The term postmodernism is used to describe the changes that took place in Western society and culture from the 1960s onwards that arose from challenges made to established structures and belief systems. In art, postmodernism was specifically a reaction against modernism which had dominated art theory and practice since the beginning of the twentieth century.
- Introduction to postmodernism
- Postmodernist art in focus
- Other perspectives
- Postmodernism in context
- Postmodernism in detail
What is postmodernism?
The term postmodernism, was first used in around 1970. As an art movement postmodernism to some extent defies definition – as there is no one postmodern style or theory on which it is hinged. It embraces many different approaches to art making; and a host of art groups and movements from the 1960s onwards can be described as postmodernist. It is therefore perhaps easiest to define postmodernism by looking at its main characteristics. Anti-authoritarian by nature, it refuses to recognise the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be. It collapses the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture and it tends to get rid of the boundary between art and everyday life. Resultantly, postmodern art can be characterised by its self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions, and an eclectic mixing of different artistic and popular styles and media.
When did postmodernism happen?
Modernism vs postmodernism
Postmodernism was a reaction against modernism. Modernism was generally based on a utopian vision of human life and society and a belief in progress. It assumed that certain ultimate universal principles or truths such as those formulated by religion or science could be used to understand or explain reality. Modernist artists believed that by negating the subject and experimenting instead with form, technique and processes they could find a way of purely and simply understanding and reflecting the modern world.
If modernism was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism was born of scepticism and a suspicion of reason. It challenged the notion that there are universal objective certainties or truths that will explain everything for everybody. Postmodern art advocates that individual experience and interpretation of our experience is more concrete than abstract principles and is the best way of understanding and responding to reality. While the modernists championed clarity and simplicity; postmodernism embraces complex and often contradictory layers of meaning.
What does postmodernism look like?
Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes’. It is often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; it can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself – often consciously borrowing from a range of styles from the past.
Browse the slideshow below to see a selection of postmodernist artworks and read the picture captions to find out how the movements they are associated with reflect some of the key characteristics of postmodernism:
Watch Tate Curator Helen Little as she explores British artworks from the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which a new generation of artists re-negotiated the art obejct in the spirit of postmodernism.
Jeff Koons: Commodity, kitsch and glamour
Following the example of the pop artists of the 1960s, Jeff Koons is inspired by the commercial systems of the modern world. He often uses ordinary manufactured objects or creates immaculate replicas of domestic products, advertisements, kitsch toys and models – apparently enthusiastically endorsing consumption and the voracious appetite of Western civilization for glamorous commodities.
Visit Jeff Koons’s studio – a place where where anything seems possible!
Pop Life: Jeff Koons’s Rabbit
Watch a giant inflatable version of Jeff Koons’s iconic sculpture Rabbit (which is itself based on an inflatable rabbit – well what do you expect? Postmodernism is about complexity and confusion!) takes shape in central London.
Jeff Koons in Tate’s collection
Read the artist’s biography and explore his extraordinary artworks by Koons in Tate’s collection.
Cindy Sherman: Performing identities
Photographer Cindy Sherman uses make-up, costume and lighting effects to create portraits of herself in various scenarios that parody stereotypes of woman. Her characters and settings are drawn from sources of popular culture: old movies, television soaps and pulp magazines. Her approach forms an ironic message that creation is impossible without the use of prototypes and that identity lies in appearance, not in reality. Her work implicates the viewer in the meaning of the work, inviting us to project our own interpretations.
Studio: Cindy Sherman
Tate Etc. visited Cindy Sherman’s studio, and found out about how and why she started dressing up for her photographs.
Cindy Sherman in Tate’s collection
Read the artist’s biography and explore more of her work.
Postmodernist artists reacted against the modernist emphasis on formal qualities and technique…but is the work they made still art? Find out what the people of Liverpool thought when they encountered Jeff Koons’s Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank.
‘You’re so sheer, you’re so chic, teenage rebel of the week’
Postmodern pop music? This Tate Etc. article explores the eclectic style of pop music in the 1970s.
Rudely transgressing the boundaries between the elevated and the profane
The history of the grotesque is inevitably tangled in postmodernist theory…Find out how it has been used in recent art to break down the barriers between high art and popular culture…and how women artists used it to break down the masculine domination of the genre.
Carlton 2006 by Simon Martin
Postmodernism was not just an art movement…it straddled various aspects of Western culture. For his video Carlton, artist Simon Martin explores an iconic piece of postmodern design by Ettore Sotsass of the Italian Memphis Group. Find out more about postmodern design in this article from the V&A
Is postmodernism over? The 2009 Tate Triennial exhibition Altermodern claimed that the period defined as postmodernism has come to an end and a new culture for the twenty-first century is emerging. Watch exhibition curator Nicholas Bourriard discuss his ideas and themes for the exhibition.
Production in View: Allan Sekula’s Fish Story and the Thawing of Postmodernism
Research article exploring the work of photographer and theorist Allan Sekula and his effort to renew realist art in the wake of the postmodern culture of the 1980s.
When history collapses Into the present
This article looks at the paintings of Dexter Dalwood who borrows from earlier artistic modes in order to explore contemporary society’s postmodern predicament that change is all there is and that history seems to have collapsed into the present.