Postmodernism vs Modernism in Art: 5 Key Differences

March 17, 2023

What is the difference between Modernism and Postmodernism in art? 

Apart from the fact that they thrived during different periods, Postmodernism emerged as a reaction to Modernism. 

While Modern artists embraced utopian ideals, Postmodernists took a critical view of society and challenged the narratives of modernism. 

In this article, we’ll look at what Modernism and Postmodernism are before diving deeper into their differences. 

We’ll also tell you how to invest in shares of art masterpieces yourself. 

What Is Modernism?

Modern Art was a backlash to the traditional academic painting techniques that dominated the late 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. 

The Modern artist often focused on better portraying modern societies and daily life using new materials and techniques, which we’ll explore in many fine art examples. Innovation and experimentation were some of the defining characteristics of the Modern Art period. 

Many of the most prominent figures from art history were Modernists, including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo and others. 

What Is Postmodernism?

Postmodernism is a broad cultural movement that emerged after World War II as a reaction to the values and ideas of Modernism. It didn’t hinge on any one style or theory but embraced many different visual art styles. 

The Postmodern theory was believed to have started with Pop Art in the 1960s, which often criticized 20th century commodity culture. From there, Conceptual Art, Feminist Art, Neo-Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Performance Art, Installation Art and others followed.

The Postmodernist Art world was also influenced by media and new technology.

The end of the Postmodern era is still unclear, as some argue that Postmodernism still represents the 21st century Contemporary Art movement.   

Postmodernism vs Modernism in Art: 5 Key Differences

Let’s take a closer look at some of the main differences between Postmodernism and Modernism: 

1. Different Periods in the Same Century

The Modern Art era ran from around the 1860s to the 1960s, replacing the Art Nouveau style.

Most art historians agree that 1863’s Salon des Refusés (an exhibition of artworks rejected by the Paris Salon jury) marked the start of the Modern era, changing the art world forever. 

Renowned impressionist Edouard Manet (featured at the Salon des Refusés) is considered to be the first Modern artist. By moving away from the confines of complete realism, he attempted to mimic the real world through perspective and modeling.

One could say that Modernism ranged from the realism of Gustave Courbet to the action painting of Jackson Pollock.

Postmodernism replaced Modernism as the dominant artistic movement after the Second World War. It was a reaction to Modernism and dominated the latter half of the 20th century. 

Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg are some big names from the Postmodern era.

2. Different Styles of Art

Neither cultural movement could be reduced to one art form or style. Instead, numerous styles and artistic ideas emerged from each art movement. 

Modernists believed in a romanticized version of artistic beauty and embraced experimentation, breaking away from traditional approaches to creating fine art. 

New ideas about art and philosophy emerged, and artists began including new shapes and colors into their works. 

Modernism encouraged detachment from the norms, not just with visual art but with other forms as well, including literature (as seen in James Joyce’s 1920s novel, Ulysses) and architecture (seen in Catalan modernism).

The following artistic styles emerged during the modern art movement: 

  • Impressionism (Claude Monet’s 1899 piece, Pond with Waterlilies, is an excellent example)
  • Cubism (Seen in Guernica, 1937, by Pablo Picasso)
  • Abstract Expressionism (as seen in Mark Rothko’s 1958 masterpiece No. 13)
  • Surrealism (Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory, 1931, is a well-known example)

On the other hand, Postmodern Art rejected the idea that there was an ideal way to create art. These artists often use imagery from popular culture to take an ironic, humorous, and skeptical approach to create art. 

Postmodern Art also took inspiration from the philosophies of French theorists like Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. 

The following artistic styles emerged during the Postmodern Art movement: 

  • Pop Art (Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962, by Andy Warhol, for example)
  • Conceptual Art (John Baldessari’s 1971 work titled I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art)
  • Feminist Art (Such as Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met? by the Guerilla Girls in 1989)
  • Photorealism (Chuck Close’s Big Self Portrait 1967-68) 

3. Idealism vs Skepticism

Each art movement had different ideologies.

  • Modernist idealism: Modernist artists revered innovation while embracing idealism. This led to artistic experiments that challenged the norm, inspired by the artist’s own ideas and iconography. 

Russian artist El Lissitzky’s work was an excellent example of this. His revolutionary ideas about visual concepts are believed to have shaped today’s graphic design.

  • Postmodernist skepticism: Postmodern art embraced complexity and contradictory messages, often with skepticism towards the “grand narratives” of modernism. 

This is evident in the political statements and criticisms of society in the works of Barbara Kruger, a prominent Postmodern artist.

4. Simple, Elegant Imagery vs Intricate, Decorative Designs

Modern and Postmodern artists also differed in how they perceived art. For example: 

  • Modern simplicity and elegance: Modern art was typically simple and non-decorative. It used geometric forms and abstract shapes to create an idealized version of beauty. 
  • Postmodern experimentation with decorative, complex elements: Postmodern artists experimented with new media, working more with everyday materials and mixing them with traditional art forms. 

For example, collages were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Postmodern artists blurred the lines between high art and low art. They adapted the aesthetic compositions associated with high art with the functionality of low art. They did this by using industrial materials and images from popular culture, which made artistic statements on mass media like comic books and advertisements.

Body art, a new art form, also became popular, and so was performance art. 

5. Universal Truth vs Individual Reasoning 

Modern and postmodern artists also differed in how they saw the world: 

  • Modern artists quested for the universal truth: Modernism was greatly influenced by the rational logic of Newton, Descartes and others. They were influenced by scientific and psychological discoveries and believed that theory mirrors reality. For example, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and dream studies influenced styles like Surrealism. 
  • Postmodern artists focused perception: The Postmodern artistic movement critically examined theories about truth, identity and perception. 

They believed that facts are meant to be interpreted, and that truth is just the construct of individuals or groups subject to culture, language, and other differences. 

The Postmodern theory was influenced by philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others. They were skeptical that theory could mirror reality.

Concept and video artist Dan Graham is a good example of this. In his 1974 project, Two Delay Room, he used mirrors, cameras and TV screens to confront visitors’ limitations around their own perceptions. A delay between the camera and what’s displayed on the screens mimics human perception. 

Now that we’ve compared Postmodernism vs Modernism in art, let’s look at how to invest in the masterpieces by some of these artists.

Here’s an easy way to do it:

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This material is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice and should not be relied on to form the basis of an investment decision.

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Masterworks is a fintech company democratizing the art market. Our investors are able to fractionally invest in $1mn+ works of art by some of the world's most famous and sought-after artists.