Deconstructing Postmodern Art

A Philosophical Term Explaining Many Aspects of Contemporary Art


Postmodern Art – The Tell Photo

"The Tell" Photo by Jerry Burchfield

  • a movement
  • a style
  • a school of art


  • a comprehensive, wide ranging philosophical term

First used loosely in the mid-20th century, postmodern, also referred to as postmodernism, helps describe and explain many aspects of contemporary art.

  • Some people say that postmodern means "after modern" or that it is a reaction against modern art.
  • Art critics and aficionados often use the term. But many people do not easily understand it, including artists who create in a postmodern fashion.
  • "The Bullfinch Pocket Dictionary of Art Terms" says the following:
  • Postmodern is "not a style, school, or singular aesthetic, but a cross-disciplinary, philosophical term."
  • It "may include aspects of feminist, Marxist, semiotic, and psychoanalytic analyses."

Return to Pre Modern Styles and Genres

An excellent explanation of the term is in "Art Speak," published in 1990. Writer/art historian Robert Atkins (not the diet doctor) explains that postmodernism represents a return to pre-modern art styles and genres [18th century and before]. These include, "landscape and history painting, which had been rejected by many modernists in favor of abstraction" and other modern movements.

"Some people say that postmodern means 'after modern' or that it is a reaction against modern art. Art critics and aficionados often use the term. But many people do not easily understand it, including artists who create in a postmodern fashion."

Atkins adds that a new aspect of this trend "is the dissolution of traditional categories." He explains that in postmodern art, divisions no longer exist between:

  • art
  • popular culture
  • the media

Hybrid Art Forms are Examples of that Dissolution.

Postmodern art becomes hybrid (fusions of different forms) when it blurs the traditional distinctions between:

  • painting
  • sculpture
  • film
  • performance
  • architecture
  • dance

These art forms can include other disciplines as:

  • natural and physical sciences
  • industry
  • technology
  • popular culture
  • words, literature and poetry

A popular hybrid art form is installation art. One installation can fill up a room or a much larger space and often includes several different media, such as painting, photography, film, even technology. A good example is Christo's "The Gates," erected in New York in 2005. This installation had 7,503 vinyl gates along 23 miles in Central Park, with saffron colored fabric hung from each gate.

Another example is a 636-foot-long photomural/installation erected in Laguna Beach in 1989. Called "The Tell," it included construction, photography, painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage, environmental and performance art. It might have been in the Guinness Book of Records if its creators had time to count its photos. It was covered by major media including Life magazine and CNN.

Essays on Postmodern Culture

Fredric Jameson wrote in "The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture," published in 1998, "The concept of postmodernism is not widely accepted or even understood today."

He adds that the theory strives to replace older modern movements. In doing so, it erodes the distinctions between high and popular culture.

"This is perhaps the most distressing development of all from an academic standpoint, which has traditionally had a vested interest in preserving a realm of high or elite culture," he says.

Yet, understanding the objectives of postmodern art can be liberating. It gives us the freedom to create as we want without restrictions in:

  • form
  • style
  • materials

Artists can create art today using endless varieties of styles and techniques.

Taken to its extreme, it could be aesthetic revolution – which is not necessarily bad.

Appropriation From Earlier Works

Postmodern artists often "appropriate," meaning they:

Postmodern Art – Surreal

"Surreal," 48x36in.,oil enamel collage on canvas
© 2009 Marcus A. Jansen (American born 1968)
Courtesy: MW Gallery Aspen
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York,
VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

  • adopt
  • borrow
  • steal
  • recycle
  • sample
  • from earlier modern and classical works

They combine or alter these images to create new, contemporary pieces. And many postmodernists fill their works with a strong sense of self-awareness – whether they refer to themselves as postmodern or not.

One day, while looking at artworks by Shepard Fairey, another artist told me that Fairey is a plagiarist because he often borrows or steals images from Russian Constructivist posters. He also borrowed an image from an AP photo (that resulted in his arrest) for his famous "Obama Hope" poster.

I replied that Fairey is not a plagiarist, but is working in a postmodern art mode.

Marcus Antonius Jansen, "fits into the general category of a postmodern artist because of the time in which he paints, the various high and low subject matter incorporated into his paintings, and his use of appropriation," wrote Stacy Alyea, who did her masters thesis on Jansen. She says, "Postmodernism rejects the formalist techniques of the modernists."

The techniques rejected include:

  • formal purity
  • medium specificity
  • art for art's sake

Jansen's use of others' images in his works is postmodern art appropriation. "No one artist is completely original as it is impossible not to borrow ideas or techniques from other artists," Stacy adds.

Appropriating from Picasso and Fashion Mags

Jansen's painting, "Surreal, on this page appropriates images from Pablo Picasso's, "Guernica," 1937, which depicts that town's bombing during the Spanish Civil War. By borrowing this image, Jansen may be comparing the plight of urban black people to the victims of Guernica.

Luis Cornejo is an emerging Latin American artist. He could also be called postmodern. (Many Latin American artists appropriate images from European impressionists, modern artists and others to create new works, often with distinctly Latin flair).

Postmodern art – Fading Away

"Fading Away" by Luis Cornejo

Cornejo expresses outrage at the superfluous values of contemporary society by appropriating magazine shots of fashion models and working in a Disney style of drawing. His acrylic painting, "Fading Away," on this page appropriates fashion images and then mocks those images.

Movements Within Postmodern Art

Movements within postmodern art include:

  • Conceptualism
  • Graffiti Art
  • Installation
  • Minimalism
  • Neo Expressionism
  • Neo Pop Art
  • Performance
  • Photo Realism
  • Video and Animation

French writer/aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in his classic book, "The Little Prince," "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

To create postmodern art that is authentic and not derivative or contrived involves seeing from the heart -- seeing outside the box, beyond categories.

(See Contemporary Art Dialogue Sitemap for complete listing of pages on contemporary and modern art movements, styles, trends and artists.)

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