Defining Postmodernism

Defining Postmodernism
In the interest of providing some sense of the range of the debate
surrounding postmodernism, a debate which is central to much
current thinking on hypertext, here is a definition provided by
James Morley. It appears here as it was posted on the Postmodern
Culture electronic conference list.
What is postmodernism?
Firstly, postmodernism was a movement in architecture that
rejected the modernist, avant garde, passion for the new.
Modernism is here understood in art and architecture as the project
of rejecting tradition in favour of going "where no man has gone
before" or better: to create forms for no other purpose than novelty.
Modernism was an exploration of possibilities and a perpetual
search for uniqueness and its cognate--individuality. Modernism's
valorization of the new was rejected by architectural
postmodernism in the 50's and 60's for conservative reasons. They
wanted to maintain elements of modern utility while returning to
the reassuring classical forms of the past. The result of this was an
ironic brick-a-brack or collage approach to construction that
combines several traditional styles into one structure. As collage,
meaning is found in combinations of already created patterns.
Following this, the modern romantic image of the lone creative
artist was abandoned for the playful technician (perhaps computer
hacker) who could retrieve and recombine creations from the past-data alone becomes necessary. This synthetic approach has been
taken up, in a politically radical way, by the visual, musical,and
literary arts where collage is used to startle viewers into reflection
upon the meaning of reproduction. Here, pop-art reflects culture
(American). Let me give you the example of Californian culture
where the person--though ethnically European, African, Asian, or
Hispanic--searches for authentic or "rooted" religious experience
by dabbling in a variety of religious traditions. The foundation of
authenticity has been overturned as the relativism of collage has set
in. We see a pattern in the arts and everyday spiritual life away
from universal standards into an atmosphere of
multidimentionality and complexity, and most importantly--the
dissolving of distinctions. In sum, we could simplistically outline
this movement in historical terms:
1. premodernism: Original meaning is possessed by authority (for
example, the Catholic Church). The individual is dominated by
2. modernism: The enlightenment-humanist rejection of tradition
and authority in favour of reason and natural science. This is
founded upon the assumption of the autonomous individual as the
sole source of meaning and truth--the Cartesian cogito. Progress
and novelty are valorized within a linear conception of history--a
history of a "real" world that becomes increasingly real or
objectified. One could view this as a Protestant mode of
3. postmodernism: A rejection of the sovereign autonomous
individual with an emphasis upon anarchic collective, anonymous
experience. Collage, diversity, the mystically unrepresentable,
Dionysian passion are the foci of attention. Most importantly we
see the dissolution of distinctions, the merging of subject and
object, self and other. This is a sarcastic playful parody of western
modernity and the "John Wayne" individual and a radical,
anarchist rejection of all attempts to define, reify or re-present the
human subject.
Ask an Expert: What
is the Difference
Between Modern and
Postmodern Art?
A curator from the Hirshhorn Museum
explains how art historians define the
two classifications
By Megan Gambino
SEPTEMBER 23, 2011
All trends become clearer with time. Looking at art even 15
years out, “you can see the patterns a little better,” says
Melissa Ho, assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum.
“There are larger, deeper trends that have to do with how we
are living in the world and how we are experiencing it.”
So what exactly is modern art? The question, she says, is less
answerable than endlessly discussable.
Technically, says Ho, modern art is “the cultural expression
of the historical moment of modernity.” But how to unpack
that statement is contested. One way of defining modern art,
or anything really, is describing what it is not. Traditional
academic painting and sculpture dominated the 17th, 18th
and 19th centuries. “It was about perfect, seamless technique
and using that perfect, seamless technique to execute very
well-established subject matter,” says Ho. There was a
hierarchy of genres, from history paintings to portraiture to
still lifes and landscapes, and very strict notions of beauty.
“Part of the triumph of modernism is overturning academic
values,” she says.
In somewhat of a backlash to traditional academic art,
modern art is about personal expression. Though it was not
always the case historically, explains Ho, “now, it seems
almost natural that the way you think of works of art are as
an expression of an individual vision.” Modernism spans a
huge variety of artists and kinds of art. But the values behind
the pieces are much the same. “With modern art, there is this
new emphasis put on the value of being original and doing
something innovative,” says Ho.
Edouard Manet and the Impressionists were considered
modern, in part, because they were depicting scenes of
modern life. The Industrial Revolution brought droves of
people to the cities, and new forms of leisure sprung up in
urban life. Inside the Hirshhorn’s galleries, Ho points out
Thomas Hart Benton’s People of Chilmark, a painting of a
mass of tangled men and women, slightly reminiscent of a
classical Michelangelo or Théodore Géricault’s famous Raft
of the Medusa, except that it is a contemporary beach scene,
inspired by the Massachusetts town where Benton
summered. Ringside Seats, a painting of a boxing match by
George Bellows, hangs nearby, as do three paintings by
Edward Hopper, one titled First Row Orchestra of
theatergoers waiting for the curtains to be drawn.
In Renaissance art, a high premium was put on imitating
nature. “Then, once that was chipped away at, abstraction is
allowed to flourish,” says Ho. Works like Benton’s and
Hopper’s are a combination of observation and invention.
Cubists, in the early 1900s, started playing with space and
shape in a way that warped the traditional pictorial view.
Art historians often use the word “autonomous” to describe
modern art. “The vernacular would be ‘art for art’s sake,’”
explains Ho. “It doesn’t have to exist for any kind of utility
value other than its own existential reason for being.” So,
assessing modern art is a different beast. Rather than asking,
as one might with a history painting, about narrative—Who
is the main character? And what is the action?—assessing a
painting, say, by Piet Mondrian, becomes more about
composition. “It is about the compositional tension,” says
Ho, “the formal balance between color and line and volume
on one hand, but also just the extreme purity of and rigor of
According to Ho, some say that modernism reaches its peak
with Abstract Expressionism in America during the World
War II era. Each artist of the movement tried to express his
individual genius and style, particularly through touch. “So
you get Jackson Pollock with his dripping and throwing
paint,” says Ho. “You get Mark Rothko with his very
luminous, thinly painted fields of color.” And, unlike the
invisible brushwork in heavily glazed academic paintings, the
strokes in paintings by Willem de Kooning are loose and
sometimes thick. “You really can feel how it was made,” says
Shortly after World War II, however, the ideas driving art
again began to change. Postmodernism pulls away from the
modern focus on originality, and the work is deliberately
impersonal. “You see a lot of work that uses mechanical or
quasi-mechanical means or deskilled means,” says Ho. Andy
Warhol, for example, uses silk screen, in essence removing
his direct touch, and chooses subjects that play off of the idea
of mass production. While modern artists such as Mark
Rothko and Barnett Newman made color choices that were
meant to connect with the viewer emotionally, postmodern
artists like Robert Rauschenberg introduce chance to the
process. Rauschenburg, says Ho, was known to buy paint in
unmarked cans at the hardware store.
“Postmodernism is associated with the deconstruction of the
idea, ‘I am the artistic genius, and you need me,’ ” says Ho.
Artists such as Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, with works
in the Hirshhorn, shirk authorship even more. Weiner’s
No. 146,” for example, is displayed at the museum in large,
blue, sans-serif lettering. But Weiner was open to the seven
words being reproduced in any color, size or font. “We could
have taken a marker and written it on the wall,” says Ho. In
other words, Weiner considered his role as artist to be more
about conception than production. Likewise, some of
LeWitt’s drawings from the late 1960s are basically drawings
by instruction. He provides instructions but anyone, in
theory, can execute them. “In this post-war generation, there
is this trend, in a way, toward democratizing art,” says Ho.
“Like the Sol LeWitt drawing, it is this opinion that anybody
can make art.”
Labels like “modern” and “postmodern,” and trying to
pinpoint start and end dates for each period, sometimes irk
art historians and curators. “I have heard all kinds of
theories,” says Ho. “I think the truth is that modernity didn’t
happen at a particular date. It was this gradual
transformation that happened over a couple hundred of
years.” Of course, the two times that, for practical reasons,
dates need to be set are when teaching art history courses
and organizing museums. In Ho’s experience, modern art
typically starts around the 1860s, while the postmodern
period takes root at the end of the 1950s.
The term “contemporary” is not attached to a historical
period, as are modern and postmodern, but instead simply
describes art “of our moment.” At this point, though, work
dating back to about 1970 is often considered contemporary.
The inevitable problem with this is that it makes for an everexpanding body of contemporary work for which professors
and curators are responsible. “You just have to keep an eye
on how these things are going,” advises Ho. “I think they are
going to get redefined.”
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