The first signs of postmodernism were evident in the early-20th century with Dada artists who ridiculed the art establishment with their anarchic actions and irreverent performances. The term, however, was not used in the contemporary sense until 1979 in the philosopher J.F. Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition. In art, the term is usually applied to movements that emerged beginning in the late 1950s in reaction to the perceived failures and/or excesses of the modernist epoch.
From the late-19th to the mid-20th century, art as well as literature, science, and philosophy was 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 Dalí or Marcel Duchamp were seen as outliers in this emphasis on progress and rationality and their work became precursors to postmodernism. By the 1930s in certain artistic circles, the process of painting, once the means to depict a subject through the use of line, color, and form, became the subject itself. This emphasis on formalism was first observed and championed in the U.S. by Clement Greenberg, an art critic and fierce proponent of modernism. His theoretical writings are often seen as the antithesis of postmodernism because of their advocating of artistic purity and for their singular focus on formalism at the expense of subject matter. By the time the Abstract Expressionists were painting (not yet fancy) in New York lofts in the 1940s, representation had been entirely eliminated in favor of a direct gestural expression that focused on paint application rather than narrative. Fundamental to the modernist avant-garde artist was individuality, autonomy, and the tendency for radical experimentation in search of an ultimate truth or meaning.
The Modernist-Postmodernist Crossover
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 The modernist optimism that had dominated in a pre-war world now seemed irrelevant, outdated, and doomed to fail. Europe was no longer the center of modern art or the avant-garde. The focus of the art world now moved to New York City and to the Abstract Expressionists who were flourishing in a new era of reinvigorated post-war capitalism. This group, however, was still very much marked by their modernism, with the movement staunchly supported by Greenberg as a high art toward which all art had been inexorably moving since the 19th century. Meanwhile, outside this high art enclave, America in the 1950s was experiencing a consumerist and cultural boom as well as a stormy political climate. Once Abstract Expressionism became a mainstream movement, young artists began to question 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 a desire to create an art that acknowledged everyday life, artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg began to experiment with new styles that borrowed and recreated imagery from the mass culture that surrounded them. The Neo-Dada style with which they would become associated was arguably the first of the genuinely postmodern art movements. These artists were influenced by John Cage, and many of their experiments would give rise to Pop art and Minimalism.
Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Postmodernism cannot be described as a coherent movement and lacks definitive characteristics. It can be better understood instead as a set of styles and attitudes that were affiliated in their reaction against modernism. A new approach to popular culture and the mass media emerged in the 1950s, sparking a wave of art movements that reintroduced representation from disparate sources and experimented with image, spectacle, aesthetic codes, disciplinary boundaries, originality, and viewer involvement in ways that challenged previous definitions of art.
High vs. Low culture
"High culture" is a term used to describe traditional fine arts, such as painting and sculpture. The term is commonly employed by the art critic to evoke class, quality, and authenticity. It is also used to distinguish types of art media and disciplines from the "low," "kitsch," or popular culture of mass-produced commodities, magazines, television, and pulp fiction that took America by storm in the post-war consumerist boom. In his definitive 1939 essay 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch,' Clement Greenberg warned the modernist avant-garde against association with what he considered philistine outpourings. Greenberg proposed instead that artists' concerns should be reserved for an art that could transform society. The postmodernists, in response, embraced the "popular" wholeheartedly and made it central to their work. Pop artists recreated the mundane objects of consumerism, but used humor and irony to transform these into gigantic soft forms (Claes Oldenburg) or into cultural icons (Andy Warhol) while the Minimalists used industrial materials to create repetitive forms reminiscent of the industrial production line. 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, while also providing social critique.
Image and Spectacle
In this new era of consumerism and television, advertising and the mass media became increasingly pervasive. In 1968, for example, the American public witnessed uncensored footage of the Vietnam War in their own homes for the first time, providing a stark disconnect with their own comfortable lives as they witnessed the horrors of war over dinner. Images on the screen were reflecting a new reality and it was often more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, particularly with the widespread use of advertising. Jean Baudrillard, a prominent French philosopher, 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 to depict the surface rather than any truth or deeper meaning. Style and spectacle, rather than substance, was where meaning was created. This focus on surface is one of the key components of Kruger's I Shop therefore I Am (1987) as well as much of Pop art. Simultaneously, a camp aesthetic was born, particularly evident in fashion and music, that drew from past styles of Gothic and Baroque; the more dazzling, flamboyant, and shocking - the more effective. The work of Jeff Koons is a good example of this aspect of postmodern art.
Mixing of Aesthetic Codes
Modernism had first emerged in 19th century France in rebellion against the historical and figurative preoccupation of the French Academy and its dominance over artistic taste. The avant-garde movements that followed in the early-20th century gradually eliminated any references to a context or subject, in search of a pure and unmediated form of visual expression that was radical and new. This trend reached its apogee with Abstract Expressionism, which championed non-representational painting. However, in the decades that followed the movement, painting as a medium was considered cliche with little room left for experimentation. With the advent of postmodernism, some artists began exploring past styles and media - particularly painting - as part of the postmodern aesthetic that brought back both the historical and the subjective but with a purposeful lack of stylistic integrity or unity.
Artists such as Gerhard Richter playfully mixed aesthetic codes and genres, displacing existing meaning in structures and creating new ones. Using methods of parody and pastiche, old ideas could be recreated in new contexts. As the Dadaists had done earlier, other artists used collage, assemblage, and bricolage that juxtaposed text, image, and found objects to create layered surfaces. This mixing of codes is particularly evident in the architecture of the 1980s and 1990s, such as The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, UK that combines features from two different historical periods into one visual spectacle. In film, the effect could be enhanced considerably. For example, 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. Many artists also turned to multimedia technologies during the 1960s and 1970s, relishing the new opportunities that they were afforded to combine media and to create spectacle and sensation.
There were not just opportunities with new multimedia technologies; from the 1950s and 1960s onwards, there was a significant crossover between artistic disciplines as traditional categories were superseded. 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 "good" and "bad" taste and the difficulty of assigning value or judging works of art based on traditional criteria as in the case with Jeff Koons. Artists adopted the mechanisms of both art and non-art forms, such as advertising, using a multitude of media to convey multiple messages.
Originality and Authenticity
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal 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. Traditionally, uniqueness and originality gave an artwork its value or "aura," both in symbolic and monetary terms, and was a concept preserved through modernist art criticism. In 1936, cultural theorist, Walter Benjamin, wrote a seminal 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 mechanical reproduction, through printing and other methods, could achieve the democratization of art because of its lower commodity value and increased accessibility to the masses. (The fact that one could afford to buy, for example, a poster of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and then hang that reproduction on their own living room wall, would be a cause for celebration for Benjamin.)
Pop artists, Minimalists, Performance artists, Conceptual artists, and others adopted Benjamin's ethos, interpreting his words through a diverse range of media and techniques that undermined concepts of authenticity and value and distorted commoditization. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol mass-produced bags and mugs, screen printed with iconic imagery. Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt exhibited their repetitive forms, but left control of their arrangement to the curator; Allan Kaprow, Marina Abramović, and the Fluxus artists put on performances in which the audience and not the artist determined their form and meaning. Artists of all stripes, including Warhol, Richter, and Koons, were known for their appropriation of photographic and other imagery. Within 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. Artists such as Daniel Buren were increasingly concerned with the social process of art making rather than the art object, and placed the creation of meaning at the point of interaction. This new practice became known as Relational Aesthetics, and resisted commoditization of art through its performative nature, providing a powerful criticism of the art world, a field that came to be known as institutional critique.
The philosophical arm of postmodernism stems from intellectual shifts in France that occurred during the second half of the 1960s. The concept of poststructuralism is associated with the likes of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida. But it was Barthes’s 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author” - in which he famously proposed that the birth of the reader must come at the cost of the death of the author - that brought about something of a revolution in the way we think about, and interpret, art. For Barthes, works of literature or art (or any text for that matter) were never original but rather made up of “a tissue of quotations” from previous and existing works.
For Barthes, then, to “impose” an author on a text merely limited its scope whereas the text had the potential to offer infinite reading possibilities (structuralism had proposed rather that by deconstructing a text semiologically then one could uncover a single “fixed” societal meaning/structure). The belief that the individual interpreted the text for themselves - the idea, in Barthes’s words, that a text’s meaning lay “not in its origin but in its destination” - led thus to revisionist accounts of a canon that was hitherto dominated by the life stories of the great (typically white) men of western art. Many have questioned the validity of Barthes’s claims (Barthes himself even admitted that when reading “I desire the author”), and even though the author never literally died (postmodernists became the new authors after all), his essay ushered in the era of critical theory whereby “truths” (plural) challenged the idea of “truth” (singular). Poststructuralism supported thus the idea of pluralism and gave special impetus to those theorists and artists interested in pursuing ideas relating to “otherness” and identity politics.
The postmodern pursuit for a democratic art extended beyond reproduction, appropriation, and experiments in collective authorship. Postmodernism coincided with the rise in Feminism, the Civil Rights movement, Queer theory, the fight for LGBT rights and postcolonial theory, and provoked a call for a more pluralistic approach to art. Many artists, such as Kara Walker and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, began to address subjects from multiple perspectives. The collective impact on the arts was an increased representation of diverse, multicultural identities and also a playful treatment of identity and the self. This trope was perhaps most evident in the early works of artists such as Barbara Kruger or Cindy Sherman. It is especially true of Sherman whose work focuses on the rift between an identity constructed through film or other media and the lived experience of women. Sherman’s goal is to draw her audience's attention to the means of image production and that image’s potential for a fluid – or “polysemic” - treatment. Sherman’s work thus resists the master narratives of art history and undermines the authority of the artist.
There are currently two main theoretical approaches to understanding postmodernism, its relation to modernism, and its place in the contemporary art world.
Continual Build-up on Modernism
One argument is that postmodernism both disrupts and continues 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 all art production of any style. The attitudes and styles that mark postmodernism can be understood as paradigmatic shifts that mark a rupture or crisis in cultural history. From this viewpoint, the impact of postmodern, post-colonial and post-feminist theory has sparked a sea of change in art, described by feminist writers such as Rosalind Krauss and Suzanne Lacy. Certainly, the diverse, ephemeral, globally focused, cross disciplinary, and collaborative nature of contemporary art practice is informed by postmodernist attitudes and appears both persistent and transformative. Postmodernism claims to close the gap between "high" and "low" culture and "good" and "bad" taste, yet there is evidence that these distinctions remain.
For example, in the early 1990s, a group of young Goldsmiths College students put together a graduate show called Sensations – it was what we might consider a highly postmodern concept. The reaction to the exhibition was unprecedented. Public and critics alike expressed outrage at the provocative imagery and explicit references to subjects of "bad" taste. The group became known as the Young British Artists (YBAs) and sparked a revival in Conceptual Art using shock tactics to question art's meaning, as Duchamp had done nearly 80 years earlier. Their notoriety has persisted, as has the furor over Sensations, providing evidence for some that the old taste hierarchies of modernism live on. With this argument, postmodernism has not displaced modernism but is rather an extension of it.
The Age of Post Postmodernism
Another view, which has recently emerged in a small but persuasive body of writing, argues that we have moved into a “post postmodernist” era. Some writers and critics claim that postmodernism is outdated and they question the value of a movement sustained by superficiality, cynicism, and nihilism. Some even argue for a return to the principles of modernism, albeit in different forms. Edward Docx calls this post-postmodern era the "Age of Authenticity" characterized by a revival of authenticity and craftsmanship over style and concept. Other monikers include "alter modernism," which is Nicolas Bourriaud's term for the "nonstop communication and globalization" culture of today, and "pseudo modernism," which was coined by Alan Kirby. Kirby claims there has been a shift from audience spectatorship to a more active yet trivial participation, citing as evidence the reality-TV-watching culture. These attempts to claim the end of postmodernism are wide-ranging and generally nonconsensual but are united in elements of their critique of the postmodern concept. Weary of the relentlessness of postmodern irony and cynicism, these critics yearn for some return to truth and authenticity. In different ways albeit, 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 decline.
Do Not Miss
- Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
- Beginning in the 1960s, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community.
- Institutional Critique is the practice of systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions and their connections to the development of art. Institutional Critique focuses on the relationships between the viewer, language, process, the consumption of art.
Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Sarah Jenkins
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 25 Jan 2015. Updated and modified regularly