Modernism and Postmodernism – is there hope?

Modernism – definition

Modernism, it appears, is very difficult to define in a concise, single sentence. Some would say that this is because it didn’t encompass a singular style or idea, but rather encompassed a variety of styles and ideas. It was about embracing the here and now.

Ezra Pound perhaps captured the essence of Modernism when he said, ‘Make it new!’

Out with the old, in with the new!

Out with the old, in with the new!

Modernism was a cultural movement which rebelled against the old ways of defining and seeing the world. It broadly spanned the period from around 1860 until the early 1970s, although those dates are arbitrary as some scholars would cite 1890 as the start, others 1900, and some would give 1940 as the end date rather than later to the end of the 1960s. Essentially it was a rebellion against the Victorian era.

Modernism straddled many different disciplines, including art, sculpture, dance, music, literature and philosophy, and was influenced by politics, scientific and technological innovation, and the Industrial Revolution. The aim was to break with old traditions, champion advancement and consider artist results as having an intrinsic value just beyond being art.

Example of modernism

Architecture –  Modernist architecture saw the rise of the international style in the 1930s. Modern materials such as steel, glass and concrete were used by modern architects to create clean, stream-lined structures. What is generally thought of as the modernist ethic in architecture evolved first in Europe, from architects such as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

A good example of Modernist architecture is the Pruitt Igoe urban housing development in St. Louis, Missouri, which was completed in 1955.  The development was designed according to the Modernist principles of Le Corbusier, and comprised of thirty-three eleven storey high rise buildings containing individual flats. There were communal areas  intended to increase the social interaction amongst the community. However, the buildings proved to be unpopular with the residents. It has been suggested that the modernist style was to blame for these social problems. People it seemed didn’t want to live together in such high-rise buildings. They wanted to live in more traditional style housing where they weren’t being forced to live together.

Who lives in a house like this?

Who lives in a house like this?

Literature – Modernism in literature gave rise to the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Wolf who aimed to challenge traditional ways of writing and create their fiction in new forms of expression. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce is the epitome of Modernist literature.

The genius who changed the face of literature for a generation.

The genius who changed the face of literature for a generation.

Art – One of the earliest Modernist painters was Edouard Manet. His painting ‘Olympia’ caused shock in his day because he had painted a nude, but not just a classic life study of a nude, but a courtesan.

Not just any nude...

Not just any nude…

From the end of the nineteenth century artists continued to develop and shock, and evolve. The early twentieth century saw an explosion of ‘isms’: Futurism, Cubism, Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism and Spatialism to name just a few. It became the norm to form a new movement that broke with the old and created a new way of seeing things. Many artists associated with these various ‘isms’ were Modernists too, even if they wouldn’t have liked to be labelled as such.

The Modernist era is characterised by a sense of innovation and chaos, an insecurity and self-doubt. The Modernists were questioning and interpreting, but at the same time doubting themselves.

 Postmodernism – definition

Postmodernism, equally difficult to define, I think is very well summarized in a quote from Plato from one of his dialogues. Here Plato cites the thinker Protagoras as saying that any given thing ‘is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you.’

Postmodernism is all about fragmented experiences. It rejects any notion that we can  explain the world and for it to be as so. It rejects the idea that God can explain the world. There is no longer such a thing as a universal truth, a universal experience or a universal reality. The world is perceived subjectively.

Especially, Postmodernism attacks the use of strong classifications in terms of gender, sexuality, colour and race. Realities are plural and relative. It is skeptical of explanations which claim to apply to a given group.

The paradox of Postmodernism is that, in putting existing principles under a skeptical eye, its own principles are not beyond questioning.

ArchitecturePostmodernist architecture aims to combine old and new. Here the juxtaposition of different times is most obvious. Combining new ideas with traditional forms, Postmodernist buildings aim to startle, surprise, and perhaps amuse. Familiar shapes and details are used in unexpected ways.

A good example of a Postmodernist building is the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, designed by Robert Venturi in 1991. Venturi is the author of Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (published in 1966), which was instrumental in opening up to new perspectives on building design.

Mixing old and new.

Mixing old and new.

Literature – Danielewski’s novel The House of Leavesis now a cult classic and is cited here as a fine example of Postmodernist literature. It is a huge work, and contains encoded typography, colour-word associations and the meticulous inclusion of mythological and metaphysical references. What makes this a work of Postmodernist literature? Is it the vastness of it, the confusion of it, which perhaps reflects the Postmodern reaction to the modernist society? I haven’t read it so I’m not sure.

Bedtime reading?

Bedtime reading?

Art – Towards the end of the 1960s, Modernist ‘isms’ such as Abstract Expressionism began to wane in popularity and many artists opted for more mixed-media art forms and newer ‘isms’ such as Conceptualism and Neo-expressionism, which it could be argued were the forerunners of Postmodernism in art. Art critics began to question what constituted an artwork’s intrinsic value. Artists were newly expressing a degree of self-awareness in their artworks, as well as a rejection of Modernism’s emotional and spiritual detachment from the traditions of the age. Then comes the birth of two strands of Postmodern art theory.

Deconstructive Postmodernism – these artists hold the belief that there is nothing knowable about the world. They are against anything that seems certain. Nothing is new.

Constructive Postmodernism – these artists, in contrast, do not reject Modernism in totality. In fact they want to adapt the ideas of Modernism. They reject the idea that the world can be classified in certain terms.

Conceptual art is sometimes labelled as postmodern as it is associated with a desire to deconstruct what it means for a work of art to be ‘art’. Art is created by the audience viewing something as art, not from the intrinsic qualities of the work itself.
As good example as any of Postmodernist art is Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole, by Lawrence Weiner.

Is it art or just words?

Is it art or just words?

Most Postmodern art seems to be about contradictions and juxtapositions: old and new, high culture and low culture and abstract and reality.

Other Postmodernisms

PhilosophyPostmodern philosophy is skeptical or nihilistic toward the values and assumptions of philosophy borne from modernity, for example the idea of humanity having an essence distinguishing them from animals, or the idea that one form of government is obviously better than another.

Psychology – The Postmodern approach to psychology questions whether an ultimate or singular version of truth is in fact possible within the field of psychology. This approach relies on a variety of methodologies rather than a singular approach.

Politics – I am struggling to find a single definition of Postmodern politics. It seems that Postmodern politics is about rejecting any form of political life based on God’s moral law or liberal values. It rejects the past, at the same time as believing in the impossibility of originality.

The word that springs to mind when thinking of Postmodernism is: paradox. It wants to freeze time, freeze language in time, and freeze experiences in time. The aspect of Postmodernism I can’t seem to understand is the notion that individualism and personal identity do not exist any more. In other words, there are no new ideas. All is left is imitation of old concepts. So art, architecture, film, philosophy and politics will necessarily fail to be original. So where is the hope? To quote the Life of Brian: ‘You’re all individuals!’, ‘I’m not!’

Is Brian a Postmodernist?

Is Brian a Postmodernist?


Sudip Bose, ‘What is Modernism?’Preservation Magazine (The National Trust; May/June 2008), [last accessed 16 January 2013]

Kim WIlliamson, ‘What is Modernism?’, [last accessed 16 January 2013]

Plato quote: Plato, Theaetetus, p. 152a.

Paul Copen, ‘What is Postmodernism?’, magazine, [last accessed 16 January 2013]

Wikipedia on Post-modernism

Wikipedia on Post-modern art, [last accessed 16 January 2013]

The Art Story, [last accessed 16 January 2013]

Jameson, Frederic ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’ in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture edited by Hal Foster (1998, The New Press)

Rowan Moore, ‘Pruitt-Igoe: death of the American urban dream’ The Guardian Online (26 February 2012), [last accessed 16 January 2013]





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