Cosgrove James Paul Cosgrove Ms. Wilson English Comp.

II 25 February 2007 Less is a Bore How can one describe and analyze an artistic movement while it is going on? In the case of postmodernism, history offers no insight as to the scope of the movement because we are in its midst. The definition of postmodernism is so elusive because it is a set of complex concepts and abstract premises, not one central idea. What can be definitively said about the philosophy is that it emerged from the modernist movement during the 1960’s and continues to this day. Postmodernism is one of the hardest


philosophical and artistic movements to define; however, its many forms can be found in visual art, literature, and architecture. In order to understand postmodernism, it is necessary to study the movement from which it was born. Many scholars see postmodernism as nothing more than a revision of the principles of the modernist movement. It can be said that modernism is fundamentally about order: it seeks to reconcile high and low forms of art, smooth fragmentation, examine life from a grand perspective, and search for universal meaning. Modernism also values a love of knowledge and art for their own sake; in other words, modernism values purity (Klages). With the social upheaval of the 1960’s, modernism’s claim to universal order was shattered, and a new philosophy was needed. Postmodernism involves many modernist principles, only its perception of them varies slightly. For example, where modernism wishes to smooth fragmentation, postmodernism

Cosgrove embraces and celebrates it. Where modernism studies life on a grand scale, postmodernism studies it on a small scale. Postmodernism also differs from modernism


in its approach to linguistics. Modernism holds that what is important is the idea or object a word represents; postmodernism holds that what is most important is the actual word itself. Conversely, when dealing with the matter of knowledge, postmodernism asserts that knowledge is only valuable if it can be put to use (Klages). It can also be said that postmodernism wishes to bring to fruit ideas of The Enlightenment that modernism rejected: divine meaning, the beauty of nature, and a focus on the human body (Witcombe). In other words, modernism values the “what” that is believed; postmodernism values the act of believing. As an application of its philosophical principles, postmodernism can be observed in the visual arts. Postmodern art grew from the minimalist art movement of the 1940’s and 1950’s, which was deemed elitist and unemotional. With the emergence of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, a new ironic mixture of high and low art called Pop began to take hold (Hunter, Jacobus, and Wheeler 358). Pop art was appealing because, unlike modern art, it integrated art with life, and drew from philosophy, poetry, and the natural world. Whereas modernism valued art for its own sake, the new postmodernists examined the cultural environments of their works with an “art for ideology’s sake” dogma (359). With this new theory-over-practice outlook, postmodern art began to reflect many socio-political issues, namely neo-Marxism, feminism, and linguistics (359). In addition to visual art, postmodernism can also be observed in literature. Unlike visual art, where postmodernism simply revises modernist principles, literary

Cosgrove postmodernism rejects the entire modern perspective. Postmodern literature includes


liberal use of satire and irony and a sense of discontinuity, which is celebrated rather than mourned (Lye). It also explores undesirable and marginal aspects of society, in keeping with postmodernism’s concentration on the small-scale view of life. Like the visual arts, postmodern literature also draws heavily from pop culture. However, what critics find most shocking about postmodern literature is its assertion that to think in novel ways, one must violate apparent norms and morals of social decency. Only in this way can readers be taken outside their comfort zones enough to examine the social context in which the work was written (Lye). An example of this is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, and popular film of the same name. This violation of norms is also accomplished be mixing styles of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, and different genres (Lye). Postmodernism has had a significant impact on visual art and literature; however, nowhere is its effect more pronounced than in architecture. Modern architecture of the 1950’s was seen as a failure because it failed to consider the human need for aesthetics in its clean, simple structure and minimal ornamentation (Hunter, Jacobus, and Wheeler 357). Published in 1966, architect Robert Venturi’s book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture twisted modernism’s mantra “less is more” into “less is a bore” (Glancey 198). Venturi’s bold statement essentially sums up the postmodern movement in architecture. In the new postmodern style, architects began to use layering, unnecessary ornament, and distortion in their works, where once this was considered unstylish. These architects also added curves and arches to their buildings, and painted them with vastly contrasting colors (Barford 169). Where modernism favored clear-cut boundaries, postmodern architecture offered little distinction between spaces, which

Cosgrove supports postmodern philosophy’s aspect of fragmentation (170). However, the most striking feature of postmodern architecture is its capacity for irony in blending modern and classical forms, as can be seen in the broken Roman pediment atop Philip Johnson’s AT&T building in New York City (Glancey 200). Because scholars and critics alike have such vastly differing views on the postmodern phenomenon, the movement is considered by many to be purposefully elusive to definition. At best, postmodernism can be definitively described in three main points: first, it is a rejection or revision of modernist principles. Second, postmodern work must always be examined in a cultural context to find its meaning. Third, and most importantly, it seeks to erase the barrier between art and life. At worst, many consider


postmodernism to be nothing more than incomprehensible academic babble. What all can agree on, however, is that postmodernism has had a significant impact on visual art, literature, and architecture of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And, inevitably, scholars will soon be asking “what comes next? Post-postmodernism?”