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Postmodernism: How a Toilet Sparked an Artistic Revolution
Artistic expression is more than just paintings of fruit—especially amid the chaos of the 20th century. Check out our guide to the movement that redefined art: postmodernism.
At heart, postmodernism was a reaction—as many art movements are—to the aesthetic trend that came before. Whereas modernism, with its reflective impressionists and politically minded Picassos, embraced humans’ search for a universal, objective reality, postmodernism rejected such an ideal, arguing that individual experience was the only reality left. As manmade disasters such as World War II convinced artists to question the virtue of modern society’s ideologies, they began to reject the notion that art was a commodity, created by geniuses to hang above the mantels and dashboards of the elite. They soon demolished the distinction between high and low art, adopting production techniques beyond paint and canvas—recasting themselves, with more than a hint of irony, as creators of objects and products rather than noble seekers of truth.
That variation in postmodern media and styles—mixed media, appropriation, recontexualization, to name a few—makes the movement hard to define, but many works share similar features and starting points. Often, a piece’s focus is less on its subject or craftsmanship than the concept or idea behind it, whether revealing social concerns or tackling murky philosophical questions. Works can take the shape of faces flickering on a television screen, a stack of computers inside a black monolith, or a live, breathing group of nude models. With so much experimentation, postmodernism alters the way art is both conceived and consumed, transforming it from a strictly aesthetic experience to something that can be puzzling or even uncomfortable to view.
Although many point to the Warholian pop art of the ‘60s as the point at which modernism transitioned to the new movement, some trace the seeds of the movement all the way back to 1917. It was then that a gallery asked artist Marcel Duchamp to submit a piece for an upcoming display. To make a statement, a disillusioned Duchamp submitted a urinal, sending a clear message of where he thought art belonged.