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Postmodern Art

Started: 1950s

Postmodern Art Timeline

"Modern art is merely the means by which we terrorize ourselves."

Tracey Emin Signature

Summary

Postmodernism is best understood by defining the modernist ethos it replaced - that of the avant-garde who were active from 1860s to the 1950s. The various artists in the modern period were driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. The arrival of Neo-Dada and Pop art in post-war America marked the beginning of a reaction against this mindset that came to be known as postmodernism. The reaction took on multiple artistic forms for the next four decades, including Conceptual art, Minimalism, Video art, Performance art, Institutional Critique, and Identity Politics. These movements are diverse and disparate but connected by certain characteristics: ironical and playful treatment of a fragmented subject, the breakdown of high and low culture hierarchies, undermining of concepts of authenticity and originality, and an emphasis on image and spectacle. Beyond these larger movements, many artists and less pronounced tendencies continue in the postmodern vein to this day.

Key Ideas

Postmodernism is distinguished by a questioning of the master narratives that were embraced during the modern period, the most important being the notion that all progress - especially technological - is positive. By rejecting such narratives, postmodernists reject the idea that knowledge or history can be encompassed in totalizing theories, embracing instead the local, the contingent, and the temporary. Other narratives rejected by postmodernists include the idea of artistic development as goal-oriented, the notion that only men are artistic geniuses, and the colonialist assumption that non-white races are inferior. Thus, Feminist art and minority art that challenged canonical ways of thinking are often included under the rubric of postmodernism or seen as representations of it.
Postmodernism overturned the idea that there was one inherent meaning to a work of art or that this meaning was determined by the artist at the time of creation. Instead, the viewer became an important determiner of meaning, even allowed by some artists to participate in the work as in the case of some performance pieces. Other artists went further by creating works that required viewer intervention to create and/or complete the work.
The Dada readymade had a marked influence on postmodernism in its questioning of authenticity and originality. Combined with the notion of appropriation, postmodernism often took the undermining of originality to the point of copyright infringement, even in the use of photographs with little or no alteration to the original.
The idea of breaking down distinctions between high and low art, particularly with the incorporation of elements of popular culture, was also a key element of postmodernism that had its roots in the late-19th and early-20th centuries in the work of Edgar Degas, for example, who painted on fans, and later in Cubism where Pablo Picasso often included the lyrics of popular songs on his canvases. This idea that all visual culture is not only equally valid, but that it can also be appreciated and enjoyed without any aesthetic training, undermines notions of value and artistic worth, much like the use of readymades.
Hans Haacke's <i>The Anatomy of the Horse</i> installed in London's Trafalgar Square.
Hans Haacke's The Anatomy of the Horse installed in London's Trafalgar Square.

After the horrors of World War II set in, technology continued to grow and dominate, and the world became more interconnected. Artists and theorists drew a line in the sand - they adjusted and a new, "post-ISM" creative period was defined. As the art historian Robert Hewison said "Postmodernism is modernism with the optimism taken out." Here is how it developed and came to be understood.

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly.
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