Art Term


Postmodernism can be seen as a reaction against the ideas and values of modernism, as well as a description of the period that followed modernism's dominance in cultural theory and practice in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century. The term is associated with scepticism, irony and philosophical critiques of the concepts of universal truths and objective reality.

Jeff Koons, ‘Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off)’ 1985
Jeff Koons
Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Dr J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) 1985
© Jeff Koons

The term was first used 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 may be said to begin with pop art in the 1960s and to embrace much of what followed including conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art, and the Young British Artists of the 1990s.

Post-modernism and Modernism

Postmodernism was a reaction against modernism. Modernism was generally based on idealism and 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 experimented with form, technique and processes rather than focusing on subjects, believing they could find a way of purely reflecting the modern world.

While 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 certainties or truths. Postmodern art drew on philosophy of the mid to late twentieth century, and advocated that individual experience and interpretation of our experience was more concrete than abstract principles. While the modernists championed clarity and simplicity; postmodernism embraced complex and often contradictory layers of meaning.

The many faces of postmodernism

Anti-authoritarian by nature, postmodernism refused to recognise the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be. It collapsed the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture, between art and everyday life. Because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes’. 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 mixing different artistic and popular styles and media, postmodernist art can also consciously and self-consciously borrow from or ironically comment on a range of styles from the past.

Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), was a prominent French psychoanalyst and theorist. His ideas had a huge impact on critical theory in the twentieth century and were particularly influential on post-structuralist philosophy and the development of postmodernism. Lacan re-examined the psychiatry of Sigmund Freud, giving it a contemporary intellectual significance. He questioned the conventional boundaries between the rational and irrational by suggesting that the unconscious rather than being primitive, is just as complex and sophisticated in its structure as the conscious. He proposed that the unconscious is structured like a language which allows a discourse between the unconscious and conscious and ensures that the unconscious plays a role in our experience of the world.

  • Roy Lichtenstein Whaam!


    Pop artists broke down the separation between fine art and popular culture in their work: Lichtenstein borrows the language of comics for his painting Whaam.

  • Joseph Kosuth Clock (One and Five), English/Latin Version (Exhibition Version)

    1965, 1997

    Conceptual artists reacted against the modernist emphasis on the importance of the art object. Instead they emphasised the idea or concept behind the work…in doing so they championed the postmodern approach of interpretation and experience over universal truths.

  • Guerrilla Girls Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?


    In the 1970s women artists began to make art in response to the developments in feminist theory. They used their personal experiences of being women to inform their work.

  • Sandro Chia Water Bearer


    Neo-expressionism saw painters returning to mythical and historical subjects (in reaction to the negation of the subject by modernist painters). It was anti-intellectual and individualistic and referenced earlier painting styles.

  • Gilbert & George Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk


    Performance allowed artists to create work that eliminated the need for process and technique and also offered a way of making art more accessible to the masses. In this performance Gilbert & George’s deadpan expressions and repeated declaration that 'Gordon's makes us very drunk' creates an absurd scene that ironically questions identity, nationality and 'good behaviour'.

  • Damien Hirst Away from the Flock


    The YBAs stormed the art world in the 1980s and became known for their openness to materials and processes, shock tactics and entrepreneurial approach. In true postmodern spirit, no one style is evident in their work, though certain shared approaches can be seen such as the use of appropriated objects and images.

  • Jeff Koons New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Red, Brown, New Shelton Wet/Dry 10 Gallon Displaced Doubledecker


    Another postmodernist art movement with a ‘neo’ prefix…not surprising as postmodernism borrowed styles from various earlier movements without adopting their principles: Neo-geo art was influenced by the style of minimalism, conceptual art and op art.

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