display | more...

Modernism and Postmodernism in Art

WARNING! The following is a formalist essay with lots of big werds. I mean words. Don't look for humour or magic here. This is purely researched and informative shit. Thankyou.


The 'age of enlightenment' brought about a huge shift in thinking, with people putting more and more confidence in science to the point where it was used as an answer to practically everything. The dream that science would solve all questions led to the rejection of powerful institutions (such as the church and the bourgeois hierarchy of society) that had previously been in control of the generally uncertain populace of the time.

This break from tradition that we now call Modernism is evident in the art of the period as we started to see a huge reduction of works that were produced on commission (either for the church or the wealthy) and a rise in works that were produced for the benefit of the individual artist him/herself or for some kind of 'greater good'.

The motivation of Modernist artists has been put down to the belief in the 'meta-narrative' (a term coined by Postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard), that is, a great notion that bonds and aggregates 'reality', and rationalises the reasons behind society’s power structures.

"Our factories are our substitute for religious expression."
~ Charles Sheeler.

Artists became interested in science and industry to search for an answer or 'truth' to reality. Science allowed people to arrange things into little labelled boxes. We started to see various groups of artists emerging, each with their own particular 'vision' or 'narrative' of the truth.

Cubists such as Braque and Picasso used the science of geometry to break down three-dimensional 'real' objects to find their true forms on the canvas. Salvador Dali and the Surrealists concentrated their efforts solely on their own subconscious experiments. Matisse used colour as his vehicle. Cezanne seemed consumed by light and form. Balla and Boccioni were busy composing their Futurist manifestos.

All Modernist artists tried to convince the world of their own particular vision of reality. And although there were many wonderful ideas and innovations surfacing at the time, not everyone shared them. The very nature of the meta-narrative is self-governing and wholly independent. The Modernists had a very autonomous mindset. Artists were concerned mainly with developing their own work and ideas. Art critics of the day viewed art just as discreetly, making inferences on the greater meaning of the art rather than its place in society and it’s relation to historical influences, intentional or otherwise.

"I shall call modern(ism) the art which devotes it little technical expertise...
to present the fact that the unpresentable exists."

~ Jean-François Lyotard.

As the name implies, Postmodernism is directly related to Modernism. It is difficult to pinpoint when Postmodernism first came about, but the term became used widely amongst the art community during the 1970s, when its adoption by Lyotard and Jürgen Habermas first gave the idea of Postmodernism a broader circulation. Like Modernism, Postmodernism isn’t an art movement as such, but rather a philosophy and a cultural term that has made its way into all areas of society, including the arts.

Although the applications of Postmodernism have been tried and true, some cynicism still surrounds its usage, mainly because of the artistic buzzword that it has become today. Calling something 'Postmodern' can mean a multitude of things. There is no definitive framework for what the Postmodern should be. Nor will there ever be, for this is the very nature of Postmodernism. I suppose the most certain thing one could say about Postmodernism is that it is definitely not Modernism.

Art History & Modernism / Postmodernism

There is the view that all Modernists attempted to creatio ex nihilo, that is, create art out of nothing, ignoring historical influences altogether. However, even though Modernist artists did break away from tradition, they still held onto ties with the past.

In an essay titled "Modern and Postmodern", art critic Clement Greenberg recants the view that Modernism ignores history. Instead, he offers the view that Modernism simply looks at the past in a different way from the romantics (of which Modernism was also a reaction against).

Says Greenberg (1979), "It wasn't a question of imitating but one of emulating - just as it had been for the Renaissance with respect to antiquity." Modern artists used history as a means for creating something new, such as Matisse and Picasso being influenced by Islamic and North African art.

These views have become broader and more common in the Postmodern art of the past 30 – 40 years. Historical influences are now widely embraced and accepted in all forms of art.

George Lucas' Star Wars movies showcase a large amount of fanciful architecture and costumes, all of which have some historical grounding of one type or another. The Queen’s palace and wardrobe in The Phantom Menace (1999) is a highly stylised version of the Art-Nuevo movement, while the battle droids are reminiscent of traditional African sculpture. Perhaps even subconsciously, the viewer recognises the historical references and latches on, giving the fantastical ideas more grounding in the real world.

Ideas of Truth in Art

While Modernists search for truth by detaching themselves from history and the popular culture, Postmodernists jump in and immerse themselves. For Modernists, truth is in the meta-narrative, the grand legend of certainty in an uncertain world.

Modernist artist Charles Sheeler is an example of this. Almost all of Sheeler’s work is strongly related to industry and the 'machine age' that was becoming more predominant during the early 20th century. His famous photographs of the Ford plant in River Rouge seem fixed on the idea that industry would be the 'saving grace' of his lifetime. Sheeler was a stern Modernist with a narrative that he remained faithful to.

"In contemporary society and culture — postindustrial society, postmodern culture —
...the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses,
regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation."

~ Jean-François Lyotard

Postmodernists find many truths by letting the influence of history and pop-culture have an effect on their art. Postmodernists have their eyes open to as much as they possibly can. To say that a work of art is completely detached from its surrounding world is to deny the real truths of reality. I say truths (plural) because whereas a Modernist sees only one truth, a Postmodernist finds many traces of truth in numerous ideas. The Postmodernist does not dismiss ideas because they differ or contradict. Instead, the Postmodernist has the ability to look at ranges of ideas objectively.

In one of Jon Swihart’s Untitled paintings (1990), he shows us a man clad in a mix-match of fragmented items descending a mountain. The man is on a quest for truth in a Postmodern world. He has taken with him a fusion of disjointed objects, but together his garb is almost religious, cultish even. Swihart’s Postmodern man is a testament to a vision of many truths in the Postmodern society.

While Modernism tends to have clear cut perceptions on what it deems 'true', a lot of Postmodern art likes to play around with the truth. Take John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998). The basic storyline of the movie is obviously fiction, yet it uses characters, events and literature that all occurred in real-life history. The result makes for a compelling watch in which the viewer is constantly questioning the truth. It is a very Postmodern technique to get fact and fiction mixed up on purpose, because with Postmodernism, there is no one truth – there are no certainties or absolutes.

The Perception of Art

Viewing art in a Modernist fashion does tend to remove it from social milieus that may conflict with its intended narrative. The Postmodern view reverses this, and takes into consideration all of the social, political and historical contexts that may have influenced or have been influenced by the art. Postmodernists reject the 'autonomous art' idea of Modernism. All of the themes, images and languages used in art (Modernist or otherwise) have been fashioned by culture. The very materials used to produce art have been shaped by society.

The Modernist 'way' also narrowed art’s prospective audience. In many ways, Modernist art could be considered pretentious and somewhat snobbish. Only studious art critics and those with a sound understanding of Modernist ideals could explore art deeper. The general public were not well equipped enough to deal with art during the Modernist period, which is why many people associate Modernists with the artistic 'elite'.

The Postmodern view of art is much more varied. Differing opinions are common because they are encouraged. Anyone can have a valid opinion on a piece of art. Picasso’s first blatantly cubist paintings were not as well received in America as they were in Europe. But today, it has become much harder to shock the Postmodern audience because the range of different art out there has conditioned the public to be more widely accepting. Art is made to be provocative and art is made to be interpreted.

Whereas Modernist artworks are often 'windows' into their own particular narratives, Postmodern art is consistently self aware. Viewing art in a Postmodern way means acknowledging first and foremost that the art was constructed. At its bare bones it is simply paint on a canvas, or what have you.

In the all of Quentin Tarantino's films, he intentionally inserts little inconsistencies. In Reservoir Dogs (1992) we see the character 'Mr. White' (Harvey Keitel) pull out a cigarette and smoke it without even lighting it. In the chronologically disjointed Pulp Fiction (1994), the same coffee shop scene is shown twice, but one of the lines is different from the first time we hear it.

Tarantino does this to remind the audience that they are watching a film. It's an immediate snap back into reality, where the viewer has no choice but to forget about being immersed in the screen for a second and look at the film objectively.

Wrapping Up

Modern (in the chronological sense) society's search for the truth has evolved from a very concentrated and hidebound approach, to a much more flexible and all-inclusive attitude. In art we see both the applications of ideas (such as Sheeler and the Star Wars concepts) and commentaries on them (demonstrated by Swihart's piece). That is why art is the perfect viewing ground for the society-changing mindsets of Modernism and Postmodernism.


If you read this, thanks. If you just skipped to the end, I don't blame you.


Danto, AC 1997, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, Princeton University Press, New Jersey
Dawtrey, L, Jackson, T, Masterton, M, Meecham, P & Wood, P (eds) 1996, Investigating Modern Art, Yale University Press, England
Fitzgerald, MC 1995, Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth Century Art, University of California Press, Los Angeles, California
Greenberg, C 1979, Modern and Postmodern, William Dobell Memorial Lecture, Sydney
Lyotard, JF 1984 The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester University Press, Manchester
Pulp Fiction 1994, DVD video
Reservoir Dogs 1992, DVD video
Rise of Modernism, The (No Year), College of Marin, California

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.