Postmodernism emerged in the middle of the 1950s from the ashes of humanity’s century long frantic, hubristic search for objectivity. But according to theologian Thomas Oden it was born in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Yet many others claim the age of postmodernism began in 1968 when numerous counterculture protests shut down universities around the world. Like the ideas contained within the term postmodernism, its origins are muddy and no one can quite agree on what the truth is regarding them. The term postmodernism was first used in the 1880s when British artist John Watkins Chapman described a departure from French impressionist art as “postmodern”. The word was first used in a way that shares the same spirit as its contemporary definition in 1914. Writer J. M. Thompson wrote: “The raison d’etre of Post-Modernism is to escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism by being thorough in its criticism by extending it to religion as well as theology, to Catholic feeling as well as to Catholic tradition.” The word continued to pop up here and there as clever social commentators caught on to what exactly was happening with modernism’s ever-increasing arrogance and instances of the word postmodernism increased as the decades wore on. One notable early usage of the word came in 1939, when historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote “our own Post-Modern Age has been inaugurated by the general war of 1914–1918”. This is important because even just 20 years after the event, people were beginning to realize that the World Wars were instances of modernism’s ambition and rationality failing itself. Despite its shortcomings and uselessness in our times, given historical context, postmodernism was a justified movement.
It’s hard to define a beginning for postmodernism because it encompasses a wide variety of disciplines and arts. Postmodernism has manifested in art, architecture, music, film, literature, sociology, communications and fashion and while all of these manifestations share characteristics, they do not share an exact beginning in history or time. The only way to discuss how and why postmodernism emerged is to talk about what it emerged from – modernism.
Modernism (which is entirely different from modernity) is often cited as being born on July 17th 1789 when French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in Paris in a fight against their unjust government. The industrial revolution, Marxism and Rationalism are examples of Modernist events and schools of thought. They all share the same foundations that value humanity’s power to improve society and the world around us with the help of technology, science and our own intelligence. When described like this, modernism seems like a noble pursuit. But as the years wore on, our faith in modernist principles became excessive in contrast to the trouble it caused, and many modernist ideals eventually collapsed.
On August 6th, 1945, The United States dropped nuclear weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This event was the gross misuse of the frantic technological progress our civilization had been racing towards for decades. In addition, the years leading up to the atomic bombings in Japan had been fraught with misuse of ideology and needless slaughter that, when ended, finally gave us the perspective we needed to move on, and modernism died at peak strength. In the years immediately after World War 2, postmodern thought began to develop and grow. Modernist ambition and technological progress led to the absolutely massive failures of humanity that were the World Wars, Nazism and the usage of atomic bombs. It’s easy to see why people might reject modernist standards for postmodernism given the circumstances.
Modernist literature is, in general, quite a bit more fragmented than modernist ideals would indicate. Literary modernism could easily be classified as proto-postmodernism. The movement shared the same timeframe as modernist thought but it was already reacting against prevailing grand narratives before the rest of culture and philosophy caught up. As such, postmodern literature is more like a progression from modern literature than a reaction or rejection. Characteristics of modernist literature include alienation, loss and despair – the modernist writers were disconnected from their culture that they saw as having been overrun by machines, death and ideology. Modernist books are often concerned with the sub-conscious and books such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake attempt to recreate a structure (or lack of structure) reminiscent of dreams and the sub-conscious. Postmodern literature followed in modernism’s footsteps but in addition to experimenting with narrative structure, it experiments with the idea of a book itself. Books such as House of Leaves are postmodern because of their experimentation with using font and visual presentation to move the plot or emotionally affect the reader. Postmodern literature often breaks the fourth wall as a way of parodying or undermining the seriousness of literature and art. Black humor, irony and self-referentiality are also important elements of postmodern literature. A group of authors that are now known as early postmodernist authors were at first called “black humorists” because they made light of typically serious subjects. These authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Roald Dahl and John Barth. The genre deals with previously taboo, “low-brow” themes such as both mental and physical disease, realistic depictions of violence, sexuality and religious criticism.
Postmodern literature moves forward from modernist literature, making light of grand narratives and societal norms which parallels how postmodernism deconstructs meaning and truth. Modern literature is more similar to postmodern literature than modern thought is to postmodern thought and postmodern literature is closer to a progression from what came before than a rejection, embracing modern literature’s sadness, lack of absolute truths and fragmented structure adding elements of irony, self-referentiality, black humor and pastiche (taking influence from multiple genres, e.g. the steampunk and cyberpunk genres). Despite these similarities between the two movements, the meaning or message of postmodern novels is often obscured or ambiguous just as in the postmodern mind, truth and knowledge are obscured and ambiguous. Whereas modernist literature experiments with how narratives work and how to move the plot of a novel from point A to point B, postmodern literature often experiments with the very necessity of a narrative at all.
The progression from modern art to postmodern art is more distinct. Modernist art was more representative and meaningful, it was not as objective or utilitarian in style as modernist tendencies might lead one to believe, but the values portrayed within modern art often promote scientific progress, Christian values and “high art” – that which elevates and inspires the spectator, portraying beautiful, clean or romanticized aesthetics. Modern art focused on portraying our reality in new, better, more interesting ways. As postmodernism grew and spread, modernist concepts of authenticity and meaning were rejected within art – postmodern art does not always portray anything at all. Sculpture, performance art, installation art and multimedia works are very common genres of postmodern art. Postmodern artists often leave the meaning of their works up to the beholder, just like they believe that meaning of reality is up to the beholder. Low art is another common theme in the postmodern age. Artists often want to portray what they see, not what is “good” or “sublime”.
The transition of modern art to postmodern art came immediately after World War II. The previously ordered, explorative, meaningful paintings that were popular all over the world were replaced by paintings that were abstract and at first glance meaningless messes but given further inspection contained fierce emotional expression. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko were at the forefront of this movement, but as the 1960s began, the disillusionment that was kickstarted by the world wars and the Jewish holocaust was only worsened by the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis, and this was reflected in art. Postmodern art took the characteristics of postmodernism to an extreme level and the painting I’ve included, Yellow Over Black by Ellsworth Kelly, does a good job of illustrating what art that takes nothing for granted looks like–art that has no standards or narratives attached to it.
I’ve illustrated how two important, basic disciplines evolved into postmodernism from modernism and what the differences between the two eras and reactions looked like. It’s important to catch us up to where we are now by discussing what has happened in the postmodern world since the terms inception by creating a “timeline” of postmodernity.
Many people believe that the 60s, 70s and 80s were merely leading up to postmodernism, putting bricks in the wall of the postmodern thought processes that separates us from truth and meaning. Events occurred throughout these decades that served as nails in the coffin of a belief system that valued humanity and progress. Patriotism crumbled during the controversial Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal, cultural rejection of meaningful art and global recession in the 1970s all led to what many scholars consider the beginning of the postmodern age: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Ideology and grand narratives were worn away over these decades until they crumbled.
Postmodernism has only expanded since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has lead to the attempted legitimization and synthesization of all worldviews, a process that de-legitimizes everything it touches. All standards by which to judge ethical validity, all things good or bad – wiped away. This was an understandable reaction to the events that began the postmodern era. People were tired of death, war and inequality and they reacted by removing any way to justify war and oppression. From the postmodern perspective religions and people groups can no longer be better than each other. Moral codes are constructed over time, not imbued by an omnipotent god. This was at first a reaction against what had gone wrong with the ideologies that proceeded postmodernism, but it has now gone too far. We are dangerously close to losing ourselves to criticism. Postmodernism gives no answers for any of life’s questions, it simply tears down what came before. Our earth, our civilization, our cultures – they’re headed towards problems independent of postmodernism’s opinion on whether or not it matters. It’s our responsibility to take hold of ourselves and move forward. Metamodernism aims to bring authenticity and meaning back into our art and dialogues and through this, steer our society in a more productive direction.