Modernism v. Postmodernism

There’s this story that I always tell people when they ask me why I have so much difficulty cleaning out my closet. It’s a fable of sorts, and it goes like this… Around 1999 Isaac Mizrahi had a lower priced line of clothing called Isaac. It was available at Saks. Although I was only 15 at the time, I had admired Mizrahi’s designs for a while and decided that I just HAD to have one of the pieces. Although this line was considered to be “affordable”, it really wasn’t. Sweaters were around $200. With a little ingenuity and a lot of sale scouring I managed to find a military inspired sweater to buy. The sweater looked amazing; it was fitted and long, a rarity during the “baby-t”, midriff showing fashion of the time. I bought it, I loved it, and I had it for many years. Then one day after deciding (and reading about) military inspired fashion being out of style; I discarded the piece even though it fit well and still looked fabulous. A few months later I regretted the decision when, of course, the military look came back in style. It was at that moment that I realized that style was truly cyclical and that you should never discard a good, culture-based inspiration. This leads me to my discussion on modernism and postmodernism, both of which present viable ideas that simply need updating and modifying. Think of this as the art equivalent of pairing some sky-high ankle boots with an outfit that included my former beloved Isaac sweater. Sniffle.

Let’s begin at the beginning… Contrary to popular belief, modernism and postmodernism aren’t really descriptive phrases; they’re philosophies. On the outside, people unfamiliar with theory and criticism think that historians go about labeling art by determining a geographical location that is dense with creativity (like New York), finding artists that are doing something a little new, relating it to something currently going on, and then categorizing it all within a tidy little group. To a certain extent this can be true, at least historically. In reality however, the entire process is much more complex. There are theories, cultural trends, philosophical issues, and historical data that are triple analyzed to produce a critical theory allowing critics to properly interpret work. Brit-art is a movement; modernism and postmodernism are schools of thought.
It’s taken a little reviewing to recall the specific facets of these theories. For this I ran to my copy of Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary by Terry Barrett, a book so deceptively short that you might make the mistake of assuming it was an easy read if you didn’t move past the cover. For purposes of argument, I’ve created basic definitions for both theories below.

Modernism- Influenced by rationalism. Modernism is highly critical of the constructs of modern society. Modernists take note of the perils of capitalism, the marginalization of women, imperialism, and loss of indigenous people. Bureaucracy and the urban landscape are consistent trends. Modernists believe that theory reflects reality. Universal truths exist, and a unified form of thought can be rationally determined and commonly applied. Last, modernists believe that people are rational and unified. To me, modernism enabled the heyday of the art critic. Under this construct the elitist, academic community was able to dictate both the importance and direction of art. Clement Greenberg’s analysis of Abstract Expressionism is a great example of modernist theory.

Post-modernism- Post-modernists believe that there aren’t universal truths, instead truth becomes a creation of cultural norms. Knowledge is the construct of language and culture. Postmodernism in this way, is less elitist and exclusionary; it embraces differing views and indeterminacy. Postmodernism blossomed following a dismissal of the overly academic, exclusionary views of modernists.

It seems as though I haven’t read a decent piece of art criticism in some time. As I thought about the two theoretical approaches to criticism it struck me that the reason why that could be, was because the two most common ideologies for evaluating art weren’t fitting. Modernism and post-modernism no longer echo our times. Art has reached a level of accessibility and importance that precludes the hierarchical approach of modernism, and yet we are no longer willing to accept the notion that everything is culturally relative. Now there is a more unified common experience.

Currently, the entire world is suffering from a downturn in the global economy. These shared experiences and our constant connection via internet social networking sites, permits our generation to expand upon widespread commonalities. Interestingly, increases in empathy are occurring while diversity is also taking center stage thanks to our many communication advances. Right now we are uniquely able to understand the intricacies of a distant culture while also finding common ground, sometimes via Twitter! Previously, this situation would have been considered a contradiction in terms. Now we have entered a new age of economic and political globalization based on an intertwined economy and communication structure. The feelings and acceptance of these changes have encouraged artists to use their medium as an expression of their own culture while also reaching out to a more broad, world-wide audience. This change can even be attributed to the decentralization of the art market itself.

Tune in on Friday when I explain the standard that should be applied when critiquing current art. In the meantime, please don’t throw out any blazers, pencil skirts, safari inspired gear, or anything Chanel; since, just like the human condition, they always seem to come back in style.


Studio222 Photography said...

Dually noted, and the vintage silk blouse is staying! ;)