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Postmodernism: Decoration and appropriation, the return of the narrative and content

Postmodernism: Decoration and appropriation, the return of narrative and content.

Watching video in class: From "This is Modern Art" Series with Matthew Collings, Channel 4, 2000 - Episode 1 "I am a Genius"

Discussion about handouts given last week:

"Postmodernism and the Art of the Identity" by Christopher Reed from "Concepts of Modernism from Fauvism to Postmodernism" (Thomas & Hudson, 1994)

"The Postmodern Sublime - Installation and Assemblage Art" by Paul Crowther from "Art & Design - the Contemporary Sublime - Sensibilities of Transcendence and Shock" (1995).

So, what IS Postmodernism? Sounds like a simple question, but it's surprisingly hard to pin down, to get a consistent definition. Perhaps that's because we're still in the midst of it, too close to be able to see it objectively in the context of historical significance. There's certainly a lot of very involved academic discussion about what it is, but the challenge is summing that up into a defintion you can apply in your design practice. Hmm. Anyways, here's one explanation:


row row row your boat gently down the stream...... merrily merrily merrily merrily life is

Postmodernism, like modernism, follows most of these same ideas, rejecting boundaries between high and low forms of art, rejecting rigid genre distinctions, emphasizing pastiche, parody, bricolage, irony, and playfulness. Postmodern art (and thought) favors reflexivity and self-consciousness, fragmentation and discontinuity (especially in narrative structures), ambiguity, simultaneity, and an emphasis on the destructured, decentered, dehumanized subject.

But-while postmodernism seems very much like modernism in these ways, it differs from modernism in its attitude toward a lot of these trends. Modernism, for example, tends to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history (think of The Wasteland, for instance, or of Woolf's To the Lighthouse), but presents that fragmentation as something tragic, something to be lamented and mourned as a loss. Many modernist works try to uphold the idea that works of art can provide the unity, coherence, and meaning which has been lost in most of modern life; art will do what other human institutions fail to do. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn't lament the idea of fragmentation, provisionality, or incoherence, but rather celebrates that. The world is meaningless? Let's not pretend that art can make meaning then, let's just play with nonsense.
Source and further reading at:

A significant concept of Postmodernism is the idea that everything is a copy something which is a copy of something...which is a copy of... ad infinitum. This was called simulacra by Jean Baudrillard:

“everything has already happened....nothing new can occur, “ and “there is no real world” (Rosenau 1992: 64, 110). Source: www.as.ua.edu/ant/Faculty/murphy/436/pomo.htm

Perhaps in the same way that the Dada Movement of the 1910's-20's inevitably self-destructed (Dadaist: "There are no rules!" Response: "Uh... is that a rule?"), Postmodernism's nihilism is problematic. If nothing is original, and if nothing has any sincere meaning, then you may well ask, why would one bother to make anything?

Hence the rise of the anti-hero art celebrity. If nothing means anything, and there is no such thing as true creativity, then what reason is there to create apart from an attempt to project one's own self?

Two more important concepts in Postmodernist theory are semantics and semiotics - the study of signs, signals and signifiers in language (written, oral and visual). See carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/semiotics.html

Roland Barthes, along with other French literary critics, has heralded the Death of the Author. Now meaning is supposed to come from an interaction between the text and the reader: the reader of literature constructs the text from his or her own unique perspective. Under postmodernist theory, everything can be read as a text, and all readings of each text are equally meaningful, if not valid. Meaning and truth are thus plural, changing, and subjective. To give privilege to one truth over another becomes an act of psychic terrorism. Source: www.hi.is/~mattsam/Kistan/postmodernismi/mann.htm

Appropriation is another significant Postmodernist idea. If nothing is original, then why not just steal shamelessly? Pastiche, collage, deliberate reworkings of reworkings of other people's words, art and ideas.

One site I love is the Postmodernist Essay Generator: elsewhere.org/journal/ (the "Adolescent Poetry Generator" from the same site is amusing too, and equally Postmodernist)

Another catch-prase of Postmodernism is deconstruction.

The philosophical method of choice for many postmodern thinkers is "deconstruction", a term made famous by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, meaning a taking apart of the belief structures of Western science, philosophy, and art. More specifically, Derrida seeks to take a text apart, to reveal its inner contradictions, its hidden assumptions, its moral and political hierarchies, its "warring forces of signification". His preferred approach to the discovering of meaning is différance, which means to defer, postpone, or put off a text's meaning, given the central postmodernist premise that we should avoid forcing a given interpretation on a text or person (which is itself based on the further beliefs that all the world's a text, and that all readings of these texts are equally valid). Source: www.hi.is/~mattsam/Kistan/postmodernismi/mann.htm

More about the 'debt to Dada':

Having rejected the modernist emphasis on truth, a variety of postmodern “artistic” practices have been developed for the purpose of steering science in new directions (Brady, 1998; Janesick, 1994; L. Richardson, 1995, 1998; M. Richardson, 1998; Travisano, 1998). Yet, while there have been some noteworthy attempts to organize postmodernists around substantial scientific projects (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994, 2000), no clearly defined postmodernist plan of attack has yet emerged. Indeed, the inability of postmodernists to mount a full counteroffensive to modernism has stimulated Lochner (1999) to propose that postmodernism is simply a poorly repackaged version of Dadaism, a nihilistic artistic movement. Lochner notes that, shortly after being recognized as a definable movement in the arts, Dada’s principal artists disbanded: once they had established that their movement was opposed to all forms of standardized control, there was nowhere else for Dadaists to go. Lochner even asserts that certain leading figures in the contemporary postmodern movement (Jean Baudrillard, in particular) have intentionally ignored their debt to Dadaism for two reasons:

  • This would establish that their revolutionary social theory was not, in fact, terribly original.
  • This would also indicate that there was no future for postmodernism—either in theory or practice.

Still, while the motives of some postmodernists may be rather dubious, I do not think all the goals of postmodernism should be dismissed. There are many important reasons to question and criticize the modern world. However, as the Dadaists discovered long ago, the tactic of abandoning truth is an entirely unworkable strategy (i.e., one disavows every credible basis upon which to construct or criticize knowledge). Further, it is not possible to base any sort of “movement” on such a relativistic, nihilistic epistemology. Consequently, for postmodernism to move in a more meaningful direction—a move that has been called for by others as well (Brents, 1999; Campbell, 1998; Kincheloe and McLaren, 1994; Lange, 1998; McLaren, 2000)—I believe that postmodernists must reinvigorate the roots of their critique: how is it possible to organize a more just, fair, free, equal, and democratic world? Oddly enough, these should sound like familiar questions because they are precisely the same questions posed by Enlightenment scientists. Source: theoryandscience.icaap.org/content/vol001.001/05mcgettigan.html


SIMULACRUM (simulacra): Something that replaces reality with its representation. Jean Baudrillard in "The Precession of Simulacra" defines this term as follows: "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.... It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real". His primary examples are psychosomatic illness, Disneyland, and Watergate. Fredric Jameson provides a similar definition: the simulacrum's "peculiar function lies in what Sartre would have called the derealization of the whole surrounding world of everyday reality". sla.purdue.edu/academic/engl

Some examples of Postmodernism in action (well, Kat's possible examples since there are no facts...):

In Michael Gonry's video for Bjork's song Bachelorette, the idea of a Simulacrum is explored. As a book she finds in the forest (entitled "My Life") becomes published and her popularity rises, the sincerity of both the book and the accolades it receives diminishes, shown by the increasing size of the book at the hands of the dodgy Agents and Publishers, and the increasing artificiality of the audience and environment. The world around her becomes a theatrical set with the people around her no longer those she knows, but actors playing their parts.

In the end of the video however, she returns to the forest/nature. This (possibly) positive conclusion is the least postmodern aspect of the clip though, as postmodernist philosophers would argue that there WAS no original state (even in nature). unit.bjork.com/specials/gh/SUB-05/

Much-loved picture book, "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak, like the nursery rhyme "Row Your Boat" puts forward the idea that reality could, in fact, be a dream. northern.edu/hastingw/wildthings.html

Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" series of films are an excellent example of Postmodernism in Fine Art.

On a more practical level, how about Postmodern Design?

In design, postmodernism designated the work of architects and designers who were breaking with the international style so prevalent since the Bauhaus. Postmodernism sent shock waves through the design establishment as it challenged the order and clarity of modern design, particularly corporate design. (Some observers reject the term postmodern, arguing that it is merely a continuation of the modern movement. Late modernism and mannerism are preferred as alternative terms for late twentieth-century design.)

Design forms and terminology have political and social meaning, expressing attitudes and values of their time; postmodernism gained a strong foothold among the generation of designers who emerged in the 1970s. Perhaps the international style had been so thoroughly refined, explored, and accepted that a backlash was inevitable. Historical references, decoration, and the vernacular were disdained by modernists, while postmodern designers drew upon these resources to expand the range of design possibilities. Source: webpages.marshall.edu/~bruggemann1/postmodern_design1.htm

This breaking away from Modernism's ideal of perfect forms is a significant turning point in design, and has become the basis for a new aeclecticism.

The cultural turn implicit in Postmodernism challenges the assumption that the object of study can be an autonomous entity – it is said that an object is not able to speak for itself, but is in fact 'spoken for' by its social and political context. The values associated with the object are determined by the position from which the object is viewed and aesthetic appeal is regarded not as a universal value, outside of history, but rather as an ever-changing quality relative to the circumstance within which the object is consumed. In consequence, the true nature of things is to be found in social processes and structures that surround them, rather than in an intrinsic, immutable quality of the things themselves.

This view challenges the authority of the designer’s decision making. Rather than there being one ideal aesthetic solution to a design brief, there is an acknowledgment that different solutions exist for different circumstances. Instead of being based on an absolute judgement, the aesthetic preference of both the designer and the consumer is a socially determined. Their taste judgements are founded on a complex set of factors including their class, educational background, and location. In other words, there is no ‘correct’ form for an object, but a number of different possible forms, with their legitimacy being dependent on the historical conditions of their reception.

Some objects may acquire several different meanings in their lifetime, according to how they are used and displayed. For instance, for a student to own and display a 1970’s airline bag is more likely to be an ironic statement about how cool they are, than an indication that they are a seasoned air traveller. The meaning of the bag is dramatically changed by the context within which it is viewed.

Market segmentation

As a result of these changes, the role of the designer has altered. The quest for the perfect functional solution to a problem, combined with a universal aesthetic appeal, has given way to the need to infuse products with the aesthetic codes required to appeal to a particular section of the market.www.brighton.ac.uk/designingbritain/html/crd_postmodern.html

A site that has a fun swing on explaining Postmodernism by using Star Trek videos and using examples from The Matrix: www.sla.purdue.edu/academic/engl/theory/postmodernism/

Over the next few weeks we'll look at several aspects of design that come under the umbrella of Postmodern Design (or even post-postmodern design, perhaps...)

Other suggested links:


Charles Jencks (1939-still living)

British architect and author of ‘The Architecture of the Jumping Universe’, 'Garden of Cosmic Speculation' books on Postmodernism in Architecture.

Charles Jencks (says) that there has been a "paradigm shift" in contemporary architecture. The simple, brute forms of Modernism have had their day, he says. The new buildings will resonate with fractals, waves forms and the structure of the cosmos". http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/atoday/stories/s248345.htm


Jencks has been a theorist (and practicing architect) in the field of Postmodernism since the late 1970's.



Robert Venturi (1925-still living)

American Pritzker Prize winner of 1991 and Postmodern theorist in the field of architecture.

"Architecture is a profession about wood, bricks, stones, steel and glass. It is also an art form that is based on words, ideas and conceptual frameworks. Few architects of the twentieth century have been able to combine both aspects of the profession, and none have done so more successfully than Robert Venturi.

He has expanded and redefined the limits of the art of architecture in this century, as perhaps no other has through his theories and built works. Of the former, his thin but potent volume, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, published in 1966, is generally acknowledged to have diverted the mainstream of architecture away from modernism". pritzkerprize.com/venturi.htm


Philip Johnson

Architect of the AT&T Building in 1978.

"Philip Johnson's design for the AT&T Headquarters (now the Sony Building) in New York City was the most controversial of his career. This otherwise sleek skyscraper, built in the International Style, was adorned with a baroque pediment that was scornfully described as the "Chippendale" top. Today, the AT&T Headquarters is often cited as a masterpiece of postmodernism.

Most of the criticism of Johnson's work rose from his incorporation of romantic details such as pediments into otherwise sleek skyscrapers. Philip Johnson's unconventional designs combined diverse influences such as the neoclassicism of Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the modernism of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe." architecture.about.com/library/bl-johnson-att.htm

retrokat.com quite nice sites

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