I’ve been trying to understand what postmodernism is for a while, but i can’t really get it. What is the postmodern view on things like philosophy, religion, culture, meaning, and knowledge? Am i wrong in assuming from the little research I have done that its mostly about criticism of power in all its forms in these mentioned topics? (Sorry for my bad English, Swedish undergraduate student)
From my notes. art history m.a.
Postmodernism: Generally considered today to begin in 1960s, what happens in the 1960s is the ubiquity of television. Television began to blanket the world and change one’s relationship to the world (Invention of the Internet could become a subchapter of that)
Postmodernism is a movement of doubt— one that argues that there are no solutions. Sees ambiguity as a natural state. Ambiguity to a Modernist is a failure, means you haven’t thought it through enough—in Postmodernism they want to present all sides of an argument.
It presents an understanding that there is an inability to distinguish between “false” and “true, and that “false” and “true” are not given but rather ambiguous platforms. Distinctions are relative not absolute.
Postmodernism as unrelieved, incessant irony. Almost omnipresent sense of irony. Nobody means what they say, everything is put on, and everyone is tongue & cheek all the time. Acceleration of change means that all is influx. All stability is overturned. All the things that are contain their opposites within them.
Religion, politics, morals, ethics, etc. all contain their opposite within them. (Examples: Biggest sex star in Hollywood is gay, Catholic priests molest children, JFK Hoover wore a dress ). Meaning is endlessly deferred. You never reach meaning. Every reading is a new reading and the meaning remains just outside of reach.
There is a refusal to distinguish between high and low, avant-garde and kitsch. These distinctions don’t matter. There is an embrace of mass culture, not for mass culture on its own, but for the idea that all of the distinctions are not so good. (That is why 1960s is also the decade of Pop Art). Celebrity culture is at the complete center of Postmodernism. Entertainment. Warhol was the first to say Marilyn Monroe is important. Painting by George Brock vs. Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell Postmodernism embraces the vernacular. “The vernacular likes crap” We know more about Britney Spears than we do about person who lives 3 doors away from us —that is how our culture is set up. We live in a world of total commodification. The only value that isn’t relative is cash value. We don’t care what the best-reviewed film of the weekend was, or most likely to win an Oscar etc. We care what the highest grossing movie was. Why study Death of a Salesman and not study the Flinstones? Flinstones tell us many important things about culture.
Kitsch means purposefully debased. That means the maker knows they are making crap.
The world is experienced second-hand. (this is a Baudrillard concept) Because of the media, everything that happens in our life (first time you take someone in your arms, college, death etc. you’ve already experienced; seen that scenario played out), all you can do is take your pre-digested ideas (from which you are divorced—they are not real) and compare them to the real experience.
Sense that all is false. The world is depthless. World of surfaces. It sees the world as existing in late-capitalism: companies are not spending money on research and development; they’re spending money on marketing. Advertising. Once again ^ the world is about surfaces. Appearance is more important than reality. What comes out of this is? The world is in fragments! What are the key words of our culture today? “Pluralism, interdisciplinary.” No dominant style. Postmodernism embraces diversity. Sense of embracing all of this pluralism, globalism, etc.
The idea of museum as funhouse. It exists to entertain you, to make sure you’re titillated. How can museum compete with television, the Internet, etc. It’s about goosing you every 50 ft., otherwise you’ll go home. Idea that entertainment is the most important part of culture. Irony!
Self-awareness becomes self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is Postmodern.
Truman Show and other movies about the self, being self-conscious and behaving as if you are on camera, experiencing things the way the media is telling you to experience them —this is the postmodernist idea. Sex is slightly embarrassing —it’s another entertainment vehicle, but it’s not really important. If the Historicist is the student, the Modernist is the citizen, the Postmodernist is the consumer. (Ex: Barbara Krueger, “I Shop therefore I am”).
I’m an architect. I’ll answer from an architecture standpoint. You have to know that Postmodernism is rather ill defined, however it is mostly used to describe works by certain architects, like Michael Graves, James Stirling, and most importantly, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown (who worked together as a couple).
In order to understand what postmodernism is, you have to understand modernism first. Long story short, Modernism was a revolutionary international movement that aimed to redefine architecture. Their biggest idea was simple: buildings should be as simple and honest as possible. Simple means there is no “ornament”, and there are no “useless” details. Honest means that the building’s shape reflects accurately and honestly how it was built. So a steel building looks like a steel building. If this sounds absurd to you (of course it looks like a steel building how else would it look), you might want to know that the Louvre is a steel building.
Modernism was widely successful and has become part of the (western) cultural norm. It is still today associated with “good” design. Apple (read Jon Ive) is, debatably perhaps, the current leader in Modernist designs: clean lines, no ornaments, no useless details. Famous modernist architects, who eventually ended up defining what Modernism means, are Mies van der Rohe, Richard Meier (still active), Neutra, and the Bauhaus school. Some other architects had slightly different ideas about modernism, but they more or less went around the same ideas, like Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier.
Thing with Modernism tho, it’s fucking bland. It is, a lot of the the time, intentionally bland. Postmodernism was a movement against that blandness.
Venturi and Scott-Brown wrote two famous books: Learning from Las Vegas; and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. They argued that complex is better than simple. They argued that contradictory is better than consistent. Asymmetrical is better than symmetrical.
The first postmodernist building, that put these ideas in practice, is the house Venturi designed for his mother. (The Vanna Venturi House). The building is symmetrical, but asymmetrical. It looks like a “house”, but the elements that compose that look function differently. There’s an entrance notch, but it’s purely decorative, except that it isn’t (the door is to the side of it). It borrows from history but subverts the meanings of the items it borrows. It is a very weird building and it gets weirder the more you think about it. It defies and challenges your expectations of what a house is, or looks like, or should be.
Unfortunately (I’m a fan of postmodernism), the theory quickly fizzled out and failed to find a large following. However, their influence was important in that they managed to break the mold set by Modernism. Most buildings are rectangular, but why should they be rectangular? Why should a building be honest? Architects quickly started to experiment with different shapes that were considered unnecessary and superfluous before.
Architects today, I think, owe a lot of their daring and experimenting to Postmodernism. It’s a shame they’re considered by many to be “ugly”, and the discussion is left at that, which honestly completely misses the point about PoMo. Its purposefully ugly. And I love it.