Postmodernism is one of a series of terms, including postmodernity and poststructuralism, that is applied to cultural production in Western Europe and North America in the period from the 1960s to the present. Postmodernity is sometimes used to refer to the cultural history of this period. Poststructuralism was a critical practice directed toward literary, linguistic, and philosophical movements that flourished around this time. The term “postmodernism” itself is defined in opposition to “modernism” in order to describe contemporary forms of art and architecture and their aesthetics.
Postmodernism began in the 1960s as a response to high modernism, particularly in architecture and the plastic arts. The qualities of postmodern literature were less well defined. The distinction between modernism and postmodernism was perhaps always clearer for critics than for cultural practitioners. High modernism’s most influential critic was Clement Greenberg, whose essays such as “Modernist painting” seemed to capture an aesthetic that was already passing. Greenberg’s notion of purity in artistic goals and his insistence on maintaining the distinction between high art and popular culture were being contradicted in practice by minimalists, pop artists such as Andy Warhol, and video artists such as Nam June Paik and Steina and Woody Vasulka. In “Art and objecthood,” the modernist critic Michael Fried attacked the minimalists for their “theatricality,” which he regarded as a betrayal of the modernist aesthetic. Yet, the way in which these artists acknowledged the relationship between the work and the spectator helped to define postmodern installation and performance art. Greenberg’s and Fried’s modernism was subsequently challenged by other theorists such as Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster in the pages of the journal October.
Poststructuralism specifically critiques the structuralist analysis of language, literature, and culture, including the work of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson in linguistics and Claude Levi-Strauss in anthropology. The most influential poststructuralists included Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Paul de Man, each of whom had their own intellectual trajectories and never intended to found a coherent movement. To the extent that structuralism itself can be considered part of the modernist project, however, poststructuralism can be considered postmodernist.
Critical theorists also developed postmodernism into a general theoretical category – a development exemplified by two very different works: JeanFrancois Lyotard’s The postmodern condition (1984) and Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism (1991).
Already in 1979, Lyotard’s brief but influential volume offered a more general view of postmodernism as a philosophical response, not only to modern art and the modernist movement of the twentieth century, but to what Lyotard and others came to define as the modern era in a broad sense, beginning in the eighteenth century or even earlier. Lyotard’s work did not focus on aesthetics, but instead offered a critique of the so-called grand or master narratives, which he identified in the ideologies and communicative practices of the modern period, advocating their replacement through multiple little narratives.
Jameson (1991), on the other hand, did take art and aesthetics as its starting point. He attempted to delineate various strands of postmodernism with specific analyses of architectural works, such as architect John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Jameson’s guiding concern was to extend the discussion of postmodernism to cultural, ideological, and economic domains, as indicated in the subtitle: as “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” postmodernism’s aesthetic characteristics could not be separated from the economic conditions of postindustrial and global forms of economic organization now dominant throughout the developed world.
Jameson’s case for the inseparability of cultural forms and political ideologies has been accepted by a generation of cultural theorists in the humanities. The argument seemed particularly relevant and convincing for popular cultural forms in the mass communication and entertainment industries, which were at this time becoming “global” to a degree not previously acknowledged. While mergers in the communications industry were creating global “empires” in television and newspapers, at the same time the invention of the world wide web and its subsequent commercialization seemed to offer new venues to distribute popular entertainment. The video cassette and then the DVD emerged as new distribution methods for film and to some extent television. There was a growing concern that global companies would use these new distribution networks to promote the dominance of western and particularly American entertainment products throughout the developed and developing world.
If there is a common element in all of the “post-” terms and the work they represent, it might be that all of them are critical reactions to what are perceived as totalizing practices and rhetorics of the modern era. In each case, the reaction was an attempt to subvert claims to unity, simplicity, or universality. Those gestures of subversion constitute a legacy that remains influential today in the fields of art, art theory, and critical theory. Postmodernism also, arguably, has a legacy in popular culture: music videos, social computing sites such as YouTube and myspace.com, and the products of remix culture (DJs and VJs) are postmodern in their rejection of single, simple representational practices.
- Foster, H. (1996). The return of the real: The avant-garde at the end of the century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Krauss, R. (1985). The originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press. (Original work published 1979).
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