In What Way is Postmodernism a Revivication of Modernist Ideas and Concerns?

January 28, 2011

In this essay I will be exploring how modernist ideas are echoed and expanded in postmodernism. In order to discuss this I must first briefly contrast the definitions of Modernism and Postmodernism. Modernists believed that the modern world was fundamentally different to anything that passed before, and that art needed to renew itself and break away from the past. Modernism was about innovation and experimentation, rejecting academicism. Postmodernism unlike modernism had no particular direction or art movement, no rules or canon to work from. Postmodernism is described as more witty and pessimistic as a movement, but there are many examples of how modernist and postmodernist artists cross over the boundaries.

The definition of postmodernism is something art critics and historians are constantly debating. In ‘Postmodernism: a virtual discussion’ Maurice Berger asks if ‘post’ implies ‘that the modernest ethos has somehow failed or been exhausted’. The ‘post’ in postmodernism detaches it from modernism in a way, but there is an obvious link between the two. Some critics believe that postmodernism is only an extension on modernism, saying that the definition ‘lends itself more to practical adjustments’ such as museums, galleries and academic institutions. It’s very difficult to define a movement we are technically still in and have no distance from.

The definition of Postmodernism in ‘ISMs: Understanding Art’ suggests the movement is about criticising and commenting on society, it says postmodernists ‘use their artwork to explore and undermine the way society constructs and imposes a traditional hierarchy of cultural values and meanings’ . This postmodern characteristic pointed out in the book is actually a main factor of pop artist Andy Warhol’s work, that was being made 10 or 15 years before Postmodernism technically even became a movement.

The examples of Warhol’s Work I have picked to discuss were greatly inspired by the consumer culture of the 1950s. ‘The Death and Disaster Series’ was created by using newspaper articles. These horrific images have been mass produced and juxtaposed with bright cheerful colours. This reflects on the superficial nature of societies reactions to such disasters printed everyday in newspapers. His Marilyn Diptych shows an image of the icon, beautiful in the photograph he used, but also printed with garish colours that looked like a sort of mask. Marilyn’s life was dramatic and tragic, her fame was the cause of her elevation but also the cause of her death. The public and general culture at the time thrived on her fame and tragedy, and Warhol was commenting on this.

Warhol silk screen prints, Disaster series and Marilyns

Since Warhol, postmodernists Jeff Koons and Marc Quinn used their art work to comment on consumer culture and the superficial nature of our relationship with celebrities and the media. Another example of postmodern artwork inspired by our worship of celebrities is the work of Paul McCarthy. Pig Island was an exhibition featured in creative review that involved a series sculptures crudely combining the heads of celebrities with pigs bodies and various other objects and pieces of junk. Some were spray painted with pastel colours. These mutated forms represent the corruption of the celebrity and consumer culture today. All of these works comment on the society in which they were created, this is the first way that Andy Warhol was Postmodern before his time, his work could easily be displayed alongside the works of Jeff Koons and Paul McCarthy in this respect.

One of the main characteristics of postmodernism ‘pastiche’ (appropriating and mixing imagery to create something new), Glenn Brown’s work is a great example of pastiche, he picks and chooses images from then reinvents them using his own style. His work is based on the idea of images being taken and distorted through modern technology. Pastiche is something that was used even far before modernism. Van Gogh worked from Rembrandt and Millet, while modernist Picasso worked from Manet. Warhol did silk screen versions of many very famous paintings, such as Munch’s Scream, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

The final modernist concept I will be discussing is the idea of the artist as the art in itself. Warhol and Salvador Dali revolutionised the idea of the artist. Dali was slightly more egotistic than Warhol and went as far to say ‘Each morning I awake I experience again a supreme pleasure- That of being Salvador Dali’  The self portrait photographs they created show exactly how they want to be perceived by the public. While Warhol had his ‘andy suit’ Dali had his trademark moustache. Their actions related to the art they created. Warhol filled his ‘factory’ with celebrities and rolling cameras, while Dali performed strange public acts…like carrying a 12 foot baguette through the streets. They were celebrities just as much as pop and film stars today.  Post-modernists Gilbert and George continued in the same tradition announcing ‘Well then, lets make the world our gallery’, they believed their everyday actions were just as much art work as anything else they did. ‘Family Tree’ shows the pair wearing bright coloured suits, but also standing proud completely naked together, emphasising their homosexual relationship. Their works were always about them collectively, be them films, or representations of their experiences together.

To conclude this essay I feel that many modernism ideas and concepts have been expanded or continued through modernism, making the definitions of the two very hazy. Postmodernism generally is more witty, pessimistic, has less direction and no manifestos, but many of it’s ideas were previously explored in Modernism. It is understandable why some people reject the use of the word when there is no certainty it will be even used in the future.


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