Postmodernist barrier. What prevents us from understanding modern photography?

Today we will talk about what prevents us, photographers and viewers, brought up in the classical tradition, to understand the work of modern photographers. The so-called postmodernist barrier is to blame for this. Let’s look at what it is and how to defeat it together.

The postmodern barrier is a misunderstanding that arises when trying to analyze contemporary (postmodern) works of art, with the help of tools for analyzing classical and modern art. In other words, it’s easier when you try to measure a mass with a ruler or find out the temperature on the street with a magnifying glass – a situation where the means by which we are trying to understand something for this do not work!

To begin with, let’s figure out how one thing differs from another: that is, postmodern art from the modernist? Although I’m sure you know this perfectly well without me, but just in case, I’ll briefly recall.

Modernism (Modern Art) – a direction in the art of 1860-1970. Not to be confused with modernity (Art Nouveau). Modernism accepts the basic values of traditional art, but is engaged in the renewal of artistic means in solving the same eternal tasks of art. In this sense, it is also a traditional art, engaged in the search for a new language to describe the same thing as before. That is, it is a revolution within the tradition of art, but not against it. The most striking modernist trends in painting: Impressionism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism. In the literature: existentialism, a lost generation. In the photo: Adams, Zander, Man Ray, Mohoy-Nagy, Rodchenko, Bresson, Duano, Brassay, Capa, Erwit, Arbus, Penn.

This is an example of modern, but still gravitating towards the modernist aesthetics of photographs. Forty-year-old Thomas Ruff began to shoot this series in 1987. Photos are artistic, harmoniously chosen colors of clothes, background color and the general color scale. Emotions, foreshortening help us understand the characters and thoughts of people in each photo. Each photo is individual and beautiful in its own way. Although the photos are fairly simple – it’s pure modernist aesthetics. We can say that this is a photo story in portraits, where each photo illustrates the author’s idea.

Postmodern Art – the direction in the art of 1970-1990’s and nowadays. This is not a genre, not a style and not a school. This is the situation “after modernism”. It is not customary to talk about genre canons or features of the style of postmodernism. The artist-postmodernist is similar to the child who received the inheritance, but its evaluation criteria radically differ from the value system of the former owners. Modern art is the second name of postmodern art.

And this is an example of postmodern photography: a dry conceptual picture, devoid of any claims to artistry; the author uses the language borrowed from the applied photograph on the passport. In addition, this is a typology and one photo is not clear – the meaning appears only when we look at the whole project. Thomas Ruff needed 3 years of shooting to make such a magical qualitative transformation not only in his works, but in photography in general!

So, when we look at the work of modern photographers, we should not use the same evaluation criteria as for the works of modern photographers. That is Jürgen Teller and Henri Cartier-Bresson for different shoot. The prerequisites, goals, tasks and, in general, the artistic context of these works will be completely different. Look at these works from different points of view. Let’s look at the main cultural settings and try to figure out what the differences are.

Piece of art

Modernism: A work of art is a virtuously executed object, one work as a complete whole. The work of the artist is skill. Work with the visual, with the concept of beauty, causing aesthetic pleasure. Beautifully “modern” – this is when it is difficult to do. The search for a perfect language, everything is always very qualitative and serious – everyone competes, who will paint more beautifully and make better. The photo is clear, beautiful, entertaining. The evaluation of a work of art is made from the point of view of its authorship, aesthetic and technical characteristics, uniqueness – for example, whether it was printed manually, whether the author’s print. Often the author acts by instinct, spontaneously, unconsciously. The author’s genius and inspiration are important. Here, knowledge in art is the knowledge of form. The task of art is to amaze with the quality of performance.

Postmodernism: A work of art is a thought. The artist’s work is an idea and an artistic gesture. The artist is no longer a producer of objects, but a researcher who wants a deeper conversation than just a skill and skill. He often selects, combines, transfers or places in a new place. Refusal of craft – a work can be produced not by the author himself, since it does not matter who produced, it is important what an artistic gesture. A work is an infinite text, a citation, an intellect, you graze. It no longer works with the concept of beauty. Only a series is perceived as a work. Modern art is not connected with the concepts of genius, inspiration and skill. The artist always knows what he is doing. This is the art of the practice of managers, where great attention is paid to knowledge of the context. Knowledge in art is the knowledge of philosophy, science, sociology. All this is now woven into art. Art is what carries thought. The work is a source of discomfort.

Author of the work

Modernism: The triumph of the genius of the author. The author is a hero, a strong personality. He strives for the perfection of language. He changes the world for the better, every day from 9:00 performing feats. What the viewer sees is identical to what the artist painted. According to the classical paradigm, the viewer does not influence the work of art and, as a consequence, is not a part of it.

Postmodernism: The author’s death – there is no author’s merit in the work. The author’s function is now a derivative of the text, artistic and life context. The perception of the artist and the viewer may not coincide. The artist’s task is to create an environment in which the viewer would feel himself involved in creating a work of art. The viewer transforms the original text in his perception in such a way that, as a result of deconstruction, he ceases to be an identity to the original and becomes not the author’s text, but the text of the reader. The viewer is a full-fledged creator of the work along with the author.

Author’s style

Modernism: The author for his life develops the author’s style, in which everything is reconciled, correct and understandable to the viewer. Often works only in one genre: landscape, portrait, etc. and never mixes them up.

Postmodernism: The rejection of the recognized technique and style. The new project is a new language. Hybridization is a mixture of heat within a project. Overcoming various kinds of boundaries and conventions: genre, cultural, worldview. Going beyond the binary logic is good-bad, right-wrong.


Modernism: A work is a separate, expertly executed work. Each photo individually is beautiful! Works of art should be exhibited in museums and galleries, that is, in special places of honor created for this purpose, should be decorated and exhibited accordingly: for the photo – frame, passepartout, glass, linear hanging.

Postmodernism: The work is a series. It’s hard to get a picture with one photo, it all works only in a series. The work is often extracted from the natural context and placed in a context unusual for it, acquiring a new sound. That eats to exhibit works of art can now be anywhere: at stations, in the woods, in a store… in completely uncharacteristic for exhibitions. Decorated can be as advertising, printed on newsprint and pasted as posters, can be without a frame, a chaotic hanging of works of different sizes, etc.

Nuances of photography

Modernism: Photography is an art with its own values. Photography – the art is beautiful and entertaining and, as a result, everyone understands. The photo is documentary, that is, it is truthful and objective. Observer Photographer. The distance between the author and the subject is enormous.

Postmodernism: Photography is just one of the media of contemporary art with which the artist works, along with painting, installation, video art, etc. The photos are not entertaining, they require text and explanations for interpretation. The myth about the objectivity of documentary photography is questioned. Photographer-participant. The reduced distance between the author and the object.

Well, now, I hope, you become a little clearer than the difference between the new photo from the old one, that is, the modern photo from the modernist, and it will be easier to understand the modern photo.

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