Distinction of ‘postmodernist’ from ‘modernist’

Essay, 2013

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


The distinction of modern and postmodern artists sometimes seems to be a bit challenging, do to a lack of chronological boundaries, between modernism and postmodernism which are, additionally, extremely blurred. To determine artists by the dates of their works is not necessarily possible, since the epoch of postmodern art did not entered every country at the same time. Although Charles Jencks sets the ‘death’ of architectural modernism on July 15th, 1972 at 3:32pm, modernism in general is said to end with World War II. In North America, however, it rather ends with the Great Depression. Thus, the broad agreement on the period of Modernism is from 1885-1935. Modernists continued writing even after 1945 but did not earn much attention any longer. The period of postmodernism must have begun some when between then and 1960. Obviously, the passage of modernism and postmodernism is fluent. Postmodernism is said to be nostalgia and retrospective. Collages and imitation are regarded as being postmodern, as well as any rejection of modernism. Modernism in contrast would display the avant-garde forms of expression and the ‘shock of the new’. But those definitions are general and just give a hint to what could be the distinction of modernism and postmodernism. Because of this, in the present essay I will elaborate and compare the ways that 'postmodernist' might be distinguished from 'modernist' and solve the question of the differences between these epochs. To do so, I will focus on terms of literature, visual arts, and architecture, which are regarded as being characteristically for modernism or postmodernism. The “Notion of modernism is very indefinite” (Sheppard 1). First of all, one has to clarify the difference of modernism and modernity. While the one displays an aesthetic category the other describes a historical period. There are two senses of modernity, the time since Renaissance (1500) and the time since 1750. Modernism describes the awareness of modernization of the 20th century. Thus, modernism is the reaction of the ongoing change of modernization and describes collected impressions and experiences. It is an articulation of the new sense of world and subject that arises in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which (usually) criticizes the modern life, the collapse of traditional social structures and cultural borders, and report about experiences of World War I. In other words, modernism itself is just a small part of the modern age in general. One cannot just define one coherent movement called modernism; it can rather be noticed different kinds of modernism associated with different groups (futurists, expressionists, imagists, etc.) or individual authors. Furthermore, modernism involves all kinds of art, not only literature, but also visual arts, architecture, and music. Several modernists emigrated to other countries. The Armory Show in 1913 is regarded as being the first event confronting public with modernist art, such as paintings of Picasso. Pablo Picasso was one of the most famous modernist painters. His painting, such as Les demoiselles d’Avinong, present characteristics typically for modernist artists. Les demoiselles d’Avinong shows five nude prostitutes in an abstract way. Picasso states that “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” Thus, none of them seem to be real and female and some do have faces like African masks.

“Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’avignon was riven by a conflict that derived from ‘an internal psychological division between attraction and repulsion, classical superego and primitive libido, and results in an aggressive attack on the image of women which may disguise a deep fear.’ (…) the same painting denotes as crises of phallocentric culture.’ But whichever one reads the painting, its violent and shock derive to a considerable extent from Picasso’s experience of the loss of tradition within he had previously been able to work but which a part of him was trying unsuccessfully, to retain. (Sheppard 28)

Against modernist elitism and more positive stance toward popular culture are the works of postmodernists. “The postmodern would be that, (…) which searches for new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable”. A typical postmodern painting would be Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints. Andy Warhol, the key figure in the movement of Pop Art, took a picture of Marilyn Monroe’s face and changed the colors to non-representational colors. Those colors were by no mean of the painter’s mood, or were meant to criticize anything since “Postmodernism and post modernity tend to be understood as constitutions of or breaks with whatever is constructed as the dominant of Modernism or modernity. (Waugh 99) As characteristically postmodernist, Warhol combined something old with something new. The chosen colors are not about letting the painting look like real; they just refer to the popular culture and represent the unrepresentable, which is attuned to mass production.

Mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward art. The reaction toward a Picasso painting changes into the progressive reaction toward a Chaplin motive. The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert. (Benjamin 47)

To preserve old tradition, it is common for modernist’s literature to lay a high focus on form and a high degree of intertextuality. „The major modernists have an extremely respectful relationship to tradition. None of them begin their career as confrontational or avant-grade.” (Sheppard 25) An ‘economic’ use of language due to the attempt to cleanse and rejuvenate language and strip it of conventions is also typical for modernists. The texts should be ambivalent and complex to do justice to the confusion and fragmentation of modern life and insisted on the autonomy of the work of art and construct a radical opposition between art and life. By translation of social experience into textual form, art was meant to act as steward in the chaos. However, the texts also did show a rejection of romantic subjectivity, since “modernism has also been viewed as both the antecedent of postmodernism and as the phenomenon forms the reactive contrast (…) as a reaction in its extreme avant-grade forms, against Naturalism” (Sheppard 5). This tendency cannot only be detected in literature but also in the works of Picasso. He states: “Nature and art, being two different things, cannot be the same thing. Through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” T.S. Eliot can be named as the most important theorist of modernism. He was one of those writers who emigrated from his home country (USA) and even became British citizen in 1927. His major woks are The Waste Land (1922) and Ash Wednesday (1938). The mentioned Rejection of the Romantic Subject becomes, according to Stearns, obvious is works like “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919):


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Distinction of ‘postmodernist’ from ‘modernist’
National University of Ireland, Galway
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Melissa Grönebaum (Author), 2013, Distinction of ‘postmodernist’ from ‘modernist’, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/268382


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