Final Thought: what distinguishes ‘Modernism’ from ‘Postmodernism’?

Modernism was a ‘movement’ rooted in the tradition of Western European critical thinking, that found expression through a range of creative, cultural and artistic practice. The ‘epicentre seems to have been Vienna, during the period of 1890-1910‘ and the ‘period of high modernism was the twenty years from 1910 to 1930‘ (Barry: 84-85). In summary, it was an artistic, intellectual, social and political philosophy that was clearly organised and expressed through a range of organised associations, collectives and groups such as, the Cubists, Surrealists, Dadaists, Futurists made prominent by individuals such as, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Kurt Schwitters, Salvador Dali, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Fernand Lรฉger, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Virginian Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Andrรฉ Gide etc etc etc.

Modernism refers to a global movement in society and culture that from the early decades of the twentieth century sought a new alignment with the experience and values of modern industrial life. Building on late nineteenth-century precedents, artists around the world used new imagery, materials and techniques to create artworks that they felt better reflected the realities and hopes of modern societies.

Modernism can be contextualised and understood as a way of maintaining and building on the Enlightenment project, otherwise known as the ‘Age of Reason‘ – which was the rejection of the ‘old world’ of Divine Right (the ideas that Royalty was an appointment by, and direct line to God), the rule of religion (over science and logic); essentially an argument that championed logic, reason, knowledge and understanding which could establish key principles of democracy, liberty, fraternity, ideals of universal and individual suffrage and the possibility of an egalitarian (fair and free) society. See for example, thinkers such as: Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, John Locke, David Hume etc

As part of this drive modernists wanted to explode the ‘old world’ by exploring new forms of artistic expression, hitherto ignored or marginalised. So the modernists sought to reject traditional forms of artistic expression, for example,

  • the rejection of traditional structures of narrative, representation, form and content.
  • the tendency to borrow, copy, refer to, adapt, update . .
  • a shift towards subjective, individual experience, rather than presenting life, identity and experience as unifying, objective, whole, complete.
  • a tendency towards ‘reflexivity’ which is the deliberately self-concious technique of drawing attention to the process of making something, as much as the thing itself – think for example, of Duchamps’ urinal, or Renรฉ Magritte’s ce n’est pas une pipe. In other words, what legitimises art, creativity (and thereby, politics, economics, truth, society, history . . )
  • a predisposition to link creativity with history, politics, art, society

Modernism to Postmodernism

According to Barry modernism lost much of its original impetus in the build up and aftermath of WW2, but it did gain some resurgence in the 1960’s through counter-cultural movements and artistic expressions, however, it was in the 1980’s that the central thrust of modernist thinking was challenged, re-articulated and emerged as what we now identify as postmodern thought. In summary, some of the essential differences that will allow students to identify postmodernism are bulleted below:

  • Modernists believed in the potential of an authentic and ‘real’ culture, that could transform and counteract the oppressive demands of the industrial world (so ideas of the Enlightenment)
  • Modernism held a revered nostalgia for previous epochs of artistic and intellectual expression. A belief that there was something lost, that is now worth rediscovering.
  • As such, there is a focus on form and style which seeks purity and clarity as well as seeking to challenge tradition. Out of this emerges a new form of ‘high art’, a celebration of the best of culture.
  • In other words, the use of fragmentation, parody, reference and intertextuality is a way of rediscovering and reconnecting with an ‘authoritative’ past, which when re-discovered will help shape the future.
  • Therefore modernism is a project that is looking to build a better society. A vision for the future.
  • Postmodernism prioritises the role of technology and the media. That reality is a mediated, digital experience. Think for example, of our dual digital / analogue lives and identities.
  • Postmodernism holds an ironic regard for the past. Often focusing on the individual, the trivial, the inconsequential as a dismissive, perhaps contemptuous gesture.
  • The focus on form and style is less self-conscious, less of a purist pursuit and more of a liberating opportunity to play, explore and create. As such, there is less snobbery in terms of ‘high art’ v ‘popular culture’
  • Whereas fragmentation for postmodernists is used a mechanism for play, a device that foregrounds surface and liberates formal order from an orthodox search for meaning.
  • Whereas, postmodernism rejects the idea of an overall vision (metanarrative). Put another way, it is just a set of references, which can mean something or nothing.

For the postmodernist, by contrast, fragmentation is an exhilarating, liberating phenomenon, symptomatic of our escape from the claustraphobic embrace of fixed systems of belief.

barry (2017:86)

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