Saturday, October 22, 2011


Postmodernism is a philosophical movement that is characterised by the acceptance that there is no knowable objective truth; the world, reality, our beliefs, etc. are social constructs that are subject to change; the world is entirely subjective.
"Whereas modernism was primarily concerned with principles such as identity, unity, authority, and certainty, postmodernism is often associated with difference, plurality, textuality, and skepticism."

The origins of the term date back to 1917 when the German writer Rudolph Pannwitz used to term to describe a "post-modern man" who would overcome the complications of morality found in the modern human. He drew upon Nietzsche's ideas of modernity and it's ultimate result of decadence, nihilism and amorality.

In relation to modernism, the two movements can be analysed as follows:
Modernism is characterised by optimism and hope; a reaction to World War I, and an expression of modern life, technology, new forms of communication and new materials. There were aspirations to harness the power of technology in novel ways that would improve people and life in general. In the world of art, artists were preoccupied with experimentation, innovation, individualism, originality and seriousness.

However, somewhat contrary to this, the rule of form following function associated with modernism meant that it ended up almost doctrinaire. The simple, abstract and geometric designs of the era were prevalent throughout all forms of art as an expression of the times, and any sort of deviation from this idea would raise criticism. 

Post-modernism, on the other hand, is characterised by pessimism and a sense of disillusionment. It is a reaction to modern life, technology etc. and to modernism, and reflects the sense of exhaustion of following the relentless striving for pure originality. It introduced an idea of artistic and stylistic eclecticism, a sense of freedom of expression of individuality, often with strong undertones of irony and parody. There was now space to introduce new voices.

An example of post-modernism reacting against modernism would be to look at Sheffield's Park Hill flats which were converted by the design company Urban Splash. Here is an original photo and then a proposed regeneration. It is clear to see the contrast between the plain, undecorated architecture of modernism (the building was then regarded as " most ambitious inner-city development of its time"), and the expressive vibrancy of the latter design. 

Modernism demanded that ornamentation be abolished; post-modernism rejects this, and in architecture we see the return of surface decoration and historical references. 


In art, the ultimate form of modernism was formalism. The focus was on composition, colour, line, shape etc. rather than it's intrinsic, realistic or emotional qualities. An example would be Jackson Pollock's Number 8, 1949 (below). The value of this sort of art comes from the abstract expression and the movement and texture of the materials rather than what it is depicting.

A postmodern reaction to this can be found in Roy Lichenstein's Red Painting (brushstroke), 1963. 

He is almost parodying formalism by literally depicting brushstrokes in his signature comic style. This was a reflection of the highbrow and alienating effect of styles such as abstract expressionism, particularly to those not well acquainted with art. Postmodernism worked well to break down the divide between "high art" and "low art" to allow accessibility with a hint of pastiche.

"Now you can reinvent yourself endlessly, gaily pick 'n' mixing your way through the gaudy fragments of a shattered culture."

We can begin analysing postmodernist influences in film by first looking at how it effected the industry. In the Golden Age of cinema, film was shot onto 35mm celluloid. It suggests the possibility of depicting reality, and thus in a sense redeems it, and remains in a comfortable bubble of being unreal, an illustion.

However, through the use of digital cameras, postmodern film has introduced hyperrealism as it allows the depiction of life more akin to how we experience it ourselves. This, combined with the increased availability of films through DVD, TV and the internet (will cinema even exist in the future?) means that our distinction between what is factual and what is virtual becomes meaningless.

The qualities of individual films which define them as postmodern include the following: Intertextuality, self-referentiality, parody, recourse to various past forms, genres and styles. This is found through the scripting, set design, casting, mise-en-scene, etc.

"By making small but significant changes to the conventions of cinema, the artificiality of the experience and the world presented are emphasised in the audience's mind in order to remove them from the conventional emotional bonds they have to the subject matter, and to give them a new view of it."

Through studying this I found the work of film-maker Guy Maddin, who I will  really like to study in more detail at some point:

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