Postmodernism is a term used to describe the style adopted by many artists, filmmakers, architects, and writers. It is a late 20th-century style that represents a departure from modernism in general. They were self-conscious of using these earlier styles and conventions and mixed together fragments of other genres and media to create their work. Overall, they had a general distrust of theories, both artistic and philosophical.
Postmodernism was a direct reaction to modernism. Remember, “modern” by art definitions encompasses art from the 1870s till the 1930s. It includes genres like Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and many more. Overall, modernism was generally based on idealism and a utopian vision of human life and society. They believed in progress. Modernism assumed that certain ultimate, universal principles could be used to understand or explain reality. Where modernism was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism was born of skepticism and suspicion of reason. It challenged the notion that there are universal certainties or truths.
In this way, postmodernism is distinguished by its questioning of what is called a “master narrative.” In essence, a master narrative is something that is believed almost unanimously and is widespread. They questioned these narratives, particularly the modern theory that all progress, especially technological, is positive. By rejecting these narratives, the postmodernists rejected the idea that knowledge or history can be encompassed in totalizing theories. Some of the theories rejected by the postmodernists were that only men are artistic geniuses and the colonialist assumption that non-white races are inferior. Up until this point, there was little to no representation of women and people of colour in art history. Except as subjects of other people’s artworks.
Postmodernism overturned the idea that there was one inherent meaning to a work of art or that this meaning was determined by the artist at the time of creation. Instead, the viewer became an important factor in the determination of meaning. In some cases, the viewer was even allowed to participate in the work. Many performance artists originated in this era and asked for public engagement to define the artwork. Dadaism had a strong influence on postmodern art in its questioning of authenticity and originality. They were also interested in breaking the invisible yet notorious barrier between “high” art and “low” art. The idea that all visual culture is not only equally valid but that it can be enjoyed without artistic or visual training undermines notions of value and artistic worth. Postmodernism even had its start in the late 19th and early 20th century with artists like Edgar Degas painting on fans and Picasso often including the lyrics of popular songs on his canvases.
The Pop Artists were prime artists within the postmodern field, but other artists like Marina Abramović, Cindy Sherman, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons were major influencers on the movement. The truth is that there is no real defining style or form of art that defines postmodern art. It is a subversive genre, playing into many different forms of expression. All manner of mediums and styles were utilized, from painting and printmaking to photography, performance art, sculpture and installation, and even film. Postmodernism very much introduced a more tongue-in-cheek way of approaching art. It was often ludicrous and controversial and challenged the boundaries of taste. More importantly, though, it reflects a self-awareness that not many genres had before this. A self-awareness of its own style, the message it was spreading and who it was affecting.