What is postmodernism

01:00 Mon 04th Jun 2001 |

A. Webster's dictionary defines it as 'of, relating to, or being any of several movements (as in art, architecture or literature) that are reactions against the philosophy and practices of modern movements and are typically marked by revival of traditional elements and techniques' and notes its first recorded usage as dating from 1949.

Q. So, what was modernism then
In essence modernism in any art form and in architecture is characterised by a self-conscious break with the past, a rejection of tradition and traditional forms and a search for new forms of expression.

The most striking examples of modernism are found in the architecture of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, by architects such as Mies van de Rohe and Erno Goldfinger. At its worst it gave rise to forms that served no other purpose than novelty. But, while much of what was created by modernists is currently out of favour with both critics and the public, it was by no means all bad, and it broadened the scope of possibility.

Lest we forget, Victorian architecture, now deemed unimpeachably tasteful, was considered ugly and vulgar for much of the 20th century, to the extent that many buildings were summarily demolished or radically altered - plans were even drawn up to cover Tower Bridge with an Art Deco glass casing to hide the 'excesses' of its detailing - so modernism will no doubt have another day.

Q. How did postmodernism come about
A. It began as a movement in architecture that wanted to maintain elements of modern utility while referring, without actually going back, to the reassuring classical forms of the past. The result of this was an ironic bric-�-brac or collage approach to construction that combines several traditional styles into one structure. It is not a total rejection of modernism, as modernist devices are used along with many others. Meaning is found in combinations of already created patterns. This stance soon spread to other branches of the arts - Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe is a well-known example - and it readily took root in literature.

Q. Who are the big postmodernist authors
Top names are Kathy Acker, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Bartheleme, Jorge Lu�s Borg�s, Italo Calvino and John Ashberry. While each writer's work differs greatly from the others they have in common the rejection of slavish representation in favour of a self-referential playing with the forms, conventions and icons of high art and literature. Originality is deemed to be lost in an age of mass production; the traditional emphasis on plot and character is less important than the literary games being played. Yet, within that, work of striking originality is created.

Q. Where is postmodernism today
A. While postmodernism may now being slipping into late middle age, its influence has filtered through into every area of our lives, from self-consciously retro design, such as the new Volkswagen Beetle, to the all-pervasive irony of popular culture.

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By Simon Smith

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