Introduction to Postmodernism


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  •  In terms of visual art Postmodernism was a term that only emerged in the late 1970s and was one of the most debated topics of its time, even amongst postmodernists themselves, and still today it remains a complex term and set of ideas. This is because Postmodernism is more than just an aesthetic movement - it is both aconditionand a way of thinking. Postmodernism is a complicated term which is difficult to define.  The reason it is difficult to define is because it is an idea which is used in lots of different subject areas such as art, technology, sociology, literature, architecture and communications etc and is used in slightly different ways in each area.I don’t pertain to be able to offer you an easy definition of Postmodernism. This is because postmodernism isn’t an easy subject to understand. In fact, critical aspects of postmodernism, that is to say theories and texts concerned with Postmodernism, are opposed to (or at least sceptical of) the notion that there is a single way to understand any given thing, and this obviously includes postmodernism itself. Rather than accepting ‘truths’ or ‘authentic essences’ Postmodernism politicises them, and attempts to reveal that they are the products of struggle and repression, the result of powerful discourses rather than eternal, universal values and truths.  It will become apparent that postmodernists therefore don’t subscribe to a singular, authorative reading of Postmodernism itself and of Postmodern artworks. In terms of discussing postmodern art, the tactic I will employ is to sit artworksbeside theories, and suggest that there is resonance between them and that there are critical postmodern theories that may allow for a point of entry into understanding these artworks further. I am always wary not to circumscribe an artists’ practice within a myopic, art historical rationale. This is because I believe that to do may be restrictive, dishonest, and even unethical. Instead what I hope to do is to provoke analysis, to highlight contradictions and complications of exploring work through the lens of postmodernism. Contextual considerations and ideological rationales will also be explored. And it is my intension reallyto provide you with the tools to engage with these postmodern debates. So as I said, I can’t tell you definitively what postmodernism is or was. This is not a failing on my part but part of postmodernism’s slippery identity. It is a contested term. Postmodernism is often discussed in terms of its fluidity and open-endedness, because it resists being conveniently condensed into a neat definition. It has been noted that for students of the subject that postmodernism may feel very much like Narcissus’ reflection in the water which disintegrates the moment you reach out to grasp it.It would also be reductive and erroneous to claim to undertake a comprehensive exploration within the limited time that we have. So by its very nature this is course is an introduction to Postmodernism in art whereby I aim to orient you within the territories of postmodernism.
  • The term Postmodernism itself with its prefix of ‘post’ means after modernism but this is a misnomer. Postmodernism is not Anti-ModernismAs Heartney elaborates:“Part of the difficulty stems from the name. ‘Postmodernism’, as the term suggests, it is unthinkable without modernism. It may be constructed as a reaction against the ideals of modernism, as a return to the state that preceded modernism, or even a continuation and completion of various neglected strains within modernism. But whether the relationship is defined as parasitic, cannibalistic, symbiotic or revolutionary, one thing is clear: you cannot have postmodernism without modernism. Postmodernism is modernism’s unruly child.”Postmodernism therefore presents a set of complex philosophical and theoretical issues. One way to begin thinking about postmodernism is by thinking about modernism, the movement from which postmodernism seems to grow or emerge.
  • Modernism is an umbrella term, or general name given to the succession of numerous avant-garde movements in art, design and literature between the end of the 18th century to the mid 20th century. What characterises this period is that modernist artists became less concerned with representing objects, or scenes and people in a ‘believable’ way. Insomuch as they were often less interested in naturalism and perspective that their immediate predecessors had been.
  • It is also important to make clear the distinction between Modernity and ModernismWHAT IS MODERNITY?The project of modernity is one with that of the Enlightenment: to develop spheres of science, morality and art according to their inner logic. It was dependent on the belief in universal laws and truths, and the idea that knowledge is objective, independent of culture, gender, etc. Modernity was posited on the notion that progress is based upon knowledge, and man is capable of discerning objective absolute truths in science and the arts. Modernity refers to a period extending from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (in the case of Europe) to the mid to late twentieth century characterized by the growth and strengthening of a specific set of social practices and ways of doing things. It is often associated with capitalism and notions such as progress.Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function.Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between "order" and "disorder," so that they can assert the superiority of "order." In western culture, then, disorder becomes "the other"—defined in relation toother binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of "disorder,” and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society.Modernism as a term is typically associated with the twentieth-century reaction against realism and romanticism within the arts. ThereforeModernism can be thought of as the self-conscious response in the arts to the experience of modernity.A radically altered aesthetic form and perspective: the modernist stress upon art as a self-referential construct instead of as a mirror of nature or societySo clearly then we have identified how the term Modernism is related to but not to be confused with Modernity. This is because modernity relates to the massive changes in culture and society due mainly to the developments brought about by the industrial revolutions and subsequent political unrest within Europe, namely WW1 and WW2.
  • So if postmodernism in art implies some ‘going beyond’ modernism, or establishing a critical dialogue with it [which is our preferred definition], then it seems appropriate that we start with the question: What was modernism? And in order to find an answer to this question we must start by exploring the work of Clement Greenburg, a very influential American art critic after the second World War.Clement Greenberg was an important proponent of High Modernism.High modernism is a particular instance of modernism, coined towards the end of modernism.Modernism valorizes personal style.This presupposes a unique individuality - a private identity or self (subject) - that generates his or her own style according to a personal vision.This individualism is put into question in High Modernism. HIgh Modernism is situated at a time of Social turmoil, increasing nuclear threat, the technologization of the workforce under multinational capitalism, and the breakdown of religious belief that led to a kind of nihilism and anxiety about the future.After World War II - Negative effects of the war were offset temporarily by the economic prosperity & postwar reconstruction which took place during the ‘50s. However there were Cold War Tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, the strain of a nuclear buildup offset the psychological effects of the post-War economic prosperity.There were domestic tensions: Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Movement, Environmentalism, Viet Nam, political assassinations (JFK, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X).
  • The most prominent and lingering ideas expounded on Modernism as we will see are those of the critic Greenberg who stated in his essay on Modernist Painting in 1960 that ‘Modernist Painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else”Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’ is a dominant account of modernism, which builds on the formalist theories of key 19th and 20th century writers, who believed that aesthetic experience was art’s predominant aim and value, and explained the development of modern art as a progression towards an increasingly pure abstraction, characterised by a focus on form.
  • Modernity is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). According to Rosalind Krauss the ‘end’ of modernism is not the ‘beginning’ of postmodernism, rather postmodernism is a form of resistance that takes place within modernism. Arthur C. Danto locates the break between modernism and postmodernism in the appearance of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes in 1964.
  • Some of the characteristics of what we might term postmodernism as contrasted with modernism might be that the work of postmodernists is deliberately less unified, less obviously ‘masterful’, more playful or anarchic, more concerned with the processes of our understanding than with the pleasures if artistic finish or unity, less inclined to hold narrative together, and more resistant to a certain interpretation, than much of the art that had preceeded it.Much pomo art pays attention to previously marginalised forms of identity, the male gaze, through reinscription, appropriation, challenging originality…Shift from universal historiesto local and explicitly contingent histories. History and identity politics: who can write or make art? for whom? from what standpoint?Postmodern historians and philosophers question the representation of history and cultural identities: history as "what 'really' happened" (external to representation or mediation) vs. history as a "narrative of what happened" a "mediated representation" with cultural/ideological interests.Art works are likewise caught up in the problem of representation and mediation--of what, for whom, from what ideological point of view? Distrust of metanarratives (Lyotard); suspicion of ideological agendas in "Western Art" paradigms; deconstruction of traditional art media and genres. Rise of feminism and identity politics as challenge to artworld roles and functions of art.The wider significance of the postmodern condition lies in the awareness ofa range of other dissonant, even dissident histories and voices
  • Cindy Sherman demonstrates the power of transformation to impact notions of identity in her photographic series Untitled Film Stills. They have been much discussed as virtual emblems of postmodernism’s concern with theories of representation, specifically representations of women.Sherman’s images are not an invitation to look behind or through the representation for the ‘real’ Sherman, but rather they are an exploitation of this impulse to drive a wedge between the unified and authentic inner self and the postmodern sense of an irrevocably fragmented and culturally constituted subjectivity.
  • Looking beyond postmodern preoccupations it is clear that this was not the first historical moment in which issues of gender and sexuality held particular prominence. Not only do aspects of European art production between the two world wars (notably Dada and Surrealism) resemble certain features of pomo art but some of the psychoanalytic roots of pomo gender theory date back as far as the late 1920s. In the late 1940s merleau-ponty and Jean Paul Satre discussed the body and its experiences as a reaction agianst the previous mentalist tradition on philosophy. The psychoanalyst Joan Riviere first argued in 1929 when she introduced the concept of femininity as masquerade exploring the masks of femininity and the scripts women adopt in her essay Womanliness as Masquerade.
  • Although the term "postmodernism" is continually undergoing interrogation and redefinition, one constant that emerges from the critical discourses surrounding it is a sense that postmodernism involves a radical rethinking of representational strategies, and with this a questioning of our underlying assumptions about how "meanings" are produced.  So to summarise thus far, Postmodernism is not merely a rejection of Modernism but a continuum or a reaction. Postmodernism embraced an expansion of media. It is multi-cultural and can be defined as more “hybrid” than “pure”. Significantly, Postmodernism relies on concrete experience over abstract principles, knowing always that the outcome of one's own experience will necessarily be fallible and relative, rather than certain and universal.  Post-modernism has nothing to do with a period or an epoch. Post-modern is not what exists after modernity. Post-modernism is a term that implies certain intellectual or cultural tendencies.We have seen how the term modernity was developed alongside the development of the capitalist state. Modernisation is a diverse unity of socio-economic changes generated by scientific and technological discoveries. Modernity was born by what are called grand narratives in the jargon of the post-modernists. In simple language, Grand Narratives are big ideas which give sense and direction in life. Such ideas are truth, reason, tradition, religion, morality, ideology, etc.The post-modernists argue that these notions, grand narratives, do not live up to scrutiny, hence are meaningless. According to the post-modernists, all worldviews that claim absolute notions of truth — religion, science, Marxism, etc — are artificial constructions that are totalitarian by their very nature.
  • In 1979 the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote The Postmodern Condition and stated that the ‘grand narrative’ that had informed the West since the Enlightenment (in other words since the 18thc, when European philosophers such as Kant and Rousseau had laid the intellectual foundations for modernism) could no longer sustain credibility. These abstract systems of thought, by which social institutions validated themselves, were infused with ideas of ‘social perfectibility’ or ‘progress’. In terms of modern art Greenberg’s aesthetic Modernism might be considered a ‘grand narrative’ of sorts. Lyotard in his book the postmodern condition, clearly articulated the view that postmodernism is about pluralism and fragmentation. The modern period is bankrupt he said, because the meta narratives of the past assume a progression toward social enlightenment and emancipation, meta narratives being Marxism and Freudianism and all forms of Enlightenment reason.Postmodernism was seen to pay closer attention to other worlds and voices which had been silenced by these dominant meta narratives.  So grand narratives are inherently ideological in their own right, postmodernism seeks to de-stabilise these narratives by replacing them not with another grand narrative but with a series of micro or mini narratives, little stories that explain smaller practices or local events rather than huge scale universal global concepts.
  • Other writers including Thomas McEvilley, Donald Kuspit, and Leo Steinberg have located the moment of transition from modern to postmodern in pop art, and especially in Johns, Ruschenberg, or Warhol. After pop, so these arguments go, art became eclectic or pluralistic and began addressing the condition of late capitalism.
  • In his rejection of the distinction between low and high art, Koons is a typically ‘post-modern’ artist. ‘Post-modern art’ is a reaction to the ‘consumerism’ that has been made possible by the fact that manufacturing of products, distribution and dissemination have become very cheap. However, instead of criticizing the ordinariness and commonness of all these products, post-modern art just accepts them, and in Koons' case somehow both celebrates and ironicizes them. Modernist judgements of quality and relevance came under scrutiny and challenge from the mid 1960s.A consequence of this challenge has been the recognition that the meaning of an artwork does not necessarily lie within it, but as often as not arises out of the context in which it exists.This context is as much social and political as it is formal, and questions of politics and identity, both cultural and personal have been central to much art since the 1970s.There was a shift towards focusing on context, as you will recall, Modernism had been indifferent to context.For the most part ‘specific objects’ had unproblematically occupied traditional gallery spaces, this new work which was concerned with materials, in particular formless materials, had the effect of inducing reflection upon the ‘containers’ or galleries.Postmodernists have helped us see that reality is more complex than we had imagined. It does not exist objectively, “out there,” simply to be mirrored by our thoughts. Rather, it is in part a human creation. We mold reality in accordance with our needs, interests, prejudices, and cultural traditions.I would define postmodernism as a set of radical strategies that emerged in the 1970s, but proliferated rapidly especially in the early 1980s, which had in common an antipathy to modernism and sought to depart from its certainties, progressive narratives, and claims to objective quality.
  • Introduction to Postmodernism

    1. 1. Introduction to Postmodernism
    2. 2. “Postmodernism is not the name of a period, such asneoclassicism or postimpressionism; it is a condition ofresistance that can arise wherever modernist ideas are inplace. Postmodernism works like a dormant illness in thebody of modernism; when modernism falters andfails, postmodernism flourishes.”James Elkins, Master Narratives and TheirDiscontents, (New York: Routledge, 2005)
    3. 3. Modernism is related to but not to beconfused with Modernity. Modernityrelates to the massive changes in cultureand society due mainly to the developmentsbrought about by the industrial revolutionsand subsequent political unrest withinEurope.
    5. 5. ‘Modernist Painting oriented itselfto flatness as it did to nothing else’ Greenberg’s ‘Modernist Painting’ is a dominant account of modernism, which builds on the formalist theories of key 19th and 20th century writers, who believed that aesthetic experience was art’s predominant aim and value, and explained the development of modern art as a progression towards an increasingly pure abstraction, characterised by a focus on form.
    6. 6. According to Rosalind Kraussthe ‘end’ of modernism isnot the ‘beginning’ ofpostmodernism, ratherpostmodernism is a form ofresistance that takes placewithin modernism.Arthur C. Danto locates thebreak between modernismand postmodernism in theappearance of Warhol’sBrillo Boxes in 1964.
    7. 7. Jeff Wall, Picture for Women, 1979
    8. 8. CINDY SHERMAN,‘Untitled Film Stills, 1978
    9. 9. Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still #54Sherman shows that to represent the self is to reproduce analready given type.
    10. 10. “One is not born a woman, but, rathe r becomes one.” Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1973)RroseSélavy (Marcel Duchamp)1921Photograph by Man Ray
    11. 11. “What Warhol’s dictum [that anything could be art]amounted to was that you cannot tell when somethingis a work of art just by looking at it, for there is noparticular way that art has to look. The upshot was thatyou could not teach the meaning of art by examples.”(Danto 1992, p.5)
    12. 12. Lyotard in his book the postmoderncondition, clearly articulated theview that postmodernism is aboutpluralism and fragmentation. Themodern period is bankrupt hesaid, because the meta narratives ofthe past assume a progressiontoward social enlightenment andemancipation, meta narrativesbeing Marxism and Freudianismand all forms of Enlightenmentreason.
    13. 13. The philosophical revolution in art:You can’t tell art just by looking.The revolution Danto is talking aboutis that the difference between art andnon-art is no longer visible (eventhough it is still there).The difference must be conceptual, not visible. Thework raises a philosophical question about thedifference between art and non-art.
    14. 14. After Pop Art, artbecame eclectic orpluralistic and beganaddressing thecondition of latecapitalism.The art world todayreflects many of theideas, methods andmaterials initiated by Alexander Guy, Greggs (2010)Pop Art.
    15. 15. In his rejection of the distinction between low and high art, Koons is a typically‘post-modern’ artist. ‘Post-modern art’ is a reaction to the ‘consumerism’ thathas been made possible by the fact that manufacturing of products,distribution and dissemination have become very cheap. However, instead ofcriticizing the ordinariness and commonness of all these products, post-modern art just accepts them, and in Koons case somehow both celebratesand ironicizes them.
    16. 16. Baudrillard, Jean ([1983] 2001) Simulacra and Simulations, in Jean Baudrillard:Selected Writings, Poster, M (ed.) Cambridge, Polity Press.Danto, Arthur C (1992) Beyond the Brillo Box: The visual arts in post-historicalperspective. London, University of California Press.Danto, Arthur C (1997). ‘After The End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale ofHistory’, Princeton University Press.Greenberg, Clement (1989) Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston, BeaconPress.Huyssen, Andreas (1986) After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture andPostmodernism, London, MacMillan Press LTD.