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10-08-2015, 23:42


Postmodernism is the name that has often been applied to the development of the arts in the latter part of the twentieth century. Appearing first in philosophy, linguistics, and literary criticism in the 1960s, it soon spread to architecture, music, the visual arts, and literature. At its most elemental level, postmodernism is a critique and departure from modernism, the avant-garde culture of the first half of the twentieth century, and a return to selected aspects of traditional Western culture. At the same time, it has continued the twentiethcentury countertradition of artistic experimentation, distorting and reordering traditional culture through the prism of modernity. The term postmodernism was first used in architecture in 1977 when it became apparent that traditional architectural styles were beginning to alter or erode the modernist international style. Of all the arts, it seems logical that architecture would be the most inclined to return to traditional elements, because it interacts most directly with people’s daily lives. Architecture thus began to free itself from the repetitiveness and impersonality of the international style. In reaction to the forests of identical glass and steel boxes, and perhaps accelerated by a new enthusiasm for historic preservation and urban renewal, American architects began to reincorporate traditional materials, shapes, and decorative elements into their buildings. Anyone sighting an American city today cannot fail to observe its postmodern skyline of pyramidal and cupolaed skyscrapers of blue-green glass and brick. Even modernist rectangular malls have tacked on Greek columns and Egyptian pyramid-shaped entryways. As we have previously observed, twentieth-century composers experimented radically with the basic components of Western music, from tonality and melody to rhythm and form. But like architecture, music relies on the financial support of a broad segment of the public. Audiences must support orchestras to perform a composer’s work. Yet much of twentieth-century music has antagonized concertgoers to the extent that to survive, orchestras have performed mainly premodern music. During the 1970s, composers began to respond, abandoning radical experimentation in favor of a return to more conventional forms. Some use the “quotation” technique, refracting traditional music through a modernist prism, while others strive for more accessibility through a simpler and more romantic style in an effort to bring about a postmodern reconciliation with the past. In discussing art and literature, it is more difficult to pin down postmodernism, emerging as it does from the philosophical skepticism of the age, which rejects the existence of universally valid truths. Most simply, postmodernism can be viewed as a methodology for distinguishing what is real from the unreal in our age, which is being controlled and altered by the onslaught of mass media, “high-tech,” and global consumerism. Gradually artists and writers became engaged in politics, channeling their theoretical inquiries toward the rectification of social injustices. Seeking to reverse the traditional interpretation of history by heterosexual white males, some postmodernists championed the rights of feminists, ethnic and racial minorities, gays and lesbians, and invited them to recount their own individual stories. Advocates of postmodernism also expressed anger at the control exercised by the mass media over the individual consciousness, as well as the corporate ownership of public space. The individual mind, they argue, has been transformed into a simple screen reflecting an ever-changing series of images from the media culture. Postmodern literature and art share several identifying characteristics. First and foremost is a common sense of irreverence, resulting from the perception of an indeterminate world. Couched in an attitude of detached irony, postmodern works enjoy laughing in the face of convention, absolutist theories, and the seriousness of modernism. Although such attitudes first appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century with Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists, and the Surrealists, postmodernism has raised the pose of irreverence to an even higher level. As American author Kurt Vonnnegut (b. 1922) remarked in 1973, he had been “programmed . . . to insult” as a means of shocking his readers into demanding social reforms. One popular form of postmodern fiction is the “rewriting” of a previous novel from the point of view of one of the championed minorities. John Barth’s retelling of The Arabian Nights, for example, was written from the feminist perspective of Scheherazade’s younger sister. A more recent novel recounts the familiar tale of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind from the vantage point of the black slaves at Tara during the Civil War. Postmodern artists use this same convention by superimposing ethnic, feminist, or homosexual images on familiar works of art. But perhaps the most successful vehicle for the postmodern novel is found in science fiction, which has traditionally focused on the relationship between man and machine. In the hands of postmodernist authors, modern human beings, increasingly deprived of human contact, communicate with one another through electronic chat rooms and experience computer sex, all the while wired to the world on a cell phone. Source: Paula Geyh et al. (eds.), Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998).