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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

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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
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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

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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?”