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What Is Postmodern Art?

By Meg Kramer
Updated May 23, 2024
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Postmodern art is an artistic movement that typically is described as either arising after or in response to modern art. Although this term enjoys widespread usage, there is disagreement among critics about whether postmodern art actually exists as a distinct movement or whether it is simply a later phase of modern art. Dates that have been proposed as marking the beginning of the postmodern movement include 1914 in Europe and 1962 or 1968 in the United States. Trends in postmodern art include pastiche, appropriation and the use of an ironic affect.

Critical definitions of postmodern art differ regarding whether postmodernism, if it exists at all, is a historical condition or an intentional movement. It can be seen as the collection of characteristics of the current era, as in the former definition, or as art that reacts to and challenges modernism in the latter. Thematically, works of art that are classified as postmodern often address consumer culture, popular culture, globalization, the juxtaposition of high and low art and the role and value of art in society.

Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture entitled The Fountain is sometimes cited as an early example of postmodern art. This work was first submitted to an art exhibition in New York City in 1917, where it sparked a controversy about the nature of art. Duchamp, who was a member of the Dadaist movement, purchased an ordinary urinal and signed it with the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” According to Duchamp, the urinal became art when he chose to call it art, meaning that an object’s status as a work of art is dependent upon context and perception.

Movements that fall under the umbrella of postmodern art include installation, multimedia and conceptual art. Hybridization of forms and media is common, as in the work of Jenny Holzer. She is known for her installations, in which original or appropriated texts are displayed using a variety of media, including electronic displays and projections. These pieces demonstrate a fusion of electronic art with literature and design.

Eclecticism, juxtaposition and globalization are common threads in postmodernism. In the wake of multiculturalism and feminist theory, postmodern art tends to deconstruct traditional narratives of race, gender, nationality and family. By refusing to acknowledge distinctions between high art and lowbrow art — for example, comic book illustration or graffiti art — postmodern artists further break down class distinctions in the hierarchy of art criticism.

Postmodern art rejects the high valuation of authenticity and originality in modernism, asserting instead that there can be no more innovation or progress in art. Thus, according to postmodernists, the use of techniques such as pastiche, collage and parody are the only authentic ways to produce art. By appropriating history, pop culture and traditional forms or techniques, postmodern artists manipulate existing symbols and narratives.

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