Reflecting on Postmodernisms

By Stankiewicz, Mary Ann | Art Education, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Reflecting on Postmodernisms


Stankiewicz, Mary Ann, Art Education


The term postmodern has been traced to the historian Arnold Toynbee who coined it about 1939 to refer to the close of the modern period of history which, according to him, occurred in the last quarter of the l9th century. Postmodern politics have been traced to European student and worker revolts in 1968. In the visual arts, some critics have argued that the decisive year was 1964, when Andy Warhol first exhibited his Brillo boxes. Postmodern architecture was identified in the 1970s. Postmodernism became pervasive in academic culture during the 1980s and entered art education literature early in the 1990s.

Definitions of postmodernism are as varied as past uses of the term. To some, the word carries negative connotations due to the tendency of postmodernists to critique and deconstruct the big ideas of Enlightenment philosophers. Postmodernists have offered critiques of realism, universalism, and individualism, of optimistic belief in the advances of progress. They argue that the grand metanarratives of history (like those written by Toynbee) should be abandoned in favor of modest, localized narratives. They assert that unified visions of high culture and the power of the avant garde are being replaced by art that is eclectic and ambiguous, characterized not by style but by multiple references to and appropriations from popular commercial culture. Perhaps because much postmodern theory developed in literary criticism and cultural studies, the focus on science, logic, and rationality characteristic of modernism has given way to an emphasis on the text, narrative, and interpretation.

While art educators in higher education have been dropping postmodernist references for nearly a decade, many K-12 art specialists find the topic difficult, boring, or irrelevant to classroom life. The authors in this issue argue that postmodernism does have implications for thinking about art teaching and learning, for curriculum development and classroom practice. Social and intellectual changes grouped under the label of postmodernism already affect the contexts of art education. For example, many school districts have been trying to replace the modern notion of one single best, most efficient system of management with sitebased management, shared decision-making teams, or charter schools to permit consideration of alternative points of view. Art teachers who want to introduce their students to contemporary art recognize that artists today do not use the aesthetics of significant form and self-expression predominant for most of our century. The modern belief that the thoughts and voice of one person-often a white male-should guide theory and practice is giving way to more interest in listening to previously ignored voices, to the stories of women and other "minorities."

In his statement as incoming editor, published in the Septemebr 1998 issue of Art Education, Paul Bolin wrote that he wants to hear from a medley of voices, a multi-voiced choir of writers for the journal. …

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