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Postmodernism in Art: Reaction and Resistance

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 2260 words Published: 17th Mar 2021

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In this essay, I’m aiming to explore and understand Postmodernism through the research of key practitioner Hal Foster to interpret and evaluate works by contemporary artists Cindy Sherman and Jo Spence and how their works relate to postmodernism as a key theme and example of postmodernism as a theory. To be able to identify successfully what postmodernism is we must first identify the meanings of modernist. Modernism is both a philosophical movement and an art movement that arouses from the transformation in Western Society during the late 19th and early 20thcentury. Modernism, as a whole, includes activities and creations of those who felt the traditional forms of art and philosophy were outdated in the new social environment of a modern world. Factors which helped to shape modernism was the growth of modern industrialized societies and the swift expansion of cities resulting in social transformation. This resulted in demolishing the exhausted old art of the past and instead celebrated the liberation of the unconscious desire. The transition between modernism and postmodernism occurred within the 1960s with the introduction of Pop Art. It is believed that pop art served as a bridge between them (History. Com, 2019). Postmodernism, is the uninformed desire of human beings who want to create, improve and reshape their environment. Postmodernism is defined as a response against the ideas, and principles of modernism, as well as a description of the period that followed modernism’s supremacy in cultural theory and practice in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century (History. Com, 2019).

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The term is linked with the uncertainty, satire and metaphysical critiques of the concepts of universal truths and objective reality. It is believed as an art movement postmodernism to some extent defies definition as it is believed to be not one postmodern style or theory on which is based on. The theory is seen to embrace many approaches to the formation of art, for example, conceptual art, neo-expressionism, feminist art (History. Com, 2019). Postmodernism is not only seen as a describing period but also seen as a period with a set of new and innovative ideas. As a theory it is believed to have three key ways of being defined, firstly postmodernism being seen as a style label, second postmodernism as a periodic term and Thirdly Hal Fosters Two postmodernism: The postmodernism of reaction, and the postmodernism of resistance. I aim to briefly explore all three concepts of what best defines postmodernism to in turn develop a more well-informed argument.

Firstly, Postmodernism as a style label snubs the idea of identifying the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be. Postmodernism collapsed this distinction between high culture, and mass or popular culture, between both art and everyday society. Postmodernism as a theory doesn’t stick to one set of rules it is seen amongst the art community as confrontational and controversial, challenging both the boundaries of what is seen as tasteful and most importantly it reflects its own self-awareness of style itself. This includes the mixing of different artistic and popular styles and media; postmodernist art is believed to wilfully and self-consciously borrow from or ironically comment on a range of styles from the past. Jacques Lacan, a French Psychoanalyst, and theorist believed the critical theory was particularly leading on post-structural philosophy and the growth of postmodernism (Plato. Stanford.Edu, 2019). Jacques Lacan questioned the idea that the boundaries between the rationales and irrational by suggesting the unconscious is equally and just as intricate and refined as the structure of the conscious. He argued the idea that the unconscious is similar to a language that allows for the communication between the unconscious and conscious therefore, resulting in the unconscious playing a role in a society’s experiences of the world.

Secondly as briefly mentioned earlier in this essay Postmodernism describes not only a period, but a set of ideas and can only be understood effectively alongside an equally complex term such as modernism. Postmodernism is seen to be best understood as a set of questioning ideas and values connected with a form of modernism that believes in progression and innovation. Similarly, to modernism, postmodernism does not label any one style of art. Instead, it is often linked with variety, and the abandonment of conventional ideas of styles (Anon, 2019). This idea of the postmodern world is far from just a period but also is represented by personal history, social class, gender culture, and religion, these elements combined helped to shape personal narratives and meanings of people’s lives, subsequently resulting in their being culturally and socially embedded. While modernism was brought to the for front of society due to its idealism and reason, postmodernism was born from scepticism and a suspicion of reason and isn’t simply just a period within society but is a pinnacle point in history which brought about the new age of innovative ideas and continues to influence modern art to this day.

Thirdly, Hal Foster suggests that postmodernism itself has two sides, two important components which as a whole is the bases of the theory. One side being that postmodernism culture is extremely reactionary and consists of mainly privileged Western cultural individuals helping themselves to whatever kinds of style or imagery they fancy. Hal Foster described these artists as being like wealthy tourists, cruising around developing countries and taking from these areas whatever valuables they like, because they have what Hal Foster calls spending power. He argues that people in such a privileged position don’t care what the things they take from these areas mean to the other groups of people, for example, the people who originally developed the item. Hal Foster identified these sides as postmodernism of reaction and postmodernism of resistance. ‘Hal Foster describes postmodernism reaction as uncritical repudiation of modernity’ Postmodernism of reaction is said to be largely a reaction to the presumed certainty of independent efforts to explain reality. In essence, this theory stems from the idea that reality is not just mirrored in human understanding of it but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its particular and personal reality (Masuzawa and Ross, 1990).

My first case study for this investigation of Postmodernism is Cindy Sherman, born January 19, 1954, Glen Ridge, New Jersey, U.S Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). In 1972 she enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo and majored in painting, she then later switching her major to photography. She graduated from SUNY in 1976 and in 1977 began work on Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), one of her most well-known series. The series of black-and-white photographs featuring Sherman in a variety of roles is reminiscent of film noir and presents viewers with an ambiguous portrayal of women as sex objects (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). Cindy Sherman is considered to be one of the most profound artists of her generation. Her work has been described largely as repulsive and yet it is seen to be enthralling at the same time. For example, a series of images named Sex Pictures, 1992 which depicted women in pornographic images with the use of anatomical and detailed mannequins further supports this idea that her work often touched on the repulsive side of photography posing questions to society and the art world that no one had dared ask before.

Cindy Sherman specifically explores the roles of women in society, sexuality and the art of making photographs. Her work includes portrayals of 50’s and 60’s Hollywood heroines, subjects of Old master’s paintings, models all becoming the subject and objective of her artwork. Within her photographs she includes artificial body parts, decapitated dolls and grisly scenes of violence. Cindy Sherman is a talented artist who uses photography as a means to create pictures that arouse and disturb in unusual and sometimes explicitly disturbing ways. Cindy Sherman aimed to question what was believed to be heavily dominated female roles by turning the camera on herself and playing into the characters. Her audience’s attention was gained by the radical angel she took to present these roles with make-up that lay behind countless images and she is still being recognised for this today (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2019).

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Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills fits, in many ways, into the criteria set out by postmodernism. Those small black and white photos of Cindy Sherman impersonating various female characters an example being women from movies, women that other women would have idolize and have absorbed over the years whilst watching tv. With each image Cindy Sherman has confronted this idea of the constructed self and the illusion of identity something which many women and the body has been depicted by the mass media and historical sources as this one size fits all idea (Cruz, Smith and Jones, 2001). Her work is progressive and surrealist but is also unique and seems to of been fashioned from no original source. This being similar to postmodernisms belief that everything in this world is simply diluted through endless copies such as mass media, to a point where its true essence is lost when it reaches us the consumers. The main element from Untitled Film Stills is the number of stereotypes included within the series in which Cindy Sherman loses her personal identity playing these women. Each image holds its own narrative which challenges the traditional idea of authorship. These debut images are what makes for such a representative example of postmodern art.

Though often with a feminist influence, Cindy Sherman’s ideas of different identities is consistent with postmodernism’s theories on reality and originality. Postmodern theories of hyper- reality, which is the inability to distinguish the difference between reality from imitation reality, subsequently brought about claims that reality and illusion are indistinguishable. It is believed that If we have lost the essence of ourselves, which seems to be one of postmodernism’s main claims, then surely all that we can do is assume the ‘idea’ of a person. This being exactly something Sherman does in her Untitled Film Stills. She takes classic personas from films and constructs a series of different identities through herself. This encourages the viewer to question who in fact Cindy Sherman is aside from her photography? Who is Cindy Sherman on the daily? Subsequently, her changing so easily from one identity to another, she shows us how fragile the concept of identity is.

Cindy Sherman argues the idea that if she is able to be each and every identity featured within her photography, then there is no right way for us the audience to definitively say who she is or is not. This therefore is an evident display of the illusion of self. She forces viewers to confront the idea that concepts we may have of ourselves are simply constructed by societies idea of what self is or isn’t through mass media, gender stereotypes and argues instead that individuality is a delusional perception constructed to make us believe we are in control of such a thing when in fact we are not. With its exploration of the parallel and it's conflict with traditional views on identity, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills raises important questions regarding reality and engages strongly with principles of postmodernism. Her use of numerus characters casts doubts upon a complete sense of self and contributes to postmodernisms claim that originality has become blurred. By her deconstructing the myths we have about ourselves she highlights a new age of progressive art and is a supreme example of postmodern art.


  • Anon, (2019). [online] Available at: https://pdf.sciencedirectassets.com/ [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  • Cruz, A., Smith, E. and Jones, A. (2001). Cindy Sherman. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. (2020). Cindy Sherman | American photographer. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cindy-Sherman [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  • History.com. (2019). Modernism and Post-Modernism History - HISTORY. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/art-history/history-of-modernism-and-post-modernism [Accessed 3 Dec. 2019].
  • Masuzawa, T. and Ross, A. (1990). Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. South Atlantic Review, 55(1), p.103.
  • Plato.stanford.edu. (2019). Postmodernism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). [online] Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/ [Accessed 17 Dec. 2019].
  • The Art Story. (2020). Cindy Sherman Photography, Bio, Ideas. [online] Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/sherman-cindy/ [Accessed 18 Dec. 2019].


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