02 Jun 2014
Postmodernism is a movement developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma principles, or practices of established modernism, especially a movement in architecture and the decorative arts running counter to the practice and influence of the International Style and encouraging the use of elements from historical vernacular styles and often playful illusion, decoration, and complexity. Postmodernism represents a departure from modernism and is characterised by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, a mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories.
Postmodernism in architecture was understood as the project of rejecting tradition in favour of going “where no man has gone before” or better: to create forms for no other purpose than novelty. Modernism was an exploration of possibilities and a perpetual search for uniqueness and its cognate–individuality. Modernism’s valorisation of the new was rejected by architectural postmodernism in the 50’s and 60’s for conservative reasons. They wanted to maintain elements of modern utility while returning to the reassuring classical forms of the past. The result of this was an ironic brick-a-brack or collage approach to construction that combines several traditional styles into one structure. As collage, meaning is found in combinations of already created patterns.
LEFT: The Sony Building (formerly AT&T building) in New York City, 1984, by Philip Johnson, illustrating a “Postmodern” spin with the inclusion of a classical broken pediment on the top which diverged from the boxy functional office towers common in Modern Architecture.
RIGHT: The City Hall in Mississauga, Ontario conveys a Postmodern architectural style depicting the concept of a “futuristic farm”.
In regards with general understanding of ‘art’, Postmodernism can be defined as an avant-garde form of contemporary art, that has been described as “a late 20th Century style and conceptual theory in the arts and architecture, characterized by a general distrust of ideologies as well as a rather ‘difficult’ relationship with what constitutes art.” It’s simple: when we start digging and uncover tricky concepts like “modernity” (not the same as modernism) and “post-modernity” (different to postmodernism) that our head starts to spin. Here are some examples:
LEFT: Woman in Tub by Jeff Koons, depicts a female nude acting out a crude sexual joke in the bathtub. Koons explained: “There’s a snorkel and somebody is doing something to her under the water because she’s grabbing her breasts for protection. But the viewer also wants to victimize her.”
CENTER: Sleeper by Mark Wallinger, Winner of Turner Prize (2007). The 2-hour film shows the artist, dressed in a bear suit wandering around the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
RIGHT: ‘Black Painting Series’ Frank Stella is noted for his work in the areas of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction
DIFFERENT INTERPRETATIONS OF POSTMODERNISM
Theorists from this school seek to refute, or perhaps overcome, all that was prevalent during the Modern era of art. They view the key ideas and values of modernist art as equality, personal freedom, natural beauty, capitalism and a general bourgeois sensibility. Deconstructive Postmodernists argue that such values are baseless because they rest on certain confident assumptions about the way the world is, whereas in fact nothing in the world is knowable or understandable. Consequently, many have argued that Deconstructive Postmodernism is nihilistic in nature
This more proactive theoretical approach does not reject modernism but rather seeks to revise its ideas and values. It is in many respects a call to return to pre-modern values according to which matters of aesthetics, spirituality, science and ethics were understood to be united, so that, for example, artists did not consciously differentiate between what was aesthetically pleasing and spiritually profound. Constructive Postmodernist criticism is deliberately vague due to its fundamental suspicion of modernism’s fondness for categorization and classification.
POSTMODERNISM IN PHOTOGRAPHY
Photography became the postmodern art form par excellence, taking the place of painting when the Modernist precepts of European art became exhausted by the 1960s. Unlike painting, photography did not have to grapple with and overcome a high art past, nor was it touched by high art theories. Because photography was ‘The Middle Brow Art’, it was ideally suited for Postmodernism to occupy the practice. In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.
One of the most influential Postmodernist photographer is William Eggleston. His photograph might include old tyres, Dr Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same curb. In his work, Eggleston photographs “democratically”–literally photographing the world around him. His large-format prints monumentalize everyday subjects, everything is equally important; every detail deserves attention.
Although he began his career making black-and-white images, he soon abandoned them to experiment with colour technology to record experiences in more sensual and accurate terms at a time when colour photography was largely confined to commercial advertising.
Immages by William Egglestone
“You can always tell a William Eggleston photograph. It’s the one in color that hits you in the face and leaves you confused and happy, and perhaps convinces you that you don’t understand photography nearly as well as you thought you did” The New Yorker
In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures–pictorial intertextuality. Photography is no longer about capturing realism, as it was in the days of Robert Frank and his followers, but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only fabricate simulacra or record the hyperreal of the Postmodern world. It would be correct to question the term “photography” in the context of Postmodernism. “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. The term “re-photography” would be more precise to describe Postmodern photography.
By the 1970s, photographers were beginning to explore three issues in the discipline. First, “straight photography” and its corollary documentary photography were played out. Second, the “truth” value of photography had been undermined and the role the medium was playing in constructing a particular kind of society—of spectacle and of complacent citizens—was becoming clear. Third, it “straight photography” could be manipulative of society then it would seem that it was once again permissible to manipulate photography. Postmodern photographers would confront these particular conditions during the eighties in a knowing and often highly theoretical fashion.
IMMAGES BY BARBARA KRUGER
Kruger juxtaposed text and found imagery to create a bricolage of meanings about the position of women in American society.
IMMAGES BY SARAH CHARLESWORTH
Charlesworth explores the seductive gloss of advertising images in woman’s magazines, contrasting isolated glamorised evening dress against a bound female figure set against monochrome backgrounds.
Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography.
Richter’s photo-based images are deliberately ‘painterly’ and have a romantic, hand-crafted look
Postmodernism is characterised by self-conscious and deliberate intertextuality. One of the best-known photographers who played with simulacra is Cindy Sherman. Sherman should be termed a performance artist who restages images from mass media. Concentrating on how women were represented by movies, she had herself photographed in a series of small black and white photographs called “Film Stills” during the late 1970s. None of these theatrical re-presentations can be traced back to any actual movie but all remind the viewer of movies they have seen or have heard of and evoke the construction of women in the 1940s and 1950s.
One of the approach to post-modern photography was the recombining of one or more elements from within the existing culture, in particularly the mass media. In this use of intertextuality, the early work of Cindy Sherman was notable in her references to the film stills of trashy Hollywood films but numbered “Untitled Film Stills #11” to suggest they did actually refer to a specific existing film. As one writer noted… “In this semiotic game, the audience is given reference which spirals off to yet another representation, not to ‘reality’ itself.”
Untitled Film Stills #11
Sherman is what can be called a “post-feminist,” or an artist who takes up feminist concerns, not from a political and activist perspective but from a theoretical stance. Because society manipulates the social being who is proved to be infinitely malleable, Postmodernism no longer believes in the Modernist possibility of evolution towards a goal. There is only arbitrary change, determined by the dominant class for its own purposes.
By the early 2000’s, critics were finding that postmodernism had varnished or gone into hiding as the fickle world of what is in, in “cultural fashion” moved on. In many ways, it could be argued that postmodernism has gone mainstream and is everywhere, though combined with a neo-modernism or post-post-modernism (or popomodism) or whatever critics/art historians will eventually come up with. However, photographers have continued to explore ‘photography as narrative’, ‘ banal/ deadpan’ , ‘the ordinary and everyday’, ‘intimate photography’ and ‘ post-modern revivalism’.
Really?! Is there such a thing with Postmodernism. I guess everyone has some sort of postmodernist shot in their files.
Inspired by Ecclestone ‘cars and signs’ style of photography, here is my version which I may call ‘crossroad with car and sign’:
And yes, I did edit it and even apply a LR ‘Yesterday’ filter to it.
And this, my famous ‘Oil Dispenser’…
Needless to add more photograph. I guess I would not take on postmodernism in full, way too basic, way too uncomplicated. Yet, I have to say that an effortless photograph does not mean a bad image. At the end of the day, it is what we manage to capture through the glass of our lens, sometimes things are happening just in front of us and the surrounding environment distract us and forces us to focus where we should not. Pictures like these ones belonging to the Egglestone series ‘Los Alamos’…
…are very meaningful and able to express a the real story that our eye witness every time we take a step. I do like the work of Egglestone and the prospectives he uses, not so much other’s such as Sherman portraits. In future I will try to add some still life component and the distorting prospective that Egglestone uses to the style I try to apply to my work and I hope to be able to create a great photograph of a simple everyday item. I hope…