Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory


Coining the Term

“Postmodernism” was a term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. For Toynbee, this new period, beginning in 1875 actually coincided with the modernist avant-garde in the art world of Paris. However, Toynbee examining a larger swarth of history and noted the rise of “mass:” mass culture, mass education and mass culture. When he died in 1975, the “post-modern” was already ninety years old but the intellectual world was just beginning to incorporate the concept. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If Toynbee’s concept of the masses could be applied to the art world it could be seen in the rise of the larger culture of women and people of color and other other artistic impulses to challenge the white male elite who painted large abstract paintings. The masses had come to break down the Modernist hegemony and to scatterer the “rules of art” into the fractured world of pluralism.

The collapse of the dominance of Modernism was a signal that a new questioning was occurring—a questioning of the entire basis of Western philosophy and its products. That new skepticism was called Postmodernism. By 1970 “modern art” had become a period style, a historical entity. The style of Modernism had evolved into a vocabulary of ornament and had developed into a grammar of available forms. Modernism was used as an international art language, which both dispersed its vocabulary but also thinned out its avant-garde origins. This concept of a single “style” or the morality of abstract art as being hegemonic broke down, and painting and sculpture, the best carriers for abstraction, declined as dominant art forms. Self-confined to the museum and gallery, modernist art was vulnerable to being challenged by artistic expressions that were not restricted to artistic traditions. The entry of the “theatrical” with installation art and the flight of environmental art from the “white cube” made the Kantian contemplation of the serenely independent art object impossible.

As art moved out of the museums and into the actual environment and new technologies took center stage, the entire epistemology of Modernist art began to disappear. As the younger generation of artists rejected the old tenets of the meaning and purpose of art, Modernism could no longer hold its own against the expansion of means of art making. Although there are multiple moments in time where one might see a Postmodern direction, this breakdown of Modernism and the rise of Pluralism probably preceded Postmodernism in the s consciousness of the art public. Postmodernism was a time and a period: after Modernism, but over time the differences between the two movements are becoming clearer. Despite Toynbee, the Postmodern in the world of the arts was a short shiver, a shaking off of Modernism for a pseudo style which rapidly aged and dated. While Modernism had a sound philosophical foundation, in the arts it was expressed largely through art criticism, from Stéphane Mallarmé to Clement Greenberg. In contrast Postmodernism was a pluralistic mélange of theoretical position or reinterpretations and re-readings of Modernist theories.

Modernism (1860-1960)

Modernism, as a movement, was opposed to popular or bourgeois taste and espoused the avant-garde stance of the alienated artist. Modernism, as a means of analyzing art, assumes a cultural equality of diverse art, critiqued through a formalist methodology which levels out difference. The work of art is a self-referential object in a self-critical relationship with itself and with its medium. The medium is the crucial determinant in the pursuit of identity, as the problem of art was perceived by Clement Greenberg was to eliminate surplus, such as “realism” or cultural or life-reference, which interferes with that which is qualitatively significant in art. Art must self-identify as a physical object and must suppress metaphor or symbolism–art could not “represent” anything but art. Therefore Modernism rejected what Clement Greenberg called “literary forcing” or a dependence upon the narrative.

The Modernist theories of Clement Greenberg were based upon Enlightenment models: Hegelian and Marxian and Kantian. Because these models were formal and answerable to large forces, such as “history,” art had to be isolated in order to respond appropriately to the critic’s grand narrative. The result is an internal contradiction: either art is relevant because it is an expression of an Enlightenment version of the human spirit or individuality or art is transcendent and is uninvolved with “the world” in which case, how can art be meaningful? As Marx pointed out, everything is pregnant with its own contradiction, and Postmodern artists reacted against transcendence and immanence. Pop artists were, like the Impressionists who worked a hundred years earlier, only reacting to the time honored advice: to be of your own time. By the 1960s, the Modernist imperative of pure art, transcending the ordinariness of banal reality had broken down to the point where aestheticians Arthur Danto and George Dickey had to cobble together a framework for judgment called “the institutional theory of art.”

Pre-Postmodern artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Eliminating Kantian universality of the disinterested judgment of art, the relativistic and pragmatic “institutional theory” had to be asserted in order to create the legitimacy of “copying” a Brillo box by Warhol and the fact that a difference had te be made between representation and resemblance. The idea of “artistic creativity” became re-defined as artists and art historians rediscovered Marcel Duchamp who seemed to answer the need to refute Modernism. Duchamp applied a Kantian disinterest to his art making practice and carried out detachment to the logical extreme of “indifference.” What happened to Modernism was that the critique which was at its heart twisted around and turned upon itself, emptying out its humanistic stance and replacing art with language. Perhaps due to the impact of Marcel Duchamp, postmodern art became more conceptual, exposing the hidden heart of of Modernism: representation. The Modernist artist “represented” humanity by “representing” individuality,” but the postmodern artist, thinking of Duchamp began making art that did not “represent” but was “about” an idea.

After the death of Duchamp, by the rebellious period of the seventies, Modernism became a partisan position, identified with American boosterism, Clement Greenberg, Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and an elitist mission to preserve high art. Modernism also became entangled with the politics of the times, echoing the imperialist attitude for American art and the heroic character of American art, which at the same time attempted to justify its exclusion of women and people of color. Modernism also became caught up in the rising tide of the highly profitable art market in New York which was able to co-opt avant-garde art and to transform a high style into a salable commonplace. Abstract art became vernacularized and with an affluent society invested in an increasingly consumer-based culture, the public lost the need for an “absolute” meaning for art. “Modern art” became another period style that was characterized by a perceptual, sensuous surface that was polyphonic and all over. The assumed self-integrity of the artist collapsed along with the conceit the significance of unity and centrality of consciousness.

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

Modernism’s “will to style” and its hierarchical way of thinking about art was rejected by the concepts of Postmodernism. Postmodernism questioned how value in art is determined and answered that value was a social construct and could never be independent. Human consciousness had always been psychically entangled with fine art, but postmodern philosophers dismantled the notion of the independent subject. Unity of consciousness was impossible to achieve, not necessarily desirable, and there was no final resolution of parts. It was previously assumed that “art” worked and existed in a dialectical situation with art being defined by what is “not art,” but Postmodernism accepts the notion of irresolution and incompleteness by recognizing the interdependent linguistic and conceptual overlap between “high art” and “low art.” Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new historicism of Postmodernism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The only question is—not what it “means”—but how it’s all put together.

In this new age of Indifference, Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over and the disillusionment of something called Late Modernism or Postmodernism took the place of the innocence of pure art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire who could have predicted art functioning as fad, fashion, and consumer good. As Foucauldrian socialist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, an artistic strategy of legitimization, par excellence, was the “return to origins” or to the purity of the first rebellion. This “return” to an art for the people seen so strongly in the art of the Sixties and Seventies, was a form of longing for the comforts of a past that never existed but this nostalgia was one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s desire to look back and not forward.

In rejecting the futuristic position of the avant-garde, Postmodernism re-placed itself into the stream of history and in acknowledging the past, art underwent a sea change. One of the major distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism is based upon the concept of a truth or of a transcendence. Modernism sought to transcend time and place. Modernism desired to be universal by passing over the particular and the local and the peculiar in favor of the absolute. Modernism, in its quest for transcendence will always attempt to remain pure, bounded, contained, seeking closure, to seal itself off from the world in order to rise above it. Modernism was created after the fact by theories, or “truisms,” that were merely ways of looking at and speaking about works of art, all devised and developed self-reflexively during the Modernist period. From the position of post-post-modernity, it seems clear that Postmodernism was a correction to Modernism, a difference obtained by asserting its polar opposite.

Postmodernism is a mega term, suggesting two possibilities. One is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism in that we have moved beyond Modernism and into another era, as not yet understood. The second prospect is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism through a new purification: we perceived the error of our ways. While once a work of art was perceived as an object separated from its context and from its signifying functions, Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the point of view that art stands alone. There is no escaping the literary dimension of all works of art, which are necessarily poetic, referential and metaphorical. Content, not form, becomes crucial and content is always historically mediated, created through and defined by history. Found styles, left over from history, are left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude. Postmodern painter and bricoleur David Salle exerted no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity of meaning.

In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize through a limited vocabulary, Postmodernism combined art and theater in a frank theatricality that beckons to the now activated art audience who recognizes the references and joins in a game of play, sorting through the assemblage of historical quotations. The idea of “style” itself is bankrupt and the work of art is an assemblage, such that of Charles Ray, that refuses unity. Postmodernism, while unsure of its impact or to put it another way is reluctant to announce its self-importance, is concerned with how art communicates. For Rebecca Horn art is language and the relationship of the signifier to the signified depends upon the reaction of the spectator, making the work of art non-hermetic and readable. The result is a doubling of signifiers, a shorthand crowding of givens that are never explained only felt, that empties out art content. The givens of immediate perception have no ability to generate symbolic meaning. When the rhinoceros horns, “detached” from the animal’s theoretical body and crafted by Horn gradually move towards each other, when the tips “kiss” with electric eroticism, the Kiss of the Rhinoceros in 1989 is just a kiss.

Coming after high-flying Modernism, the Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance. All one can do is to comment upon the precursor. Preferring intellectual scorn, postmodernism is ironic rather than openly rebellious. Postmodernist critiques of modern philosophy will note that Enlightenment concepts, such as Structuralism, depend upon figurative models of depth and division. Karl Marx built a model of society resting upon a base, which supported the superstructure, Sigmund Freud built a model of a divided but enclosed mind, segmented into sections and built upon two levels: the conscious and the unconscious, Ferdinand de Saussure built a model of language based upon boundary and enclosure, Claude Lévi-Strauss built a model based upon depth or seeking meaning below the surface of a narrative.

These Modernist philosophical architectonic models would later be critiqued as being figural and constructive metaphors, embedded in Enlightenment discourse, existing in an unquestioned condition. The architectonic tropes of the conceptual models were circular arguments that ignored the history of their own making but were reflections of Enlightenment thinking that sought answers and certainty, based upon the powers of the rational human mind and its powers. The guarantee of the efficacy of these models was the authenticity of presence which in turn was based upon desire–desire to resolve, desire to make sense of the world–that drives the structure of the model. Postmodernism would smash the carefully constructed models by reviewing philosophical writing as writing, as writing, as a form of literature. The theorists would deliberately read against the grain, feeling blindly for the elements that couldn’t quite be suppressed through rational and logical thinking. In a visual answer, postmodern art understood modernist art as a dictionary of dislocated languages to be deconstructed.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Language, Culture, and Philosophy


How do words mean? How is meaning constructed? These seemingly innocent questions are lethal to the entire edifice of knowledge. If we imagine knowledge, not as wisdom, but as an architecture of writing, then the foundation of “truth” is undermined. The question becomes not what do we know but how do we write? If philosophy in the nineteenth century was about ideas, then philosophy in the twentieth century was about language or linguistics. We live in the aftermath of this “Linguistic Turn.”

This “turn” away from ideas and towards language meant that words, not things, would be examined in terms of how words, put together into speech acts and discourse, acquire meaning. Which philosopher marks this “turn,” when and where this “turn” took place depends upon which account is read and which definition of “linguistic turn” is used. Some have contended that German mathematician and philosopher, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, others think that the “turn” was British (or Anglo-Austrian) and was the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps it is best to think not in terms of “first” but in terms of the significance of what is a change in direction. As Richard Rorty said,

The picture of ancient and medieval philosophy as concerned with things, the philosophy of the seventeen through the nineteenth century as concerned with ideas, and the enlightened contemporary philosophical scene with words has considerable plausibility.

The linguistic turn is a concern about how language allows speech and under what linguistic conditions meaning is constructed. In other words, philosophy becomes fused with literary theory and knowledge become examined as the result of a social/cultural structure. The turn towards the study of the arts, visual and literary, through linguistic philosophy started with concerns with logic (analytic philosophy) and semiotics (the study of signs).

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)

After this death, the students of Saussure recreated his lectures and published them as Cours de linguistique générale (1916). This act of devotion brought their teacher’s radical reconsiderations of the way in which meaning is formed. Saussure made a distinction between langue, that is the system, the institution, rules and norms, and parole, which is the actual manifestation of the system in speech, and writing. The philosopher made the distinction between rule and behavior and noted that meaning is bound up in this system of relationships and differences. Language is composed of a network of established significations and relativism is checked by a competent reader who has a sense of what one is reading towards. Langue is a Metadiscourse and parole is a specific text, and structuralism attempted to find and establish an almost scientific approach to de-coding signs and finding their meanings.

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism will specifically deny the basic precepts of Structuralism–its reliance on rules, its search for meaning and its bi-polar structure. Language is the rule and speech is the behavior. The system itself is synchronic as a functional whole and diachronic in its inevitable historical evolution. Saussure and his followers concentrated on the synchronic study of language that is examining the system as a whole as an abstract structure. The diachronic structure was left to others as this aspect of the structure changed with historical changes and was relative and ceaselessly in flux.

The Saussarian system is constructed on the basis of binary oppositions, which Saussure declared to be inherent in the language as a habit of thought that allowed any culture to order and sort out a vast heterogeneous field of elements into distinctions and differences. Structuralism, as a mode of analysis, studies signs within this network of relations. Meaning is bound up within a system of relationships based upon difference and relativism or individual interpretation/solipsism is checked by cultural competency or a sense of what one is reading towards.

Language competence is the ability to represent within a system of norms and rules. This system is one of relations and oppositions in which elements are defined in formal and differential terms. The units of language are modes of a series of differences or functional contrasts. These binary oppositions are inherent in language and this relational identity or dependent identity is crucial to language. For the signifier to express meaning, the signifier must differ from other signifiers and these differences are essential for the signs to work. The linguistic system can be defined as the place of the sign, which acquires meaning only within the system of differences.

Semiotics or semiology seeks the grounds of signifying processes. Structuralism is important because it does NOT seek the truth. There is no truth; there is no human subject. There are only codes or sign systems and it is these structures that produce meaning. Meaning is arbitrary and there is on necessary connection between these structures and “reality”. The revolution of semiotics is the undoing of the common sense link between the word and the thing. The “thing” can be “named” anything and can mean anything. Language, therefore, is not a window on reality, nor is it a mirror. Language is merely a network of signification. Furthermore, knowledge is structured by the systems of code. The structuralist discourse is a method designed to master and explain language and to create a universal grammar of narration.

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914)

Peirce proposed a topology of signs organized into the icon, the index, and the sign, which is the combination of the significant and the signifié or of form and meaning. That the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary is one of the central insights of Structuralism. The arbitrariness of the mechanics that create the sign upsets the ancient notion that words were imbued with the qualities of their referent. Words and things become detached, and things can be known only through words, which in turn can function only within a system and only in terms of their differences. Peirce separated icons from signs by pointing out that icons are based upon actual resemblance, rather than arbitrary relationships, such as a portrait resembling the subject: a one to one relation.

These indexical signs are also mythic and change within the conventions of knowledge and the linguist reads these indices within this system of conventions. According to Peirce, all signs consist of a significant, which is the form, and of a significance, which is the meaning of the sign. All signs are fundamentally incomplete. The significance of one sign cannot be grasped by examining the sign on its own. Any sign acquires meaning only within a network of relations that presents an interpretant in the form of another sign. The sign’s meaning is developed within the system of language and the meaning is manifested through the use of the sign.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2000)

In Structural Anthropology (1958), this French scientist combined anthropology with linguistics, understanding signs to be combination of the signifier and the signified and as forms that were fundamentally incomplete. The signifier cannot be directly grasped but can be understood only in the form of another sign and meaning is determined through this development. All cultural phenomena are signs read by the inhabitants of the culture, but these inhabitants cannot function as subjects because meaning is bound up within the conventional structure. It has been said that Structuralism is Kantian thought without the transcendental subject or without to reasoning and rational human mind actively interpreting and creating reality. The Kantian subject is dissolved and becomes a passive, unwitting object upon which the linguistic system operates at will. The structural analysis refuses to consider a notion of “self” identified with consciousness and does not seek for external causes that make the “subject” as the explanatory cause.

Any object (even human objects) is defined/structured by its place in the system, but unlike form this structure has no content. Content itself is a logical organization and is the same nature as form. Form is only a way of organizing the particular structures that make up content; and meaning is only the effect of logical, intellectual structures by which the mind orders experiences. Following Kant, Lévi-Strauss proposed that the mind imposes form on raw materials and creates myth, which are forms of concrete logic composed of bundles of relations or sets of items. Organized in terms of binary oppositions–dark and light, good and evil–myths explain or reduce the often-frightening contradictions in the real world.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung united Freud and Structuralism into his concept of the “Collective Unconscious.” He recognized Freud’s concept of the dream but asserted that the unconscious remained unconscious. Although Jung understood that “dream-work” was an active process that included actions of displacement, condensation, symbolization and so on, he disagreed with Freud’s notion that these actions were actions of censorship. For Jung, dreams did not deceive but express. Dream thinking was simply an “older mode of thought” and the interpretation of dreams will show that the meanings are bound up in recognizable form. Dreams are like plays, they dramatize through plots and culminate in a climax. The manifest content of dreams, therefore, is drama. The latent content can be uncovered through free association, for dreams are self-portrayals in symbolic form. Dreams have a creative role to play in the total human psyche and are linked to the dreamer’s life.

Both Jung and Freud considered mind and body to be linked. For Jung the psyche functioned in terms of archetypes that are inscribed in the body and are genetically transmitted. These archetypes are unconscious pre-dispositions. In the Kantian sense, archetypes are a priori conditions for actual experience, or, to put it another way, archetypes organize experiences. Archetypes are models or primordial types or ideas that act as originals or exemplars. Jung was talking about cognitive structures that were congenital structures that produced patterns of behavior.

The image, which is symbolic, is the functional form of this system and can be described as a typical situation into which energy is released. Image approaches instinct. Symbols manifested in images necessarily emerge from archetypes which, being universal, are part of the collective unconscious. It is not so much that we can read each other’s symbols but that we can read the instinct to make symbols. Once these symbols are decoded, the archetypal foundation of these forms will be revealed.

Freud and Jung corresponded but disagreed on what determined the nature of the human psyche but they were part of a philosophical mindset that sought to set out what Jean-François Lyotard would call a “grand narrative.” For Freud the engine of his grand narrative was sexual energy, for Jung the engine was the organizational capacities of archetypes. Also writing philosophy during this period was Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945), a Neo-Kantian philosopher and Kantian interpreter, who would bring a number of these ideas together into his three volume (1923-29), Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, which incorporates art as a language of symbolic forms that had to be interpreted.

Cassirer worked with Aby Warburg (1866-1929) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) at the University of Hamburg. These three scholars were the Hamburg School and were interested in the historical evolution of “symbolic forms.” Warburg applied the notion of psychological archetypes of art and searched for recurring images and recurring symbols that returned eternally in art as symptoms of the unconscious. Panofsky applied the notion of the Kantian mind actively constructing culture to works of art and attempted to read art according to the teachings of structuralism, especially that of Saussure whom he had read.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]