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  Postmodernism, in the arts and design, is a phenomenon of the last 25 years, originating in the West but now spreading throughout the world. Whereas modernism consisted of dozens of individual ‘movements’, each with a rigorous artistic dogma and a programme for changing the world, postmodernism is individualistic and anarchic. We live today in a pluralist society, surrounded by images and artefacts from all periods and of all geographical and cultural locations. We are aware of the entire experience of the human race in ways that were not available to previous generations, and we have means and techniques of artistic creation which simultaneously include and beggar all those of the past. We are inheritors of the artistic and personal licence so energetically preached in the 1960s: philosophical, ethical and social libertarianism is the new orthodoxy.

In the arts, this has led to an unprecedented upsurge of eclecticism. Artists are as wary of ‘isms’ as their great-grandparents were eager to embrace them. ‘Doing your own thing’ is, for many artists, where creativity begins and boundaries between arts, and between different branches or hierarchic levels of the same art are nowadays of minimal relevance. Stylistic interpenetration is the norm, in particular between what used to be thought of as ‘high’ art and ‘genre’ art. Architects are happy to take ideas from all traditions, making buildings in an identifiable ‘postmodernist’ manner, which would once have been condemned as an incompetent anthology of features. Charles Jencks, whose writings have done much to promote the term, defines a Postmodern building as: ‘doubly-coded—part Modern and part something else: vernacular revivalist, local, commercial, metaphorical or contextual’. Postmodernist architecture has been particularly identified with neoclassical architecture and town planning in Europe and America during the late 20th century; an interesting example of which is the huge housing project known as the Palace of Abraxas, Marne-La-Vallée (1978 - 1983), the work of the partnership of the Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill.

In design, postmodernists took as their starting-point ideas first developed during the 1960s, reviving a whole series of ideas, imagery and materials which had been rejected by the Modern Movement. The furniture of the Italian Memphis Group is typical, mixing unconventional materials such as plastic with expensive wood finishes, reviving historical detailing, combining different decorative patterned surfaces and challenging such conventions as that all the legs on a chair should always be identical.

In a similar way, postmodernist painters and sculptors select from the entire repertory of traditional and experimental techniques, the whole range of folk styles, past styles and themes, confident that their audience will appreciate every nuance of allusion or re-creation. Drama bestrides the once-perceived gulf between exclusive and popular traditions: actors are multi-talented first, specialists second; writers produce stage plays one day and soap opera the next; comedy and tragedy are inextricably combined; improvisation, musical and physical skills (such as juggling or roller-skating) make appearances in performances of even the most ‘serious’ kind. Musicians write jingles, pop songs and symphonies with equal panache, and are happy to draw on every kind of creative resource from big tunes to serial music, from counterpoint to rap. Writers embrace or pastiche techniques drawn from every period and every level of culture. They import, for example, experimental narrative strategies into popular fiction, or genre conventions into more ‘serious’ work, without feeling the need to declare or explain what\'s happening.

There is, in short, not a postmodernist movement but a continuum. There are no boundaries save our own individual competence; creator and spectator are locked together in a conspiracy against history, against geography and against specificity, which may be seen as liberating or destructive (the lunatics taking over the asylum), but which is entirely without precedent in the story of the arts. PD MG JM KMcL

Further reading Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism; , Charles Jencks, What is Post-Modernism?.



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