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Session 8: Post-Modernity and Visual Culture

Defining Post-Modernism

Modernism dates back roughly 100 years, from mid 19th century Europe to late 1970s America. It refers to a sustained period of innovation in the arts, linked to changes in industrial practices, science and media, and overarching political and power constructs such as socialism, communism, fascism, capitalism etc. Key themes of modernism include rationalism, technological determinism over culture, belief in grand narratives and foregrounding of high culture.

Post-modernism is a contested term that roughly dates back to the 1980s to present day, and describes the time we are currently living through. Seductive, fashionable, but disputed and elusive, there is a lack of consensus on its meaning or application because the term is still in the process of being defined.


'After modernism' argues that modernism has run its course; a complete knowledge and history has been surpassed by a new age so there's nothing left to be modernised. From the 1980s onwards there is increased globalisation activity and a rise in new media/post internet culture. The story has gone because there is no more grand or meta narrative and there is historical fragmentation and disruption of order. The grand narratives have been replaced by localised or individual 'micro-narratives' and technology allows for experimentation with identity and personal narrative. There are also post-truth perspectives and this culture refers to a distrust in fact/expert opinion. Truth is relative, contested, not absolute; replaced by authenticity.


'Anti-modernism' is a complex reaction to the failures of modernism and is anti-foundational; rejection of rationalism, truths, certainties, doctrines and unstable belief systems. There is no universal truth or philosophy. It questions the 'ideological bias' of all history and knowledge, showing scepticism towards the grand political schemes of modernism. Some anti-modernism examples include contradictory attitudes to modern media (fake news), feminist anti 'patriarchal' perspectives, and no more rules/subversion of modernist ideals.


'Hyper-modernism' refers to modernism as an incomplete project, cyclical, in tandem with post-modernity. In relation to new media technologies it presents technological acceleration, cyber culture and the ideological new, and post-internet acceleration of cultural hybridity.

Visual Culture

Features of post modernity include:

Merging of high and low cultural forms

Refers to high culture as having depth, high value, is spiritual, elitist, long lasting, serious, unique and politically motivated; low culture is at the surface, has low value, is commercial, popular, transient, gimmicky, mass produced and politically influenced.

Mutations in public space

​Refers to urban or fantasy architectural spaces; sampling of different period styles, reflecting global/cultural hybridity, hyper-reality and nostalgia culture.

The unstable image

Can refer to the semiotic overload of the hyper-real: proliferation of image signs where we can only read their representations and not their meaning; we can no longer trust images as true representations of reality. The order of the Simulacra refers to the degradation and includes 4 stages representing image-signs:

Stage 1) Reflection of basic reality

Stage 2) Masks and perverts a basic reality

Stage 3) Makes the absence of a basic reality

Stage 4) Bears no relation to any reality whatsoever

Other examples include bricolage, parody and pastiche, intertextuality and double coding, and hybrid genres and use of irony.

Society of the spectacle

Refers to mediation; life lived on and through a screen and that complexity is the new reality with multi-modal narratives.

What Are You Looking At?

Below I have annotated and highlighted a chapter of the book by former director of London’s Tate Gallery, Will Gompert, looking at 150 years of modern art.

In summary, the text illustrates some examples of post-modernity. It explains how 'postmodernism can be pretty much anything you want it to be', which is both a blessing and a curse. It can be seen to be a mix of 'bits and pieces of what had gone before, from previous movements and ideas'.

​One graphic designer Gompert references to is the work of Barbara Kruger, who merged her own 'brand identity' of personal pronouns, bold lettering and halftone images with red lettering, an reference to Rodchenkos Constructivist posters, and the Bauhaus font, Futura, always in italic, to acknowledge the Futurists. She mimics the the commercial methods of advertising posters to 'question the commercial practices of the art world', suggesting themes of postmodernity such as 'authorship, authenticity, reproduction and identity'.



  • Sarup, M. Post Structuralism & Post Modernism (pages 129-160)

  • Savage, J. The Age of Plunder article from Looking Closer 3 (pages 267-272)

  • Gompertz, W. What Are You Looking At (pages 350-365)

  • Routledge Companion to Post-Modernism (pages 3-24)

  • Poyner, R. No More Rules (pages 8-17)




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