and distorted commoditization. Within Pop art and Feminist art of the 1970s and again in the 1990s, among certain artists, there was a surge of interest in the idea of collective authorship that further undermined traditional ideas of creativity and artistic genius that had been in place since the Renaissance.

Modernist art was not just seen as elitist but also as Western, white and male-dominated. Postmodernism coincided with the rise in Feminism, the fight for LGBT rights and postcolonial thought, civil rights movements, and provoked a concern for a more pluralist approach; many artists began to address subjects from multiple perspectives to include the viewpoints of previously underrepresented positions.

Sea Change

In general, there are two main theoretical approaches to understanding postmodernism, its place in the contemporary art world and its relation to modernism.

One argument is that postmodernism both continues and disrupts modernism as there is evidence of both existing in contemporary art, which is a term that broadly refers to any art created within the last twenty years, thus encompassing any style and all art production.

The attitudes and styles that marks postmodernism can be understood as paradigmatic shifts that mark a rupture or crisis in cultural history. From this viewpoint, the impact of postmodern, post-feminist and post-colonial though has sparked a sea of change in art; the diverse, ephemeral, globally focused, cross disciplinary, and collaborative nature of contemporary art practice is informed by postmodernist attitudes and appears both transformative and persistent.

Look no further than these dank 4chan memes to see how far things have come … or gone, as it were.

Postmodernism claims to close gap between high and low culture and ‘’bad’’ taste, yet there is evidence that these distinctions remain. In the early 1990s, a group of young Goldsmith College students put together a graduate show called Sensation- a highly postmodern concept.

The reaction was unprecedented; public and critics alike expressed shock and appall at the provocative imagery and explicit references to subjects of ‘bad’ taste.

The group became known as the Young British Artists and sparked revival in conceptual art using shock tactics to question art’s meaning, as Duchamp had gone 80 years earlier.

Their notoriety has persisted providing evidence for some that the old taste hierarchies of modernism live on. With this argument, postmodernism has not replaced modernism but coexists alongside it. In fact, it can even serve to rock you!

Erm, another view, which has recently emerged in a small but persuasive body of writing, argues that we have moved on into a post modernist era. Some theorists and critics claim that postmodernism is outdated and they question the value of a movement sustained by cynicism, superficiality and nihilism.

Some even argue for a return to the principles of modernism albeit in different forms.

Edward Docx called this post-postmodern era the ‘Age of Authenticity’, characterized by a revival of authenticity and craftsmanship over style and concept. Other theorists include ‘alter modernism’, which is Nicolas Bourriaud’s term for the ‘non-stop communication and globalization’ culture of today, and ‘pseudo-modernism’, a term by Alan Kirby, who claims there has been a shift from audience spectatorship to a more active yet trivial participation, evident in reality TV voting culture.

While you’re pondering that, watch an episode of Flavor of Love…S1E1.

Postmodernism R.I.P.?

These attempts to claim the end of postmodernism are wide-ranging and nonconsensual but are united in elements of their critique. They are all weary of the relentlessness of postmodern irony, and yearn for some return to reality and truth.

In different ways they undermine postmodernism’s dominance as a way of thinking or as an attitude to life, reducing it instead to one movement in a long history of movements, one that is now in its demise.


About David Fox

David Fox is an artist who created to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.

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