In this post I would like to introduce and summarize main ideas of 7 theorists who have influenced not only the art of 20th century referred to as postmodernism. I chose the philosophers, linguists, psychoanalysts below, because their thoughts and work are close or somehow relate to my work and my perception, or I just find them interesting.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Nietzsche, the German philosopher, was one of the most important theorists to Postmodernism. Well known is his influential theme of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, where the Apollonian represents order and clear borders, and the Dionysian represents a collapse of borders, ambiguity and hidden content. In relation to art, Nietzsche advocates active seeing and interpreting, deals with hidden depths of artworks.
What I especially value on Nietzsche is his critique of truth. He disputes the traditional concept of truth and values. Explains that it is not so simple, there is not just one universal truth, we cannot even know, what is true, and anything can be truth. Which is the opposite of enlightenment and modernism. Nietzsche even claimed about all the universal truths (such as christianity, science etc.) to be man-made constructs, so they have no right to be considered generally valid. Later Lyotard says they are great narratives that have influenced our perception of reality for a long time.
Important is also Nietzsche’s approach to language as a medium that shapes our truths about the world and reality. So language helps us with better orientation in our world, but there is also a danger in the use of language to create absolute truths, or misconception that we can know the true reality.
Great influence on postmodernism had also his concept of power and knowledge, challenging the oppositional thinking or autonomy and transparent self-consciousness.
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 – 1913)
Saussure was a Swiss linguist, father of “science of signs” or “semiotics”, which is close to Structuralism. We can find questioning language in Structuralism, Poststructuralism and Postmodernism as well. The basic construct is that we cannot separate “reality” from the way we represent it in language or the narratives we construct about it. It means that language is never true reflection of reality. Nor is art, graphics, advertising etc.
Saussure explained language as a self-contained system of signs composed of a “signifier” (word) and a “signified” (mental concept) – for example the word “cat” and mental idea of a cat join in the mind as an act of understanding. There is actually no relationship between the word and its meaning. It means that just the language community agrees upon the word and what it describes. This is Saussure’s concept of the “arbitrariness of signs”.
In his concept of “difference” he found the differences of words to be often binary – black/white, man/woman, nature/culture… Later Jacques Derrida, founder of Deconstruction, finds these binaries and opposition to be often “violent hierarchies” – one is given superiority and the other inferiority (West/East, light/dark, us/them…).
Jacques Lacan (1908 – 1981)
The French psychoanalytic and psychiatrist Lacan was a key figure in postmodern psychoanalysis. He reinterpreted the work of Freud and describes the influence of language and ideology on the formation of the biological being’s identity. Lacan’s work tends to be attributed to structuralism, poststructuralism or deconstructivism.
Michel Foucault (1926 – 1984)
Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of ideas, social theorist, and literary critic. His theories touch on the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control through societal institutions. He comes with interesting questions like Who has and owns the knowledge? What is the knowledge used for? Does the one who uses the knowledge know about the use of power? Why do we trust this knowledge? etc.
Foucault sees philosophy as a work upon the self thanks to which the individual can resist dominant and controlling institutions by developing individual ethics to form an admirable life. In his historian work Foucault is influenced by Nietzsche’s idea that history is always written from the perspective of the present and fills a need of the present.
Julia Kristeva (*1941)
Kristeva is a Bulgarian philosopher, psychoanalyst, novelist and feminist working in France. Her work contributes to the concept of the abject, which is major theme in Postmodern art. The concept of abjection builds on the traditional psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Kristeva developed this concept in her book Power of Horror, and the abject contains all the bodily functions or aspects, that are considered impure or inappropriate for public display or discussion.
She examines personal items of disgust and also places them in social contexts as taboos. The abject has also a strong feminist context, in that especially female bodily functions are abjected in a patriarchal social order.
Barbara DeGenevieve (1947 – 2014)
Barbara DeGenevieve was an American feminist artist. In her artwork she was trying to help to change oppressive representations of women and other minority groups in society. She writes that images carry ideological messages, which cumulatively shape the culture’s ideas, values, and attitudes. They are the bearers of cultural mythologies. That means if we see enough pictures of certain type we accept them as reality, as normal. On the other hand if certain aspects of society are not represented, it is probably because no importance is given to them or they are perceived negatively in the culture.
Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998)
Lyotard was a French social activist philosopher. As a teacher in Algiers he was a witness of the repression and brutality of colonialism. In his work The Postmodern Condition he identifies a “crisis of narratives” of Enlightenment. He also sees the grand narratives as Christianity, Marxism etd. as totalizing, authoritative and repressive.
Lyotard doesn’t believe that language covers everything. There is a gap between language and experience which language cannot cover, but art can do it through feeling, sensation and desire.
Lyotard sees the purpose of Postmodern art in disorientation the viewer, blurring boundaries of discourse and challenging the normative.
Barrett, T. (2008) Why is that Art? Aesthetics and Criticism of Contemporary Art. Oxford University Press.
Robinson, D. (1995) Nietzsche and postmodernism. Totem Books.