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Is This Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?: Three little known facts about postmodernism

"Blue Poles" (1952) by Jackson Pollock

The art world is always eager to share its treasures with the public. But, the public is not always able to appreciate those treasures at face value. Take, for example, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952); the work was purchased for $1.3 million dollars in 1973 by the National Gallery of Australia. And, even though we now regard it as a culturally significant piece of art, Australian citizens were initially quite flabbergasted by a canvas splattered in paint that cost more than most people make in a lifetime.

While it’s always great to turn to a professional for a curated piece of fine art that meets an individual’s aesthetic preferences, it’s also important to understand what makes the art movements of the last century particularly significant, so that patrons can make more informed decisions. And no art movement is more complicated in this regard than postmodernism, because it’s not — really — a movement.

Postmodernism Is A Reaction Against Modernism

If modernism is an art movement that originated in the early part of the twentieth century and sought to break with classical and traditional art forms to align with the experiences and values of modern industrial life, postmodernism is a reactionary approach and attitude that rejects generally accepted rules in art, culture, and society; it’s characterized by extreme doubt about the possibility of escaping imitation and having authentic subjective experiences.

But, even though postmodernism is an umbrella term for nonspecific genres and artistic styles, we are going to default to the definition provided by New York’s Museum of Modern Art:

“[Postmodernism’s] 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. Postmodern art can also be characterized by a deliberate use of earlier styles and conventions, and an eclectic mixing of different artistic and popular styles and mediums.”

Aside from the difficulty of defining postmodernism, it may be hard to understand why such a definition should exist in the first place. After all, shunning clarity and simplicity, postmodernism has no shortage of art with complex and frequently contradictory layers of meaning. But the answer lies in understanding intention, which is often what gives art its value.

Postmodernism Doesn’t Have An Official Time Stamp

Unofficially, postmodernism began to emerge after the end of WWII. But, because it lacked a concrete definition and specifications that artwork had to meet to fall under its umbrella, historians have not been able to give postmodernism an official time stamp. According to Tate, however, the term was first used around 1970.

Today, postmodernism envelops pop art, “conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the Young British Artists of the 1990s,” among others. It’s important to note, though, that not all contemporary art falls under postmodernism, but all postmodern art is generally considered “contemporary.”

Get Familiarized With Hyperreality

“[Postmodernism] can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.”

Pop art burst onto the art scene in the 1960s with artists — like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Claes Oldenburg — taking the styles and objects they found in popular culture and treating them with the absorption and grave seriousness people traditionally reserved for religious art iconography. Each had something to say about the reciprocal relationship between mass and elite culture.

"Campbell's Soup I" (1968) by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was particularly memorable for his ability to elevate cultural staples into commentary on mainstream consumerism via hyperreality, which — in postmodernism — “is the result of the technological mediation of experience, where what passes for reality is a network of images and signs without an external referent, such that what is represented is representation itself.”

A Final Thought

It’s absolutely true that understanding what constitutes postmodernism can be bewildering. But it helps to start with acknowledging that it encompasses so much, postmodernism is, for the lack of a better word, a philosophy rooted in the rejection of norms more than it is an art movement.

Note* This post is sponsored by MAC Fine Art.

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