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Postmodern Art

Postmodern Art Collage

Beginnings

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.

Modernism

Costume of the Dada founder Hugo Ball at his reciting of the nonsensical sound poem, <i>Karawane</i> (1916)

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

Jackson Pollock's <i>Autumn Rhythm: Number 30</i> (1950) exemplifies the new art that was made in the United States – art after the reality of World War II

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.

Later Developments

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 thought 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. In the early 1990s, a group of young Goldsmiths College students put together a graduate show called Sensations - 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 (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 replaced modernism but coexists alongside 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 on 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. They are all weary of the relentlessness of postmodern irony, and yearn for some return to truth and reality. 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.

Most Important Art

Quotes

"I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum."
Claes Oldenburg
"Postmodernity is the simultaneity of the destruction of earlier values and their reconstruction. It is renovation within ruination."
Philosopher Jean Baudrillard
"There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false."
Playwright Harold Pinter
"...is postmodernity the pastime of an old man who scrounges in the garbage-heap of finality looking for leftovers, who brandishes unconsciousnesses, lapses, limits, confines, goulags, parataxes, non-senses, or paradoxes, and who turns this into the glory of his novelty, into his promise of change?"
Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard
"I am for art that is smoked, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes. I am for an art that flaps like a flag, or helps blow noses, like a handkerchief. I am for an art that is put on and taken off, like a pair of pants, which develops holes, like socks, which is eaten, like a piece of pie, or abandoned, with great contempt, like a piece of shit."
Claes Oldenburg

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