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Postmodernism In Literature And Art

In considering postmodernist aesthetic practices in parallel with the postmodern lack of political consensus, Lyotard invokes "the lack of consensus of taste." Instead these aesthetic practices are characterized by an affirmation of their multiplicity. None needs to be defined by any given form, however multiple or fragmented, as was the case in modernist aesthetics, and as would be demanded from art by the consensus of modernist taste. By contrast, postmodernist aesthetic practices may adopt any form, outlook, or agenda, new or old, and allow for other (than postmodernist) practices and alternative approaches. The postmodernist aesthetic is thus defined by the (political) sense of this multiplicity of practices.


Continuing the narrative experiments of the modernists, the first generation of postmodernists, American and British writers of the 1960s and 1970s "metafiction" (Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Fowles, and Angela Carter), produced texts that simultaneously questioned and violated the conventions of traditional narrative. Similarly the postmodernist Language poets (Lyn Bernstein, Charles Hejinian, and Bob Perelman), inspired by the linguistic experiments of modernism and the new ideas of poststructuralism, deployed a fractured, systematically deranged language aimed at destabilizing the systems (intellectual, cultural, or political) constructed through language. The fragmentation, intertextuality, and discontinuity that characterize so much of experimental modernist and postmodernist literature find a kind of fulfillment in the inherently fragmented, intertextual, and discontinuous form of "hypertext," a computer-generated Web text with multiple branching links.

Another hallmark of postmodern literature, and of postmodern art in general, is the erosion of the boundaries between "high," elite, or serious art and "low," popular art, or entertainment. Decidedly serious literary works now make use of genres long thought to belong only to popular work. A related phenomenon is the development of numerous hybrid genres that erode the distinctions, for instance, between literature and journalism, literature and (auto)biography, and literature and history.

The emergence and proliferation of feminist, multiethnic, multicultural, and postcolonial literature since the 1970s is, however, the most dramatic and significant manifestation of the de-centering and de-marginalization defining both postmodernity and postmodernism. In the 1970s and 1980s, American and European literature underwent an immense transformation as writers who had traditionally been excluded from literary canons—women and ethnic and racial minorities—moved from the margins to the centers of the literary world. There are counterparts to this phenomenon in history and anthropology, which have seen a proliferation of histories from below and outside—histories of women, of children, of the working class. Postmodernism has gone from History with a capital H, to histories, small h.

Visual art.

With the institutionalization of "high modernism" in the mid-twentieth century and the increasing commercial appropriation and commodification of artworks, the modernist ideal of an artistic avant-garde, standing apart from mainstream culture, became increasingly obsolete. Postmodernist art has been, since its beginnings in the movements of the 1960s—Pop art, Fluxus, and feminist art—art that was inherently political and simultaneously engaged with and critical of commercial mass culture. All these movements are linked to the development of multimedia performance art and conceptual art, a term that designates art that is neither painting nor sculpture, art of the mind rather than art of the eye. The logical extension of this definition (following Marcel Duchamp) is that nearly anything, properly "framed" or designated as such, might be thought of as art. One of the most distinctive characteristics of postmodernist art is the dissolution of traditional categories of art and artworks, and the proliferation of new and hybrid forms that have broadened these categories to an unprecedented degree, even greater than encountered in literature.

The feminist art of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s challenged the institutionalized male bias and sexism of the art system in a wide-ranging critique that extended from the writing of art history and criticism, to museums and art galleries, to the predominance of the "male gaze" and the objectification of women in visual media throughout history, to definitions of art that excluded such traditionally female forms as quilts and weaving.

No doubt the logic of the simulacrum, with its transformation of older realities into television images, does more than merely replicate the logic of late capitalism; it reinforces and intensifies it.

SOURCE: Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Other strains of postmodernist art (from the 1980s to the early twenty-first century), which one might call "the art of simulacra," focus on the prevalence of the image (particularly the media image), technologies of reproduction, and strategies of appropriation of already existing works. It encompasses the work of a broad range of artists and movements, from the video and performance art of Nam June Paik, Laurie Anderson, and Bruce Nauman, to the photography of Cindy Sherman and the graphic art of Barbara Kruger.


While reflecting many general aspects of postmodernism, the phenomenon and concept of postmodernist architecture have a particular specificity and complexity, in part because the term postmodernist architecture was given a specific meaning very early in the postmodern period. What characterizes postmodernist architecture most, however, is its diversity in spirit and in style, and the ways it defines itself, in each movement and project, in relation to this diversity.

For some, the quintessential expression of postmodernist architecture is the shopping mall, an enclosed city in which spatial disorientation seems to have been a deliberate, structural intention. Elsewhere this disorientation also takes on a temporal, historical form, as architects combine disparate elements from previous architectural eras and styles in the same building, an incongruous mixing that initially gave rise to the term postmodernist architecture. Philip Johnson's AT&T headquarters in New York City, an austere, International-style skyscraper sporting a baroque Chippendale pediment, would be a postmodernist building in this earlier sense. For some architects, postmodernism was defined by the abandonment of modernist utopianism and a validation of vernacular architecture, as in Robert Venturi's celebration of the "decorated shed" of commercial architecture. New computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies and high-tech materials have made it possible to break from the traditional architectural forms and create more free-form and sculptural edifices, such as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Music and dance.

Although not as widespread or influential as other art forms, postmodern music and dance have nevertheless developed many of the key traits of postmodernism, sometimes in their most radical aspects, both building upon and working against such modernist figures as Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Pierre Boulez in music, and George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham in dance. Radically experimental postmodernist composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and György Ligeti have gone beyond modernism in dislocating the classical harmonies and replacing them with ever more complex, nearly unmusical, sounds and noises.

The same formal experimentation can often be found in postmodernist dance. Postmodernist dance is, however, particularly characterized by the collapse of boundaries between "high" dance (classical ballet and modern dance) and "popular" dance (jazz dance, folk and tribal dance, ballroom dancing, break and line dancing, and Broadway musical choreography), as choreographers fused their various styles and movements. Among the most prominent representatives of the postmodern dance scene are Bill T. Jones, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris. Some choreographers have gone even farther afield, incorporating movements from the martial arts, sports, acrobatics, mime, games, and even the mundane physical activities of everyday life. These trends are found in postmodernist (classical) music as well, from the usage of elements of jazz and rock and roll to the incorporation of street or elevator noises.

Dance, however, became quite literally more a part of the world, as choreographers developed architecturally inspired, site-specific works. At the same time, dance increasingly became a part of the broader forms of performance art and multimedia art, as choreography was linked to political concerns and combined with video, text, and other media. One might say that the choreography of postmodern dance is the choreography of postmodernism itself, its aesthetics and its politics, including its politics of aesthetics defined by the lack of a single consensus of taste.


Amiran, Eyal, and John Unsworth, eds. Essays in Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. A defining treatment of the problematic of reality and representation in postmodernity.

Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron, and Andrew Levy, eds. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989. A comprehensive and authoritative study of modern and postmodern spatiality.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. An important treatment of the relations between elite and mass culture in modernism and postmodernism.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. The most influential Marxist treatment of postmodernism.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. An important assessment of the state of culture after postmodernity.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington, and Brian Massumi. Vol. 10 of Theory and History of Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. A seminal study defining the problematic of postmodernity.

Phillips, Lisa. The American Century: Art and Culture 1950–2000. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in association with W. W. Norton, 1999.

Paula E. Geyh

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPostmodernism - Conceptual Postmodernism And Postmodernist Theory, Cultural And Political Postmodernism, Postmodernism In Literature And Art, Bibliography