Study the meanings artworks within postmodernism

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I will in this essay write about a few postmodern artworks, and how they represents postmodern art, and look at what social issues pushed postmodernism in the direction it did, and also compare postmodernism with modernism and look at it's opposites and how they differ from each other.

I would like to begin by describing an installation by an conceptual artist Daniel Buren (b.1939.), entitled "On two levels with two colors" (1976), which featured a vertically striped band at the floor levels of two adjoining gallery rooms, one at a step up from the other. Empty rooms, nothing else.

 This installation is a good example of where modernism itself has arrived at through a persistent history of innovation. (introducing postmod. p.5) Another artwork for which Martin Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001 was an empty room, in which the electric lights go on and off. This artworks are pure conceptual art, where one might question where is the art, what is the art? I guess artworks like this or even Duchamps famous readymades of a urinal or his bicycle wheel mounted to a stool, tests our intellectual responces and tolerance of the works that the art gallery can bring attention to the public. I would say it does raise the question what is art, yet it is not as enjoyable as Rodin's "Kiss" or the far more intricate abstract structures of a sculptor like Anthony Caro. (postmodernism, a very shhort introduction, page 2. )

Other artworks within postmodernism might be that of puritanism, calling into the question and making the audience feel guilty or disturbed, are attitudes which are typical of much postmodernist art, and they often have a political dimension.


What then is postmodern? What space does Cezanne challenge? The impressionists. What object do Picasso and Braque challenge? Cezanne's. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? The idea that one has to make a painting - even a cubist painting. And Buren examines another presupposition that he believes emerged intact from Duchamp's work: the place of the works presentation. The postmodern explained to children p 21)

Jean  Francois Lyotard has used the term postmodernims to refer to three separate tendencies.

A) A trend within architecture away from Modern Movement's project of a last rebuilding of the whole space occupied by humanity, B) a decay of confidence in the idea of progress and modernization and C) a recongnition that it is no longer appropriate to employ the methaphor of the avant garde as if modern artists were soldiers fighting on the borders of knowledge and the cisible prefiguring in their art some sort of collective global future. Art in modern culture an anthology of critical texts, p 333.

By the mid 1960s, critics like Susan Sontag and Ihab Hassan had begun to point out some of characteristics of what we call postmodernism. They argued that the work of postmodernists was "deliberately less unified, less obviously 'masterful', more playful or anarchic, more concerned with the processes of our understanding than with the pleasures of artistic finish and unity, less inclined to hold a narrative together, than much of the art that had preceded it." (postmodernism, a very short introduction, page 5.


Anyone can see that Renaissance portraiture and classical statuary are done with great skill, there is no question of that. Some of the landscapes are breathtaking. The French impressionists seem perhaps not to be so careful about their drawing, but their dabs of bright color makes an explicit painting, astonishing play with colour and light. Claude Monet's Haystack at Sunset Near Giverny, 1891, is a perfect example of how Monet moves away from realist painting and now depicts the lanscape in colour and bathed in light. At this time there were hope, dreams and glory in the world.


Radical movements and trends regarded as influential and potentially as precursors to postmodernism emerged around World War I and particularly in its aftermath. With the introduction of the use of industrial artifacts in art and techniques such as collage, avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Dada and Surrealism questioned the nature and value of art.


In february 1916 a small group of artists seeking refuge from the war in Zurich opened the Cabaret Voltaire. This was the place designed to give young artists the opportunity to display their work to the public in a nightclub situation. It became the first home of the anti-activities later called dada. It was Nihilistic, that is, it held that all traditional values and beliefs were unfounded, and life was without sense and purpose. Louis aragon's poem "Suicide" is nothing but the alphabeth in it's normal order. Other Dadaists created "poems" by cutting words from the newspaper, putting them into a hat, and gluing words to paper as they were drawn at random from the hat. The poetry was naturally nonsensical. I understand these movements as a reflection on society, and the nonsense which happened during the war. Later in deconstruction we can see even further that the philosophers deconstruct and pull apart reason and the words meaning to each other.



Even the abstract expressionists like Willem De Kooning painting "Woman and bicycle, 1952-53" along with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko show a new way of expressing themselves through colour and abstract expression. In a famous letter to the New York Times (June 1943), Gottlieb and Rothko, with the assistance of Newman, wrote: "To us, art is an adventure into an unknown world of the imagination which is fancy-free and violently opposed to common sense. There is no such thing as a good painting about nothing. We assert that the subject is critical."


There are many oppositions between modernism and postmodernism, and I would like to mention a few of the binary opposites that I can find.

Modernism                         Postmodernism

Form                                          Antiform

Purpose                               Play

Design                               Chance

Hierarchy                                   Anarchy

Art object/Finished works     Process/Performance/Happening

Signified                            Signifier


Modernism was characterized by a dramatic change of thought. The society improved itself by involving science and technology into it. Modernism was based on using rational, logical means to gain knowledge while postmodernism denied the application of logical thinking. As postmodernism was a reaction to modernism the thinking during the postmodern era was based on unscientific, irrational thought process. While a hierarchical, organized and determinate nature of knowledge characterized modernism. But postmodernism was based on an anarchical, non-totalized and indeterminate state of knowledge. Modernist approach was objective, theoretical and analytical while the postmodernism approach was based on subjectivity. It lacked the analytical nature and thoughts were rhetorical and completely based on belief. The fundamental difference between modernism and postmodernism is that modernist thinking is about the search of an abstract truth of life while postmodernist thinkers believe that there is no universal truth, abstract or otherwise.


Do we still view art as a way of social change like the modernist avant-garde did, which at the time even helped to shape many of the political movements of the twentieth century? Well, have look at the way futurism promoted Italian fascism with its aesthetic of the machine. The art reflected the social changes, and influenced by its evolving science and technology. By the nineteen-seventies, the political ideals that fuelled modernism had given way to profound disillusionment with wars such as Vietnam, ultra-utilitarian architecture, and academic minimalism. Artists began to use artistic styles independently of their original political agenda.

The rise of the great post-war innovatory artists were Stockhausen, Boelez, Robbe-Grillet, Becket, Coover, Rauschenberg and Beuys. Alongside were a number of French intellectuals, notably the marxist social theorist Louis Altusser, the cultural critic Roland Bartes, the philosopher Jaque Derrida, and the historian Michel Foucault.

Their advanced philosophical thought moving away from the strongly ethical and individualist existentialism that was typical of the immediately post-war period towards far more sceptical and anti-humanist attitudes.

These new beliefs were expressed to be known as deconstructive and poststructuralist theory.


There are a number of factors that contributed to the postmodern era.

How would the world reaction to the chaos after the Holocaust, post-colonial rigidity, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War, it caused people to become progressively more disillusioned about the inherent meaning and value of life and art. New styles of art have failed to attract them in the way that Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism or Surrealism did.


The way people live in the world changed as the of new image-based technologies of television, video, screenprinting, computers, the internet emerged. This new found technology generated a huge wave of film and photographic imagery - of places, events and international celebrities - and now draughtsman ship was less sought, in the process. By manipulating this new technology, artists including painters, printmakers, sculptors and others involved in newer forms like installation, doesn't follow the traditional processes involved in "making art," but still create something new. An example is Ana Fabriusius Christiansen who is a ceramic artist working with clay and relatively new media such as photography and video. The primitive material juxtaposed with a high-tech medium gives it an interesting result, while at the same time film's documenting function is an important part of vizualizing a complex theme.

The world is moving in rapid speed with it's growth of consumerism and instant gratification over the last few decades of the 20th century, this notion has also had a huge impact on the visual arts. Modern consumers want entertainment. In response, many artists, curators and other professionals have taken the opportunity to turn art into a "product." For example, installation and video have allowed consumers to experience art in a much more pro-active way. The public has a desire to be shocked and be stimulated, and this desire is surely met by new artistic subject-matter, like dead tiger sharks, huge ice-sculptures, crowds of nude bodies, demonstrations of dying flies, islands wrapped in pink polypropylene fabric, and so on, there is nothing predictable about being a human anymore.

Popculture and art is wonderfully depicts the growth of consumerism as can be seen in Richard Hamiltons "Just what is it that makes todays homes so different, so appealing." (1956) In a way this collage is quite an accepting yet ridiculing view of the consumerist culture we live in.


The postmodernist notion of human identity as essentially constructed like a fiction is also to be found in the visual arts, as is to be seen in Cindy Sherman's series of photographs, "Untitled Film Stills" (1977-1980) and its successors. In each of these Sherman impersonates film actresses, disguising herself more or less in different clothing and in different implied situations, which are typical or stereotypical film. In so doing naturally arises the question of who is the 'real Cindy Sherman? Which photograph could possibly convince us that we are seing this? An open, sincere, emotional or even naked one? 

The french sociologist Jean Baudrillard means that the border between art and reality has utterly vanished as both have collapsed into a universal simulacrum, and he makes a conclusion that the representational image-sign goes through four historic phases. First, the image is the reflection of a basic reality. Second the image masks and perverts the basic reality. Third the image marks the absence of a basic reality. And forth the image bears no relation to any reality whatever- it is its own pure simulacrum.

In Linguistics Saussure proposed that within the language system, the signifier, the word or acoustic image, is that which carries meaning, and the signified, the concept, is that which it refers to. Signification is the process which binds together signifier and signified to produce a sign. A sign must be understood as a relation which has no meaning outside the system of signification. The problem is - does the signifies refer to the image or concept "ox" or to the ox itself as a thing. The association of sound and what it represents is the outcome of collective learning, and this is signification. Meaning is therefore the product of a system of representation, which is itself meaningless. For the deconstructor, the relationship of language to reality is not given, since all language systems are inherently unreliable cultural constructs.

Magritte made a painting question the sign, painting a pipe and writing underneath "this is not a pipe." 

In 1967, Barthes caused a sensation by proclaiming "the death of the author." He meant that readers create their own meanings, regardless of the authors intentions; the texts they use do so are thus evershifting, unstable and open to question. Does this affect how we create art or literature, and what we are searching for in painting? Cezanne was searching for truth, and wrote in a letter "I owe you the truth in painting," which was the starting point for Derrida's recent text. What is this truth, how can you convey truth in painting? Throughout the entire history of thinking about art and object there has been the search to establish the essential priority of logos over mythos, reason over representation, concept over methaphor, the intelligble over sensible and ultimately truth over painting.

What is truth, and can it be depicted? Platos idea of truth is that of an unveiling inward revelation from the soul. Truth which is already written in the soul and which is a remembrance of what you already know. Many artist has troughout history searched for truth in painting, yet Picasso stated art is "not truth." He said if he pursued a truth on his canvas, he could paint a hundred canvases with the same truth, which one then is truth? And what is truth - the thing that acts as my model, or what I am painting?

Derrida claimed and demonstrating that written words do not stand for spoken words which do not stand for thoughts which do not stand for truth or God, which are not referents of the metaphysical world. These new philosophies brakes down everything we have ever known and searched for in fact, it peals away anything that can be held fast, yet it also opens up the possibility that truth is only what you believe to be true, and it is ever changing. Meaning is even different from person to person. So can anything we ever communicate really be understood? If you think about it, you don't see with your eyes, but rather with your mind. You will create meaning and emotional responses to art from your own personal memories. And for one person a cow might be related to fear, for another home.

Phillip Guston states that painting is not on a surface, yet it is imagined. He expresses himself and says that painting is not made with colours and paint at all. And that he doesn't know what a painting is; who knows what sets off even the desire to paint? It might be things, thoughts, a memory, sensations, which has nothing to do with painting itself. They come from anything and everywhere, a trifle some detail observed, wondered about and, naturally from the previous painting. Guston declares that the painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined. It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so what you see is not what you see. There is Leonardo Da Vinci famous statement that painting is a thing of the mind. The idea of the pleasures of the eye is not merely limited, it isn't even possible. Everything means something. Anything in life or in art, any mark you make has meaning and the only question is, what kind of meaning?"

Furthermore Feyerabend makes the statement that "The only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths.  

The current Postmodern belief is that a correct description of Reality is impossible. This extreme skepticism, of which Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn are particularly famous, assumes that;

a)    All truth is limited, approximate, and is constantly evolving (Nietzsche, Kuhn, Popper).

b) No theory can ever be proved true - we can only show that a theory is false (Popper).

c) No theory can ever explain all things consistently (Godel's incompleteness theorem).

d) There is always a separation between our mind & ideas of things and the thing in itself (Kant).

e) Physical reality is not deterministic (Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, Bohr).

f) Science concepts are mental constructs (logical positivism, Mach, Carnap).

g) Metaphysics is empty of content.

h) Thus absolute and certain truth that explains all things is unobtainable.


Not only do these new philosophies bring about new ways of thinking, science also shape the way we think. Is science the new art? Technology is responsible for changing how we think about the universe. An example is Galileo when he created the telescope, with the new idea of an infinite universe. In the De Revolutionibus, (1543) Copernicus established the order of planets and proposed a heliostatic universe which were groundbreaking. Newton's clockwork universe explains the universe to be predictable and made with order. Science is today proving what the mystics wrote about at the beginning of time. Chaos and complexity theory show us that patterns tend to reiterate and persist (like fractals) at all levels of observation: "As Above; So Below."   There are many artists who are influenced by science like Jaq Chartier who mirrors dna-mapping, Mark Francis and Ross Bleckner who create paintings relating to the microscopic image of cells and Daniel Lee who makes photographs of figures being half human and half animal, raising questions of what it is to be a human.


As politics, philosophy, science and new technology has all been part of shaping the world and the art of the postmodern era, what will the future bring? One thing is sure even if there is no ultimate truth, and we are ever changing and evolving art constantly revises the questions of who are we? What are we here for? And where are we going?