Modernism was the first step to the world of major experimentation for art but Postmodernism took it even further. When people think of modern art, generally the reaction is negative. Not many take the time to understand what the artists were trying to do or express. Sometimes they might even react with, “My five year old could paint that”.
Modern art was a reaction against the old ways of art: old renditions of mythological scenes, of religious material, of not showing the process as much as possible. Instead, modern art was the exploration of new ways to use the mediums. The expression mattered more than the piece (Greenberg 1939). The new subjects were everyday people, everyday places and new ideas. Artists wanted to be unique and original, and to reflect on the world around them. Modernism evolved as the world did: the idea that there is an absolute truth, or that utopian societies could be created. This was during the time of the Industrial Revolution, a time of change – and not just for the world, but also the artists. Artists wanted to impact the world with their creations.
Modern art opened the floodgates for new ideas and opportunities with art. No longer was art so formal and had to be painted a specific way. Expressive brushstrokes and new subject matter was able to evolve from it. It paved the way for experimental medias being more involved with art. It was no longer about one medium or another. Artists could and did have their own unique style or try to achieve one.
Jackson Pollock, an artist who moved away from traditional means of painting, did not initially receive the credit he deserved. Pollock would lie out his giant canvases on the floor of his working space. This allowed him to get close to his painting and to be a part of it. His paintings were a performance for him. He took inspiration from the sand painters – the fact that the art was not permanent spoke to him. He was drawing inspiration from things that were more primal, closer to nature. Taking sticks, towels or even just pouring the paint on his canvas were all ways that he would apply his paint. Though his paintings are a field of swirls and splatters, it is not just random as many people think. There is rhythm and thought put into his work. He was not afraid of ‘messing up’ for he believed that a painting has a life of its own (Jackson Pollock Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works n.d.). His paintings also do not have a beginning or an end, everything contained within the paintings are equally important (Jackson Pollock Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works n.d.). He pushed the bounds of painting in a way that others had not thought of yet. One of Pollock’s most famous pieces is Mural, 1943. This piece is a coming together of Pollock’s various inspirations: Native American art, landscapes of the Midwest, Mexican murals and his own techniques of splash and drip (Jackson Pollock Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works n.d.). It is a culmination of the world Jackson Pollock knew. The way that the black and colored lines intermingle evokes a mystical feeling, as if looking at a cave painting or some ancient art. It’s like being transported to another culture of another time and place. Pollock introduced new techniques that others certainly try to mimic but generally do not succeed at.
Mark Rothko, an artist who loved to play with colors, wanted his viewers to experience without the need of visuals within his paintings. He created color field paintings. These paintings were large blocks of colors that shared similar compositions of rectangles of colors upon another color but each painting had a different effect be it with color or proportions of said rectangles. Rothko played with various colors and their relationship to another color and to the viewer. He would take colors such as yellow and red and place them next to each other. In Ochre and Red on Red those are the colors that are used. The yellow pops out at the viewer while set ablaze by the red that surrounds it. These paintings were intended to evoke an emotional response from the viewer (Mark Rothko – Ochre and Red on Red n.d.). The scale and the vibrant colors do just that to the viewer. Each of his pieces, though simplistic to look at, had careful consideration put into them: how much space to have between the yellow and the edge for instance. How large the yellow rectangle should be in comparison to the space the red takes up. Factors like this are used to give different impressions to the viewer. If there were less yellow on the painting, it would have a different effect for the viewer. Not only did he carefully select colors, he also used different types of brush strokes on his paintings. Sometimes they would be textured slightly and other times such marks would essentially be erased (Mark Rothko – Ochre and Red on Red n.d.).
Postmodern art, starting around the 1960’s, challenged some of the ideals that modern art had. It did not want to stay in the specified niche for avant garde. It sought to deconstruct and challenge viewers. Postmodernists wanted to get away from the totalitarian view of Modernism and move towards a philosophy that there is no concrete truth in the world. For example, that a utopia for one society would not be utopia for another. It moved from being about the artist and the process to what kind of the reaction the viewers might have and how it would impact them. It became about the consumers (Hopkins 2000). While modern art had disregarded kitsch, postmodern art invited it in and incorporated it into the art.
John Cage, a musician, largely impacted the postmodern world. He played around with what was considered art. John Cage potentially saw all sounds as music (John Cage n.d.). He would use various objects as instruments that would never be considered instruments: a feather or cactus needles. What he created was more primitive than the music of the time. He forced the audience to listen to random sounds in a sequence to create unconventional music. One of his most famous pieces 4’33” was perhaps the most controversial. The audience had filed into a concert hall and he just remained there, not performing anything. The only ‘performed’ gesture was that of the performers waiting for the composer to start. That was his performance, the music of people waiting. Of the audience murmuring, shuffling around. John Cage helped the audience to see that there really is no complete silence (4’33” n.d.). His experimentation with what was outside the norm helped open the doors for other artists. There was a new mixing of completely different medias.
Yoko Ono was an artist who took inspiration from John Cage and began to create simple conceptual pieces. Yoko especially encouraged interactivity with her art work (Yoko Ono n.d.). She would have the audience walk around on canvases or, have the audience cut her clothes while she sits passively as in Cut Piece. At first, only small strips of clothing were being cut away. Yoko Ono doesn’t appear very comfortable even then but towards the end, audience members began getting carried away. One young man took her camisole in one go (Ono 1964), exposing her further. Yoko Ono nearly interferes, obvious that she is uncomfortable with it. There is even some laughter and clapping going on in the background. She made a strong statement about sexual violence. Sitting there, seemingly helpless, she allowed the audience to do as they wished. They realized what they were doing after a while; this exposed a side that some people might not have wanted to see themselves as. They were the perpetrators of her sexual objectification. Yoko Ono went on to perform Cut Piece several other times. Other art that she produced were instructions telling others how to do art. Some of the instructions were merely about the experience or musings (Yoko Ono n.d.) without producing a typical art piece. It was about the implications of what the person has done or what they gained.
Modernism and Postmodernism varied in their concerns. Postmodern art sought to encompass more types of media within the art. It expanded from the traditional fine arts means into including mixed media of sound, performance art, conceptual art and others. It was art that really made people think about it. Modern artists wanted to see how far they could push their medium in a unique way; they wanted their art distinguishable from others. It was about the creating of the piece versus the actual piece itself. The artist was putting him-herself and his or her experiences into the art pieces. They wanted the viewers to experience something from their art.
Modernists were very concerned with the avante garde and how to be that artist. Anything kitsch was looked down upon. There was more a distinction between high and low art. Postmodernism blurs this line with welcoming consumerism – pop art exemplified this. Artists were attempting to bridge the gap between high art and popular culture, where symbols were everywhere. Postmodern pieces were not always presented as finished but were experimental interactive pieces instead. Sometimes these fragments were parts of trilogies, or a series of works (Postmodernism n.d.).
Postmodernism and Modernism are certainly different but sometimes it is hard to tell which movement a piece of art belongs to. There is not exactly a hard line that says one is the other. Sometimes, the context of the piece is what will help the viewer decide.
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