Postmodernism in Art Education: Content for Life

Article excerpt

Crime, drugs, homelessness, violence, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, endangered species, conservation, pollution.. the list of issues and concerns generated by fifth graders was long and surprisingly sophisticated. Students discussed and brainstormed their concerns after viewing work by two postmodern artists, Krystoff Wodicizko and Ciel Bergman. This activity was part of a year-long curriculum designed to involve south Georgia fifth-grade students in a district-wide study of postmodern art and related issues. The discipline-based art education (DBAE) curriculum offered opportunities not only to discuss art, but also to investigate the functions of art in contemporary society through authentic instruction.


Postmodern art eludes a single definition. The many meanings within postmodernism are complex. The first use of the term "postmodernist" in reference to the visual arts was made by an American critic, Leo Steinberg, in 1972, in his description of the mixed media paintings of Robert Rauschenberg (Wood, Frascina, Harrison, & Harris, 1993, p. 237). However, the roots of the movement began much earlier, at least in spirit, with the work of Marcel Duchamp (Horowitz, 1992). Associated with the Dada movement, Duchamp insisted that art must stimulate the mind and used everyday objects to challenge traditional definitions of art. Likewise, postmoderns have connected art to the concerns of daily life, preferring the personal contextual narrative to scientific or universal accounts.

Postmodernism is probably best understood as a critique of society in reaction to modernism (Kissick, 1993). Modern artists, particularly the American abstract expressionists, sought their identity through opposing traditional roles society offered following World War II. The initial meaning of the popular modernist term "avant garde" implied duality of aesthetic innovation and social revolt (Gablik, 1984). In practice it created an estranged elite of artists and intellectuals who preferred to step away from the expectations of the social mainstream. The attitude of "art for arts sake" focused primarily on the modern artist's response to a social, materialistic reality that was difficult to justify or intellectually affirm (Gablik, 1984).

While some would say that the philosophical tenets of modernism actually continue today, postmodern philosophers have rejected many of its assumptions (Barrett, 1994). While modernists believed in the possibility of art as universal communication, postmodernists believe art to be contextual or culture specific. While many modernists created "art for art's sake," the postmodernists seek a connection between art and life (Gablik, 1991). Modernists viewed art as formalist, aesthetic, and without necessary function, with the creative individual central (Bowers, 1987) . Postmodernism has decentered the individual and creativity (at least in theory), while emphasizing the interaction of language, culture, and society (Barrett, 1994) . Postmodernists assert that facts are interpretations and that truths are not always absolute but constructs of groups or individuals. Knowledge itself is viewed through the lens of culture and language. Thus, postmodernists accept multiple views, fragmentation, and exhibit tolerance for ambiguity (Barrett, 1994). In this postmodern era, pluralism has become the synonym for diversity in content and style (Wood, Frascina, Harris, & Harrison, 1993). Postmodernism is not so much a chronological period of art as an attitude, or frame of mind that questions or critically reviews the dominant modus operandi and status quo (Sullivan, 1993).

Generally there is no sudden or qualitative shift from the art of one period to another, yet patterns of transition or change eventually emerge. The authors of Modernism in Dispute (1993) offer three major issues that have evolved as thematic content within the postmodernist's visual arts agenda:

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