Art Dictionary

Postmodernism

Wang Guangyi,

Wang Guangyi, "Great Castigation Series: Coca Cola", 1991–1994, detail
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Considered a reactionary movement opposed to modernism, which is increasingly thought of as sterile and totalitarian, Postmodernism is an intellectual, cultural movement, whose beginnings are rooted in the latter half of the twentieth century.

"I pursue no intentions, no directions; I have no program, no style and no mission." (Gerhard Richter, 1993)

I. History and definition of the term Postmodernism

The terms "Postmodernism" and "postmodern" were in use in the late 19th century and became even more common in the early 20th century, although they did not take on the meaning attached to them today until the 1950s. Two writers were instrumental in establishing the terms as a fixed concept in the mid and late 1970s: Jean-François Lyotard, author of La Condition postmoderne (The Postmodern Consciousness, 1979) and Charles Jencks, whose essay "The Rise of Postmodern Architectures" was published in 1975. The use of "Postmodernism" to denote an era marked the point at which the Modern period came to be regarded as a part of the historical past (like classical antiquity or the medieval period). The adjective "postmodern" as a designator for a specific style is used primarily in reference to architecture.

II. Principles of Postmodernism and its distinction from Modernism

Lyotard and other theorists describe the intellectual foundations of Modernism as an unshakable belief in constant progress toward an increasingly detailed understanding of he world and a gradual approach to comprehensive knowledge. The totalitarian systems of the 20th century permanently discredited the pretensions of such models to absolute validity. It is here that we find the origins of the desire to define Postmodernism as a conscious effort to break away from Modernism. Postmodernism not only rejects Modernist faith in progress but also denies the existence of a comprehensible, objective reality. Postmodern theory and aesthetics presuppose that all knowledge, all perception and every sphere of human consciousness and existence are subject to the laws of relativity. A key concept in postmodern theory is "plurality." Thus the smallest common denominators of postmodern theory and aesthetics are acceptance of diversity and rejection of the striving for innovation that characterized Modernism.

III. Postmoderne aesthetics and stylistic traits

The Modernists' ceaseless urge to create something new and the artistic means employed in that effort are regarded from the Postmodernist perspective as automatized, established and obsolete. The fundamental principle that there is nothing new to create has made the use of quotations an important stylistic feature of postmodern art.

The demand for an open-ended concept of art and the individual work of art opens up a virtually unlimited range of possibilities. Postmodernism crosses genre boundaries to appropriate a wide variety of new forms of expression. One frequently employed technique used in Postmodernist art is the collage. This term, coined in the early years of the 20th century to describe Dadaist composite pictures has taken on much broader meaning in the postmodern era and now encompasses such forms as expansive spatial installations, cinematic techniques and processes involved in musical composition.

Many authors, including Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose), architects such as Friedrich Hundertwasser (Hundertwasserhaus, Vienna) and artists like Keith Haring seek to bridge the gap between an elitist concept of art and popular culture in their works. This, too, is an essential aspect of postmodern aesthetics.

Many postmodern works, particularly in the visual arts, present themselves not as finished products but as an experiments. They appear as fragments (literature: Roland Barthes, "Fragments of a Language of Love") or works in progress (dance theater: William Forsythe, "The Scott Work") in various stages of development. Typically typical of postmodern art is the conception of trilogies or series. The individual parts of such series are ordinarily complete works in themselves, which can be experience singly, together or in randomly chosen combinations (film: Krzysztof Kieslowski, Drei Farben: Blau, Weiß, Rot).

The influence of Deconstructivism is evident in many of these works. The term was first used by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Deconstructivists deny the unity of word and meaning, regarding it as impossible to establish a fixed meaning for a given text. In postmodern art, this idea is expanded to encompass the meanings of the signs and codes we associate with certain meaningful contexts on the basis of our perceptual habits. They are either detached from these contexts (film: Peter Greenaway, Der Kontrakt des Zeichners) or - like terms use in search engines in the Internet - represent references from which countless other references are derived (film: Matthew Barney, The CREMASTER Cycle).

IV. Postmodern literature and films

Significant characteristics of postmodern literature include a reflexive approach to existing material in the form of quotations and allusions and experimentation with literary genres. Another characteristic attribute is the construction of numerous, multiply fragmented levels of action and cross-reference.

Probably the best-known postmodern novel is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. In a highly complex literary construction veiled in the garb of a crime novel, Eco actually succeeds in bridging the gap between so-called high and popular cultures. With its many historical, literary and art-historical citations and references, the book becomes a Bildungsroman and a kind of literary quiz. But even those who are not interested in this aspect can enjoy Eco's work as a suspense-filled crime novel. Peter Greenaway combined the genres of historical film and thriller in a similar was in his film The Draughtsman's Contract in 1982, although, unlike Eco, he did not solve the puzzle. While the plot provides numerous classical clues, none of them leads to a solution.

Deconstructivists do not regard the text as the creation of an ingenious subject but a point of intersection at which a diverse range of texts and text references overlap. In the extreme case, a machine writes the text, as in Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Landsberger Poesieautomat (Kunsthalle Würth, Schwäbisch Hall).

V. Architecture

In the mid-1970s, Charles Jencks introduced the term "Postmodernism" into architectural discourse and thus exposed the discussion of Postmodernism to broad public attention for the first time.

The stylistic principles of postmodern architecture had already developed to an advanced stage by this time. Postmodernists appealed for a democratic, communicative architectural language incorporating aesthetic principles oriented toward meanings rather than function alone. They called for the inclusion of fictional elements like those employed in Gothic architecture, which regarded the cathedral as the image of the heavenly Jerusalem.

At the same time, interest in preserving and redesigning historical buildings grew appreciably stronger. The most prominent example was the Gare d'Orsay in Paris, which was reopened in 1986 as the Musée d'Orsay. Such historical structures influenced the language of postmodern architecture, in which historical references had played an important role from the very beginning. In order to avoid the development of a new Historicism, postmodern architects adopted an ironic approach to the eclecticism that was expressed, for example, in the use of columns, dormers and mullioned windows.

The spectrum of postmodern architecture expanded specifically into the field of museum architecture in the 1980s and 1990s. Both Hans Hollein's Museum Abteiberg (Mönchengladbach) and James Stirling's Staatsgalerie (Stuttgart) are regarded as outstanding and highly characteristic products of Postmodernism. Stirling's design merges numerous allusions to historical architecture - from ancient Egypt to classical Modernism - with the colors of pop culture and such typical regional materials as sandstone and travertine to create a harmonious, contemporary form.

In recent years, the aspects of event and adventure have increasingly overshadowed educational objectives in the field of museum architecture. The focus has shifted from the meditative experience of art to staged scenarios, and even the architecture itself is designed to offer surprising outlooks and theatrical effects. With increasing frequency, public viewings take place even before works of art are hung or installed in order to enable visitors to experience the architecture.

Deconstructivist tendencies have gained ground in the course of these developments. Although Deconstructivism is often defined as anti-architecture and some Deconstructivists persist in proclaiming the death of architecture, the sculptural quality of buildings designed by such architects as Zaha Hadid (Feuerwehrhaus, Weil am Rhein), Daniel Libeskind (Jewish Museum, Berlin) and Frank O. Gehry (Guggenheim Museum, Bilbão) make the museum an exhibition object in its own right.

VI: The visual arts

In view of the broad range of forms of expression in the visual arts, many theorists and artists oppose the application of the term "Postmodernism" to this field of art. Rejection of faith in innovation is a fundamental principle of postmodern aesthetics in the visual arts as well. Postmodernism makes use of art-historical categories that were abandoned by Modernism, such as narrative and mythological structures. This development began with Andy Warhol's images of 20th-century icons, from Elvis to Jackie O. Pop Art also marks the break with Modernism in the 1950s in that it bade farewell to abstraction. Visual arts in the 1970s emphasized sensual, emotional and traditional aspects rather than theories and concepts. During the 1980s, the "Neuen Wilden" (New Savages, including such artists as Georg Baselitz, Markus Lüpertz)) undermined the dominance of the minimalist and concept-oriented avant-garde with their expressive representational painting. Similar tendencies also emerged in the U.S. and Italy. After the wave of excitement triggered by the "Neuen Wilden" had ebbed, other currents devoted to reflection on the medium of painting and experimentation with the sensory effects of painting resources and techniques came to the fore (Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter).

Characteristic of the era are two artists whose work incorporates the aesthetics of subcultures and popular culture: Keith Haring and Jeff Koons. Haring succeeded in combining elements of graffiti art, comics, computer sign language, children's drawing and ancient painting to form a highly poetic languages of signs that is comprehensible to people of many cultures. In the early 1990s, Jeff Koons attracted attention by virtue of the provocative banality of his subjects. Although he often used high-quality material in his works, their surface design alludes to the world of cheap ornaments and kitsch, as in the example of his life-sized, partially gold-plated porcelain figure of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee Bubbles.

The emphasis of postmodern aesthetics on pluralism, subjectivity, rejection of abstraction, inclusion of the mass media, blurring of the boundaries between genres and acceptance of the quotation as an artistic resource has imbued the museum landscape with color and energy. One important and lasting result of postmodern tendencies is the recognition of photography and film as artistic media. The most recent milestone in the history of Postmodernism is the presentation of the five films of Matthew Barney's just completed CREMASTER Cycle within the context of a major exhibition at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne,

18.02.2003 Andrea Gern

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