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What Is Postmodern Art?

Postmodern art is a boundary-pushing movement that emerged as a reaction to modernism, often characterized by a blend of styles, irony, and a questioning of the very nature of art. It challenges viewers to rethink traditional aesthetics and the role of art in society. How does postmodern art reflect your world? Join the conversation and explore its diverse expressions.
Meg Kramer
Meg Kramer

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.

The works of Roy Liechtenstein are considered postmodern.
The works of Roy Liechtenstein are considered postmodern.

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.

Postmodern artists view graffiti art as equal to any other art form.
Postmodern artists view graffiti art as equal to any other art form.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines postmodern art?

Postmodern art is characterized by its departure from modernist principles, embracing a diverse range of styles, materials, and concepts. It often includes irony, pastiche, and a questioning of the grand narratives and ideologies that were prominent in modernism. Postmodern artists tend to reject the idea of a single, overarching view of reality or history, instead promoting pluralism and cultural relativism. This art form emerged in the late 20th century as a reaction to the perceived elitism and rigid rules of modernism.

How does postmodern art differ from modern art?

Modern art focuses on the pursuit of pure artistic expression, innovation, and the exploration of mediums, often with an idealistic or utopian vision. In contrast, postmodern art is more eclectic, mixing high and low culture, and often employs parody, bricolage, and intertextuality. While modern art sought to be distinct and autonomous, postmodern art blurs the boundaries between art and everyday life, and between different art forms and genres.

Can you give examples of postmodern artists and their works?

Notable postmodern artists include Jeff Koons, whose work incorporates kitsch and popular culture, as seen in his "Balloon Dog" sculptures. Cindy Sherman is known for her conceptual portraits challenging gender and identity norms. Jean-Michel Basquiat's graffiti-inspired paintings address issues of race, class, and social commentary. These artists exemplify the postmodern tendency to question artistic conventions and societal structures.

What impact has postmodern art had on culture?

Postmodern art has significantly influenced contemporary culture by challenging the way we perceive art, media, and reality. It has encouraged a more critical and self-reflective approach to cultural consumption, highlighting the constructed nature of social narratives and identities. Postmodernism's influence extends beyond visual art into architecture, literature, film, and fashion, where the blending of styles and emphasis on diversity and contradiction have become commonplace.

How is postmodern art received by critics and the public?

Reception of postmodern art is varied; some critics and audiences appreciate its playful, challenging nature and its critique of traditional values and norms. Others criticize it for its perceived lack of depth, over-reliance on irony, and its sometimes confusing or inaccessible nature. Despite mixed reviews, postmodern art has undeniably shaped the contemporary art scene and continues to provoke discussion and debate about the role and meaning of art in society.

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    • The works of Roy Liechtenstein are considered postmodern.
      The works of Roy Liechtenstein are considered postmodern.
    • Postmodern artists view graffiti art as equal to any other art form.
      By: Katrin Lantzsch
      Postmodern artists view graffiti art as equal to any other art form.