The Modernism/Post-Modernism Lecture

©Werner Hammerstingl , 2000


The concept of post-modernism was baffling even to those close to the source of the debate around this emerging "ism" as recently as the early 80's.

Two things must be highlighted from the outset:

1 We can see clearly a connection between modern(ism) and post-modern(ism) so perhaps we must, ahead of any debate focussing on post-modern(ism), get to know modernism a little better.

2 Post-modern(ism) has no firm starting date. It is born not from a manifesto but from a change in critique, philosophy and practice. It may therefore be argued that post-modern(ism) excisted alongside the entire modernist period without being recognised ( like the other side of a coin).

In this discussion we will trace the issue as follows:

First we will examine Modernism and it's links with the German Bauhaus and it's philosophy. This will naturally expand the debate to incorporate Furniture and Industrial design as wellas Architecture as major vehicles for the modernist movement. We will also note by comparing two examples, two clocks: one by Peter Behrens (1910, AEG) which exemplyfies the modernist values and one by Charles Reneé Mackintosh (1919) that modern and post-modern aesthetics lived side by side for many years before anyone noticed.

Second we will highlight Robert Ventury's role as the architect of post-modern(ism) as early as 1963.

Third we will examine how the involvement of POP artists such as Raushenberg, Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns who were not seen in their own time to belong to the post-modern camp, began to cut a trail which allowed a fusion between art and life and the high and commercial arts. We will touch on the hypertextuality of modern (read post-modern) life, the effects of the communication technology explosion and finally a brief look at the resulting fashion and drug culture. We will also examin a small piece of writing by celebrated feminist writer Karen Finlay: "We are the oven". We will reference the notions of schizophrenia and de-construction and look ahead to Bladerunner next week.

In conclusion we will examine if this fusion of stylistic and philosohical objectives makes post-modern(ism) a romantic movement and if there can be an escape from the post-modern age to something beyond.

Modernism what is it?

A period?

There is some validity in the argument that modernism is a period which may not have ended, has a definite beginning with the enlightenement .

A style: a particular style which works on the theory that "less is More".

An ideology?

Modernism is an aesthetic ideology which may be summarised as follows:

1. Form follows function.

Modernists rejected the stylistic anarchy and eclecticism of the victorian period on the grounds that a new age of machines and technology had been borne. They argued that it was essential to create a new style, a modern style based on Form follows function and the dictates of new materials, machines and techniques.

2. Reject the past

Since modernists believed that a new age had dawned- the modern age, they insisted on a complete break with the past.

3. Simplicity of style

Modernists rejected decoration and ornament on the grounds that they were a residue of primitivism and superfluous.They preferred geometric to organic forms. Tey espoused the values of simplicity, clarity, uniformity, purity, order and rationality.

4. Universalism is preferred to localism

Moderinsts rejected national, regional and vernacular (native or indigenous) styles and favoured the"International style" as the tennets of modernism were universaly applicable.

5. Art for the "brave new world"

Work was produced which was inspired by socialist ideals, to improve the human condition by imposing solutions which did not always reflect the wishes of the masses or popular taste. (biggest disasters: public housing blocks) Modernists attempted to develop the spheres of science, morality and art"according to their inner logic"

What is Post Modernism?

Does anyone know?

Post= after Modernism=an art movement which existed in the early to mid C20th.

Perhaps modernism suffered a "Parachme" (decline after reaching it's prime)

Post-modernism is a term which is associated with the culture and art of today.

To actually define what it is concerned with is extremely difficult to do as it is extremely broad in its content, made up of many sub-cultures and genres with different particular aims. The best, simple definition which we can use is that post-modernism is a reaction against modernism and responds to the social and political issues of today.

I guess it's fair to say that modernism was destined to disappoint as it continued to preoccupy itself with the reductionist chase for empirical fact. Post modernism often produces what appears to be fiction which grows or matures towards fact. (W.H.98)

What are the features of post-modernism?

1. Plurality of styles

The modernist Idea that each age only has one style is rejected in favour of the idea that a plurality of styles exists. Eclecticism, hybrid styles become fashionable. no single style appears to be dominant.

2. Retro style

History and tradition (including the history of modernism) become believable again-hence"retro style" via the use of quotations and the technique of collage, involving recyclings, parodies and pastiches of old styles.

3. Re-validation of the ornament

Ornament and decoration become acceptable again

4. Complexity and contradiction

"Complexity and contradiction" is the title of a little book by Robert Ventury. Complexity, contradiction and ambiguity aare the values which replace the modernist values of simplicity, purity and rationality. Mixtures of high and low culture, fine and commercial art styles are encouraged as a way of producing buildings capable of producing multi-layered readings appealing to audiences odf different levels of sophistication and knowledge.

5. Concern with"language"

Post-modernists are concerned with meaning-that is, they treat architecture and design as 'languages' which can be used to construct all kinds of different statements.

6. Inter-textuality

The basic characteristic of art: Inter-textuality is heightened in post-modernism. Inter-textuality is a term which indicates that every literary text or work of art relates to or alludes to, or comments upon (either implicitly or explicitly) various other texts or works. Sub issues associated with post-modernism Such sub-issues are: feminism, post-colonialism, homosexuality, Gay culture, AIDS, homelessnes, grunge, new technologies, the question of the body and a myriad of other issues. definitions of words commonly used.

Genre: kind, style, grouping (french) Hermeticism: airy, intially named after a writer dealing with the spiritual realms. Nothing is definite, it is based on theories which can be just as easily challenged and be disproven.

Marcia Tucker in her foreword in After Modernism writes:

"In much thinking and writing about contemporary art today, the focus is on those aspects of art that have more to do with questions ot taste, style, fashion, or judgement than with more fundamental ideas and issues".

This is partly because contemporary art has become increasingly visible and popular since the mid-1970s. Art is no longer seen as an elitist pursuit, remote from the interests and concerns of the public at large. Today, contemporary art has lost much of its radical hermeticism (airlessness): even the term "avant-garde"(means the foreward, advanced guard) has little impact when every new artistic manifestation seems equally subject to co-option by commercial interests.

Ironically, at the moment of contemporary art's greatest popularity, its criticism has subject of considerable abuse. Over and over again we hear that there is no single dominant issue on which to cut one's aesthetic teeth, or that "pluralism"(holding more than one favour at the same time by one person) indicates not only a lack of artistic quality, but also a lack of critical leadership. Or, worst yet, that art criticism has now receded into a deeper hermeticism (airyness), behind a veil of jargon. This anthology attempts to redress some of this confusion and to provide a serious critical frame of reference for the art of our time.

The history of Post Modernism

Post modernism's first recognition was in 1966. A 41 year old architect, Robert Venturi challenged the ways of the modernists who believed in absoloute pure form. He took MiesVan der Rohes'( a modernists architect) famous quote which was used by the modernists: "Less is more" and turned it into: "Less is a bore".

Post modernism is a confused anarchy - with its anti pure form. It questions our sociallisation and our ideals and analyses and critiques them.

For a guide to Post-modern French writers/intellectuals click here: