Postmodernism

Introduction

The course guide asks how Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field reflect post modern approaches to narrative. To answer this question it is first necessary to gain some understanding of postmodernism.

A Complex Definition

Charlotte Cotton (1) offers an accessible description of postmodernism by comparing it with modernism. In summary, She says that modernism had certain clear attributes:

  • Authorship, the promotion of grand masters and trail blazers.
  • Inovation of the medium with an emphasis on aesthetic and technical excellence.
  • The “few” technically and intellectually transcending the “many”.

On the other hand postmodernism is not intended to create a pantheon of great artists (although one night argue that it did) or evidence of originality (which it also did) but instead interprets art in terms of contained signs that draw their significance from a wider system of social and cultural coding. As proposed by Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author (2), the meaning of art is not owned or controlled by the artist but is determined by the viewer referencing their memory stock of images and signs.

Postmodern artists ask us to appreciate and decode their work through a shared knowledge of these cultural and societal signs and therefore see their work as representative of society. In this context the word “sign’ needs to interpreted very broadly to include not just the signifiers within the artwork but also the context outside of the piece so Carl André’s notorious, rectangular pile of bricks shown at the Tate in 1976 is art because it is being shown in a museum (3). It is clear that the postmodern approach lends itself to expressing political ideas by using clearly understood signs that we have to accept that we can read and understand even when they make us uncomfortable to do so and as a result the approach is often associated with making the audience feel guilty, or disturbed by calling their political beliefs and social prejudices into question.

Origins

Christopher Butler, in Postmodernism: A Short Introduction (3), argues that the artists, intellectuals, academics and philosophers associated with postmodernism are like a “loosely constituted and quarrelsome political party” that lacks an unified doctrine. It can be seen an extended family of ideas, a philosophical and political optic through which its adherents view contemporary society and is certainly not limited to the creation or interpretation of art.

Like many such movements, if movement is the right word, it was not defined by its first practitioners, in fact a number of now “recognised” postmodernist artists such as Carl Andre and Robert Rauschenberg precede its characteristics being highlighted and summarised by, amongst others, Susan Sontag in the mid 60’s. In 1968 Roland Barthes wrote his essay The Death of the Author (2), which is referenced as a key text on postmodernism by many sources and an example of the work of a group of intellectual, and mostly french, writers that, according to Butler, succeeded the work of the avant-garde contemporary artists and eventually supplanted them. It is therefore unclear whether the postmodern photographers who began to emerge in the late 70s were the natural successors to the earliest practitioners of the art movement or disciples of the intellectual and political, often Marxist, writings that attempted to analyse and contextualise the work of the original artists’. Even in 1977, a seminal exhibition of photographic work at the Artists Space in TriBeCa New York, including exhibits by Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo, was referred to as “Pictures” or “Appropriation” before being subsequently relabelled as postmodern (4).

The fact that postmodernism is not a single idea or a philosophy that has an agreed doctrine makes it difficult to define and, in the context of photography, or even art this task is made harder by the fact that the theorists, critics, philosophers and other writers who are associated with postmodern thinking are rarely looking at visual art let alone discussing photography. They ranged from Marxist socialist theorists to historians and Butler argues that by the mid 70’s philosophical and political interpretation had surpassed the appreciation of art itself. Butler describes the postmodernist period as a time when the work of academics held “extraordinary dominance” over the work of the artists they are discussing.

A Simple and Memorable Description

Stephen Bull (5) offers the simplest and most easily remembered definition of postmodern photography. Like Cotton he uses Modernist photography as a reference point

Modernist – is about what lies inside the frame

Postmodernist – is about what lies outside the frame

However, Stephen Bull also refers us to the thoughts of Batchen (i), who coins the term “post postmodernist” and says that a photograph’s meaning is actually derived from a combination of modernism, what lies inside the frame, and post modernism, what lies outside the frame. I find this a sensible conclusion.

 Notes on Text

(i) I believe that Bull is referring to Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of Art History at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand who has written several books on the history of photography.

Sources

Books

(1) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(2) Barthes, Roland (1968) The Death of the Author. (Included within Image, music, Text, translated by Stephen Heath (1977)) London: Fontana Press

(3) Butler, Christopher (2002) Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Kindle Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(5) Bull, Stephen. (2010) Photography. Kindle Edition published in the Taylor and Francis e-Library 2009. London: Routledge

Internet

(4) Smith, Robert (2001) When Photography Became Postmodern (accessed at The New York Times 28.3.15) – http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/29/arts/art-review-when-photography-became-postmodern.html

Kennedy, Randy (2012) Jan Groover, Postmodern Photographer, Dies at 68 (accessed at The New York Times 28.3.15) – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/12/arts/design/jan-groover-postmodern-photographer-dies-at-68.html?_r=0

 

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