INART 55 Postmodernism (2022)

The term "postmodern" has become common, particularly in America, since the 1970s. The "post-" prefix is meant to signify a comparison to modernism, meaning a condition that has succeeded the modern condition, probably as a reaction to it. Postmodernism's broad range of meanings make it difficult to define precisely, which is perhaps in keeping with the spirit of the term.

In a nutshell, while modernism implies reinventing some medium's language (whether the medium be painting, music, or anything else), postmodernism implies recycling that medium's language.

More technically, postmodernism is characterized by hybridity, relativism (lack of absolute truth), heterogeneity (dissimilar elements superimposed), aesthetic hedonism, anti-essentialism, and rejection of grand narratives. The following paragraphs will explore these terms in more detail.

A Matter of Language
Postmodernism grew to a large degree out of the twentieth century philosophical debate over language. Language was seen as the key to understanding. Linguists contend that language allows humans to interact with the world, even in the case of a person alone, thinking to herself. If an idea should occur to her such as, "Maybe I could tie a piece of vine to a stick and use it to shoot sharp objects when I hunt," her ability to form such an idea is reliant on using language to conceive of it. Since ideas and meanings are formed through language, it follows that the structure of language is the key to meaning. Language does not describe things and ideas per se, but rather people's collective associations. Meaning is derived from a system of representation. Culture is a system of representation -- the field of semiology is a study of cultural representation. Thinking is a result of language, enabling humans to form social relationships and to categorize the environment with symbols. For example, totemism in some cultures is not simply a bizarre superstition, but rather a system of categorization of humans and nature that links humans, plants, animals, and gods into an ordered system.

The problem is that since we must use language to describe language, ultimately we are trapped in it and are thus unable to see beyond it well enough to describe it accurately. Reason is therefore not absolute, timeless, and stable. Meaning is relative. Signs and symbols can never be absolutely decoded. All is interpretation, even science. There is never just one meaning to anything. The closer science gets to definitive understandings, the further it seems to get from these understandings (read a history of theories on the nature of the universe for an example). Science and reason simply represent our mythology; they are not objective, but simply agreed-on conventions.

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It should be noted that a scientist would disagree with this view. A scientist would point out that science is verifiable, making its points with equations and objective data. Furthermore, it is constantly held up to scrutiny, and equations are only accepted after rigorous examination. And they can be discarded as soon as a new equation disproves an old one.

Absolutely Eclectic
Postmodernism does away with absolutes, and views the world as being composed of multiple perspectives, each with some degree of truth to them. The "postmodern condition" is characterized by a skepticism towards the metanarratives that are at the basis of modernism. The postmodern condition is not based on universals, but on locals: what do people in a given time and place find significant? The vernacular prevails. While modernism was focused on social function of the arts, postmodernism is deliberately lacking in social function. The postmodern is eclectic, humorous, and unpretentious. Simulations via computer modelling allow styles to be manufactured, mass produced, and standardized. Electronic simulation creates the standardization of local phenomena, homogenizing them and commodifying them, de-contextualizing them, creating another type of uniformity than that proposed by the modernists. Thus the postmodern condition derives as much from the rise of computer technologies as from debates over language. The concepts of the "global village" and "virtual realities" are the result of breakdowns of physical location, new forms of interaction among people who may never actually see or hear each other, and instant transmission of cultural ideas to different places.

Hyper-realities -- simulated and controlled environments -- typify the postmodern condition. Disneyworld and Las Vegas provide artificial realities that refer to nostalgia, other times and places, fantasy worlds. To some extent this might also be true of shopping malls, with different theme shops and areas that allow shoppers to wander from environment to environment, culture to culture -- the world at their feet, available for easy purchase. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC has been said to resemble a theme park. ID cards associate patrons with a Holocaust victim, whose progress patrons follow as they go through the museum by pushing the ID card through computer stations. The repetitious films of mass killings lose uniqueness, and thus their effect. There's a certain desensitization that can occur as the Holocaust becomes objectified and an element of a spectacle. Does the museum give people real insight into the Holocaust, or rather reduce it to a kind of virtual reality game?

Eclectic postmodernism refers to an absence of aesthetics or truth in the face of the capitalist market. With a lack of absolute truth in science and historical metanarratives, the only firm system to rely on is capitalism and the mass media. Commodification in its many forms -- fast food, genre films, trendy fashions, etc. -- results in a society embracing a hodge podge of cultures and styles, all superimposed. There is no attempt made at underlying meaning; there are just new forms of quotation. Appropriated images, like the masks in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, prevail. (Thus exemplifying the irony of critical terminology: this work of Picasso is generally regarded as the birth of modernism in painting, yet this appropriation of cultural imagery also falls within a later "-ism" of postmodernism.) Historical origins and motivations are disregarded entirely. An age of reproducibility often results in nostalgic imitations of yesteryear's mass-produced items (e.g., a CD player in a case resembling an old-time radio).

Often, the postmodern condition is cited as something that came about throughout the 20th century, as social organization shifted from imperial states to a decentralized world economy. With the world consisting of multiple perspectives, all with their own validity, distinctions between popular and elite culture become blurred. Discontinuity supercedes continuity, difference supercedes similarity, and indeterminacy supercedes logic.

The following examples might be said to typify the postmodern condition:

  • Financial markets are now twenty-four operations. Corporations are decontextualized from what they actually produce, and are simply game chips to be raided, restructured, resold in a Wall Street monopoly game.
  • The Gulf War, also called the mini-series war. Our perceptions of it were tightly controlled through carefully edited images, press conferences, slick graphics, and pundits.
  • In the 1990s the Benetton clothing company made a series of provocative ads featuring journalistic photos (the family of an AIDS victim around his hospital bed, a terrorist car bombing, the back of an African rebel as he carries a human thighbone) stripped of their history and context. Benetton claimed that by producing such imagery in their advertising they were "creating an awareness of issues." The many critics of this campaign counter that by decontextualizing shocking and topical imagery, Benetton simply reinforced Western stereotypes, and homogenized cultural differences and personal tragedy into a new form of brand name recognition.
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  • Cable TV and the remote control, the phenomenon of channel surfing, turn TV viewing into a postmodern experience. The more channels become available, the less programming many people actually watch as the viewing experience creates a collage of dissociated programming.
  • Filmmaker Michael Moore, in films such as Fahrenheit 9/11, uses decontextualization and cultural quotations to create his own context in a work that is not meant as a documentary, but as a cinematic op-ed piece.

Soundbite Success
It has been said that little is actually new in this era. Like Hollywood box office successes, the past is "sequel-ized": quoted, re-invented, re-combined, and superimposed. The new consists of recombinations of the old. Foreign music is often blended with Western pop, and vice versa. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, devotional music is played over Western dance beats and synthesizers, and is popular with the young people.

In 1989, 20/20 Magazine referred to the postmodern condition when it described "...a movement that's already been dubbed Planet Pop, a world of Madonna rain-forest benefits, ideologically-sound World Peace ice-cream bars and electro-Israeli-hip-house dance hits."

Postmodern Music
In music, modernism began to be questioned in the 1960s. In America, rock and folk music became the language of the socially progressive. Modernism had become synonymous with "difficult" music. Postmodern music throws off pretensions of requiring audiences with a certain education or background, yet at the same time requires that its audience be able to understand the various quotations, references, and ironies inherent in its collages and quotations.

What is called postmodernism in music is based in the idea of various styles coexisting within single works. Composers such as John Cage either invite audiences to create their own concept of what music is ("4'33"), or to create their own musical sense out of controlled randomness (Williams Mix and other chance pieces).

Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (1968-69) for orchestra and eight amplified voices is often cited as an early postmodern work due to its reliance on quotations. Berio described the third movement as follows:

The main text of the third section includes excerpts from Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable, which in turn prompt a selection from many other sources, including Joyce, spoken phrases of Harvard undergraduates, slogans written by the students on the walls of the Sorbonne during the May 1968 insurrection in Paris, recorded dialogues with my friends and family, snatches of solfege, and so on.

It is an Gustav Mahler...The result is a kind of "voyage to Cythera" made on board the 3rd movement of Mahler's Second Symphony. The Mahler movement is treated like a container within whose framework a large number of references is proliferated, interrelated and integrated into the flowing structure of the original work itself. The references range from Bach, Schoenberg, Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, Berlioz, Brahms, Berg, Hindemith, Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky to Boulez, Stockhausen, Globokar, Pousseur, Ives, myself, and beyond. I would almost say that this section of Sinfonia is not so much composed as it is assembled to make possible the mutual transformation of the component parts...Quotations and references were chosen not only for their real but also for their potential relation to Mahler. The juxtaposition of contrasting elements, in fact, is part of the whole point of this section of Sinfonia, which can also be considered, if you will, a documentary on an objet trouvé recorded in the mind of the listener. One might describe the relationship between words and music as a kind of interpretation, almost a Traumdeutung, of that stream-of-consciousness-like flowing that is the most immediate expressive character of Mahler's movement. If I were to describe the presence of Mahler's "Scherzo" in Sinfonia, the image that comes most spontaneously to mind is that of a river, going through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another, altogether different, place, sometimes very evident in its journey, sometimes disappearing completely, present either as a fully recognizable form or as small details lost in the surrounding host of musical presences.

William Bolcom (1938-) has written self-consciously polystylistic works such as Open House (1975), in which two movements sound like atonal expressionism, another sounds like a late Romantic symphony, the next is a light waltz, then there is a jazzy musical-theatre type movement, then a movement meant to sound like something written by Bach.

John Corigliano's (1938-) opera The Ghosts of Versailles (1992) mixes 18th, 19th and 20th century styles. Furthermore, it self-consciously refers to the European opera tradition by its examining the French Revolution through the eyes of the writer Beaumarchais, author of a Figaro trilogy (the first two of which were made into classic operas by Rossini and Mozart). The work contains quotations of these earlier operas, plus a reference to Wagner at the climax of the first act when a soprano valkyrie enters and proclaims "This is not opera!"

Jazz saxophonist John Zorn's (1953-) recordings juxtapose a variety of classic and popular music styles, along with television and movie soundtracks, plus selections from Indian ragas and Japanese vocals. Minimalists such as LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass rely on continuous repetition that denies any role of memory and expectation in the listener. And entertainment like MTV relies on quick image shifts to form (or substitute) its contents.

David Byrne, principal composer of the band Talking Heads, also made the following observations in a conversation with Timothy Leary that might describe the postmodern condition:

It seems that post-WW2 with television and movies and records being disseminated all over the globe, you have instant access to anything anywhere almost. But you have it out of context, free-floating. And people in other parts of the world -- India, South America, Russia -- they have access to whatever we're doing. And they can take what they need and leave the rest. They can play around with it, they can misinterpret it or re-interpret it. And we're free to do the same thing. It seems to be a part of the age we live in, that that's a unique thing about this period, that there is that kind of communication, even though it's not always direct communication with people in different places -- it can lead to direct communication if you follow through.

The use of a computer as a compositional tool also has postmodern elements. Since Lejaren Hiller's Illiac Suite, composers have used computers to model musical styles and to create new pieces that are about the modelling of recognizable styles. This methodology contains a number of postmodern elements, such as quotation, heterogeneity, and the commodification of cultural phenomena.


Richard Appignanesi, Chris Garratt. Introducing Postmodernism. Totem Books USA, Icon Books UK. 1995.

Henry Giroux, Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture, New York: Routledge, 1994.

JANN PASLER: "Postmodernism." The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 1/13/03), (


What are the 5 characteristics of postmodernism? ›

Many postmodernists hold one or more of the following views: (1) there is no objective reality; (2) there is no scientific or historical truth (objective truth); (3) science and technology (and even reason and logic) are not vehicles of human progress but suspect instruments of established power; (4) reason and logic ...

What does Jordan Peterson say about postmodernism? ›

As Peterson describes it, postmodernism is set in motion by the idea that there are an innumerable number of possible interpretations for every phenomenon and every text. This, he says, is in itself a correct observation, and it has been made in many contexts.

What are the 3 critiques of postmodernism? ›

Criticism of more artistic post-modern movement such as post-modern art or literature may include objections to a departure from beauty, lack of coherence or comprehensibility, deviating from clear structure and the consistent use of dark and negative themes.

What is the main concept of postmodernism? ›

Definition. Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse which challenges worldviews associated with Enlightenment rationality dating back to the 17th century. Postmodernism is associated with relativism and a focus on ideology in the maintenance of economic and political power.

What are examples of postmodernism? ›

The clearest example would be the death bunny scene where a rabbit slaughters men. Intentional or not, these works of art belong on the Postmodern film list because they subverted expectations and gave audiences something they couldn't have anticipated long before that was more en vogue.

What are 3 characteristics of postmodernism? ›

Its main characteristics include anti-authoritarianism, or refusal to recognize the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be; and the collapsing of the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, and between art and everyday life.

Why is postmodernism so hard to define? ›

Postmodernism is hard to define, because it is a concept that appears in a wide variety of disciplines or areas of study, including art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications, fashion, and technology.

What is the difference between postmodernism and Marxism? ›

While postmodernism stands as the highest development of irrationality, Marxism is the highest form of scientific thought. And it is precisely because it is the most consistent and scientific philosophy that it draws the particular ire of the postmodernists.

What is the history between Marxism and postmodernism? ›

What is the history between Marxism and Postmodernism? Many Postmodernists were once atheistic Marxists. After Marxism's slaughter of millions, however, many within the movement become disillusioned with its promise of a future utopian society.

Who is the father of postmodernism? ›

French post-structuralist philosopher, best known for his highly influential formulation of postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition. Despite its popularity, however, this book is in fact one of his more minor works.

What is a disadvantage of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism had flaws from the beginning (as do all aesthetic theories.) For one thing, conceptions of “high and low” culture (and music) are not very descriptive. They are vague, create confusion, and provoke unnecessary ideological tension.

What are the potential problems with postmodernism? ›

Moreover, postmodernism leads to a concern that all claims may be attempts at usurpation of power. But the main weakness of postmodernism is its internal inconsistency. As mentioned in previous posts, postmodernism can be defined as unbelief about metanarratives.

How does postmodernism affect society? ›

Postmodernism affects views and lifestyles, which in turn affects the young adult's performance of roles and his interactions within all his different social systems. A strong attachment to family and home, as well as the importance of roles as sons/daughters were found.

What is the importance of postmodernism? ›

It collapsed the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, between art and everyday life. Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that 'anything goes'.

Does postmodernism believe in God? ›

In a postmodern world there are no universal religious or ethical laws, everything is shaped by the cultural context of a particular time and place and community.

Does postmodernism still exist today? ›

Since the late 1990s there has been a small but growing feeling both in popular culture and in academia that postmodernism "has gone out of fashion." However, there have been few formal attempts to define and name the era succeeding postmodernism, and none of the proposed designations has yet become part of mainstream ...

Are we still postmodern? ›

While the modern movement lasted 50 years, we have been in Postmodernism for at least 46 years. Most of the postmodern thinkers have passed away, and the "star system" architects are at retirement age. So far, we have not seen thoughts or ideas that announce a change, neither in architecture nor in culture.

What influenced postmodernism? ›

Radical movements and trends regarded as influential and potentially as precursors to postmodernism emerged around World War I and particularly in its aftermath.

When did postmodernism begin? ›

Postmodernism had begun as a radical fringe movement in the 1970s, but became the dominant look of the 1980s, the 'designer decade'. Vivid colour, theatricality and exaggeration: everything was a style statement.

What is a postmodern society? ›

In philosophy and critical theory postmodernity refers to the state or condition of society which is said to exist after modernity, a historical condition that marks the reasons for the end of modernity.

What are postmodern techniques? ›

TECHNIQUES IN POSTMODERN LITERATURE. Techniques in Postmodern Literature. Language creates meaning—language is seen as having power to create truth; somehow what is said matters more than how we might usually define "reality." A postmodern approach often emphasizes language over transcendent “truth.”

Do postmodernists believe in truth? ›

Unlike traditional philosophers, however, postmodernists make no attempt to tell the truth about reality. They realize, what in their view their predecessors failed to grasp, that human reason is an inadequate instrument for achieving truth.

Is postmodernism a rejection of modernity? ›

From there, it spread to literary theory and philosophy, where it also denoted a rejection of (at least certain features of) modernity. And thence from there to religion, politics, and culture. Postmodernity is a reaction against modernity.

What is postmodernism culture? ›

Postmodern culture is characterized by the valuing of activities, events, and perspectives that emphasize the particular over the global or the fragment over the whole. This reversal of a modernist ideology necessitates a valuation of variation and flexibility in the cultural sphere.

Is modernism and postmodernism the same? ›

Main Difference – Modernism vs Postmodernism

The main difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism is characterized by the radical break from the traditional forms of prose and verse whereas postmodernism is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions.

Is Marxism a postmodernist? ›

Marxism has not “merely changed” or “rebranded” and transformed to Postmodernism, but Left movement got disappointed in Marxism, class struggle and social revolution and realigned to Identity Politics and minorities rights. Identity politics may be related to Postmodernism, but not to Marxism.

Who provides Marxist interpretation of postmodernism? ›

In the Introduction The Postmodern Condition (1979), his most widely influential book, Lyotard defines postmodernism as a rejection of three fundamental legacies of the Enlightenment: Dialectics (associated with Hegel), Reason (associated, respectively, with Descartes and Kant) and the idea that that political economy ...

What is the difference between Marxism and post Marxism? ›

Unlike traditional Marxism, which emphasizes the priority of class struggle and the common humanity of oppressed groups, post-Marxism reveals the sexual, racial, class, and ethnic divisions of modern Western society.

What are the main criticisms of Marxism? ›

  • 1 General criticism.
  • 2 Historical materialism.
  • 3 Historical determinism.
  • 4 Suppression of individual rights.
  • 5 Economic. 5.1 Labor theory of value. 5.2 Distorted or absent price signals. 5.3 Reduced incentives. 5.4 Inconsistency. 5.5 Relevance.
  • 6 Social.
  • 7 Epistemological.
  • 8 See also.

How do Marxists view power? ›

Power, for Marx, was not a religious/philosophical/political dogma, but a resource. And as a resource, power is always in limited supply. It is therefore concentrated among certain actors and groups – namely, the ruling class and the State – who wield it over an unsuspecting (proletariat) population.

Who was the first postmodernist? ›

The most influential early postmodern philosophers were Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. Michel Foucault is also often cited as an early postmodernist although he personally rejected that label.

What is the root of postmodernism? ›

The foundations of postmodernism are thus located in the philosophical currents of anti-foundationalism, anti-essentialism, anti-representationalism, and anti-dualism. Scepticism underlines much of postmodernist thought in that the validity of the roots of discourse is challenged.

Who first used the term postmodernism? ›

The very term "postmodern" was, in fact, coined in the forties by the historian, Arnold Toynbee. Some of the things that distinguish postmodern aesthetic work from modernist work are as follows: 1) extreme self-reflexivity.

What are the positives of postmodernism? ›

Postmodernism recognises the fluidity of current society and the changing relevance of the media, power structures, globalisation, and other social changes. It challenges some assumptions we make as a society. This may make sociologists approach research differently.

What will come after postmodernism? ›

Metamodernism is the cultural code that comes after postmodernism.

What are the benefits of postmodernism in education? ›

A few examples of some of the ways education could be said to have responded postmodernisation include:
  • Schools are more 'consumerist' and provide more individual choice. ...
  • Education has become more individualized. ...
  • Education is more diverse. ...
  • Increasing Fragmentation. ...
  • Education is more 'Hyperreal'
25 Sept 2019

What is postmodernism in the church? ›

Postmodern theology, also known as the continental philosophy of religion, is a philosophical and theological movement that interprets theology in light of post-Heideggerian continental philosophy, including phenomenology, post-structuralism, and deconstruction.

Was Nietzsche a postmodernist? ›

Friedrich Nietzsche is generally considered the precursor of postmodern philosophy (Erickson 2001: 84), the basis of which are: Antichrist (rejection of all attachment to God) and a call for a re-evaluation of all values, a negation of conventional metaphysics, an insistence on perspectivism, a rejection of ...

What is postmodernism in philosophy of education? ›

Regarding postmodernist, the aims of education are teaching critical thinking, production of knowledge, development of individual and social identity, self creation. In postmodern education teachers just lead students to discover new things.

What are the differences between modernism and postmodernism? ›

The main difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernism is characterized by the radical break from the traditional forms of prose and verse whereas postmodernism is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions.

What are the pros of postmodernism? ›

What are some strengths of postmodernism? Postmodernism recognises the fluidity of current society and the changing relevance of the media, power structures, globalisation, and other social changes. It challenges some assumptions we make as a society.

How has postmodernism affected religion? ›

Postmodernism does away with many of the things that religious people regard as essential. For postmodernists every society is in a state of constant change; there are no absolute values, only relative ones; nor are there any absolute truths.

Is postmodernism still relevant today? ›

Indeed in the previous decades before us, postmodernism was in vogue in the academic settings of our country and in the Western world. It's not necessarily that way today. You still find it in literary departments. You still find it, unfortunately, sometimes in theology departments.

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