Throughout my undergraduate career, I have had very few academic experiences that fundamentally changed the way that I saw the world and myself in it (I could probably count that number on one hand). However, one such event occurred last spring in my Disneyland seminar: when I was introduced to the philosophies of Modernism and Postmodernism.
While these may seem like elitist academic terms they actually refer to relatively straightforward concepts. Simply put, Modernism celebrates science and technology as the saviour for society and the way towards an absolute truth. This philosophy emerged out of Europe after the World Wars, events that had disillusioned a generation from tradition, history and the status quo. Centuries of visual aesthetics were tossed out the window as people started from square one. The years of socio-political turmoil had made it abundantly clear that the old systems were not working and so the question on everyone’s mind was: “How do we do this better now?” This mode of thinking is what spurred new architectural styles with minimalist lines on the large scale (seen as a departure from the opulence of the Beaux-Arts) to even reimagining the chair.
In contrast, Postmodernism is the subsequent cultural whiplash that many had to Modernist ideology after several decades. As my professor once put it, Postmodernism is “always tongue-in-cheek”. Whereas Modernism seeks to be a complete divergence from the past, Postmodernism acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses of history. Postmodernism is sometimes snarky sometimes silly. In many cases, Postmodern art is a blend of historical and contemporary.
Although I had previously learned about Modernism ad nauseum, this was the first time that I had learned about these two philosophies juxtaposed with one another. While Modernism sees the world as black and white, Postmodernism sees the shades of grey. Where Modernism focuses its gaze forward, Postmodernism looks back with a critical, and maybe even a little wistful, eye. While Modernism believes in simple universal truths, Postmodernism believes that “the truth resists simplicity”.
Why exactly did this realization rock my world so much? The most obvious way to use this knowledge would be to use these philosophies as the intellectual scaffolding through which to categorize art, the way that you would in most art history courses. The repurposing (rather than demolition) of an old church to be a new housing complex is creating an architectural hybrid and Postmodernist, to a certain extent. If you extend this type of analysis to other media, the dissection can become even more obvious.
But this ability to categorize is not remarkable on its own because there are more “-isms” in Art History that were created for that express purpose. Ask any Art History student to name 10 and I bet you they could do it in under 30 seconds. But upon closer examination, I realized that Modernism and Postmodernism do not simply exist in the Ivory Tower of academia, they have sneakily infiltrated many different disciplines, from pop-culture to politics, and even medicine. Knowing about these two philosophies allowed me to observe my own experiences and give words to observations I had always noticed but had never been unable to articulate. I can now see that the quest for “the one cure” for cancer” in the 1950s and 60s may be steeped in a Modernist perspective, which believes that there is one absolute truth for everyone. I can now see the generational gap between my generation and my parents generation aligning itself along this binary. Buzzfeed articles about reimagining Disney princesses (or humanizing the ‘villains’) could be viewed as Postmodern critique of mid-century ideals. Even the concept of privilege (if it’s not a problem for me, it’s not a problem for anyone!) is somewhat Modernist.
Now will this knowledge ever directly affect any large-scale change? Probably not. But I think the reason that this particular class stood out in my memory is because it was one of the most obvious examples of when knowledge in class transcended the boundaries of academia for me in a very tangible way. There are many people out there who believe that Art History has no practical application “in the real word” but I would argue that is a somewhat limited Modernist attitude and we should bring them into the 21st century.