Modernism and Postmodernism

The concepts of modernism and postmodernism are considered to be fashionable concepts that meet in a plenty of literature.  Rather than avoiding to explore these conceptions labeling them as widely debated buzzwords this article will examine the contours of the mentioned terms because referring to those concepts helps to identify in what kind of world we live – modern or postmodern or whether this question is relevant and does it add a value to our understanding of the world and perception of reality.

In the scholarly literature modernism and postmodernism may be referred as two theories, periods, movements, tendencies, worldviews or particular styles and are used in the context of literature, arts, architecture, philosophy and social sciences. We will henceforth comparatively examine modernism and postmodernism and discuss the concepts basically from two opposing perspectives. We will apply the results of the analysis in the context of arts. This discussion will give the readers an opportunity to later come up with their own conclusions what is modern and what is postmodern art.

Modernism-postmodernism debate emerged as a result of two key articles written by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. The theses of these authors serve as the fundamentals for the discussion in the current article, forasmuch as these authors initiated the formerly mentioned debate (developed by other authors later on as well) heavily stressing on arts and using it for substantiating their arguments.


The idea of modernism/postmodernism is closely related to Enlightenment. Both are responding to the problems emerged in the result of Enlightenment. Let us elaborate on this theme for understanding the problems that modernism and postmodernism deal with.

According to Kant Enlightenment was the man’s (or subject’s) emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. It unveiled man’s courage to use his reason without guidance of another. Kant posits that there are restrictions on human freedom everywhere and public use of reasoning can liberate men and bring enlightenment among them.

The fundamental principles of Enlightenment were reasoning, empirical scientific knowledge and rationality. It was an attempt to overcome prejudices, myths, narratives, knowledge sacralization, religious dogmas and traditions of the previous ages. It aimed to make human reasoning the main tool in managing human affairs which was believed to lead to human progress, growth and advancement.

Here the question arises whether liberation and maturity are possible or whether the project of Enlightenment is a new kind of myth, another legend or narrative. The shocks of World Wars, nuclear bombings and genocides shaped deep mistrust towards human perfectibility, knowledge and emancipation questioning its possibility. However, the return to tradition, God’s truth and pre-Enlightenment values is no longer a viable option.

Modernism-postmodernism debate

Enlightenment gave birth to differentiation between morality (e.g. legal practice), science (knowledge) and art which as Max Weber calls is the rationalism of Western culture. As a result of this division, connections between various domains disappeared. This generated professionalized treatment of special domains and detachment of these spheres from life and tradition.  This created the so called expert culture. Now scientific knowledge, legal and moral practice, artistic production and art criticism are institutionalized within respective systems and are the concerns of experts, not the public. This detachment incited to “sublate” the expert cultures. One of the examples of this kind of action may be the performance art which often tries to restore the relationship between the artist and the audience by involving the latter in the performance.

As a consequence of the mentioned differentiation, the project of the autonomy of the aesthetic sphere started in the mid 19th century. The conception of art for the sake of art came into being, so art became a specific sphere of activity. This made art remote from life. And the more this tendency deepens the more art becomes secluded and the more difficult or even impossible it becomes to reconcile. This creates pain which is reflected in the boredom of the so called Parisian outsiders.

“All attempts to bridge the disjunction between art and life, fiction and praxis, illusion and reality, and to eliminate the distinction between artistic product and objects of utility, between something produced and something found, the attempt to declare everything an art and everybody an artist, to abolish all criteria and to equate aesthetic judgments with the expression of subjective experience: all these undertakings are nonsense experiments. They only succeed against their own intention, in illuminating even more sharply the very structures of art which they had intended to violate”. According to Habermas these undertakings are false sublimation exercised by neoconservatives – postmodernists. He required from aesthetics and arts to make a difference. In fact, he was controversially criticizing experiments but welcoming change making. This means that for Habermas modern was considered the art which was purposely innovative, with an aspiration to challenge and change the reality. Habermas’s solution resacrilizises art portraying it as a means for emancipation which is quite similar to religious experience.

Since modernism is normative it tries to offer solution to the aforementioned problem. For Habermas the remedy for specialized culture and alienation from life is bridging the gap between discourses through opening up to a unity of experience and consensus. As an example how this task can be accomplished he puts forth the arts and artistic experiences. He proposes to translate the judgments of taste into problems of everyday life in the living historical situation making art communicable with living problems and public on the functional level. In that case, exploration of art is not only non-purposive enjoyment of art thus concerning the art criticism and field experts who only care for the development of art and taste internally within art but also public’s matter. This kind of approach to art and other specialized domains could open a door for the program of elevation. This is the reason why Habermas considers the program of Enlightenment unfinished.  By offering the remedy Habermas suggests not to abandon the incomplete project of modernism. An example of this kind of art can be the social art.

Lyotard agrees with the existence of the problem – the alienation from life, but for him Habermas’s solution is impossible. He claims that there is an incommensurable division between our abilities and trying to connect them is an action of totalization against ourselves, an act of “terror”. Creation of socio-cultural unity, putting elements of daily life in an organic whole and synthesizing them is never possible, thus universal consensus will never be gained.

For Lyotard modernity discovers “lack of reality” in the reality, therefore it invents different realities. He argues that there is no reality, which exists is the interpretation of reality. Lyotard shows the absence of reality by referring to the sentiment of sublime and the beautiful. Human beings have two capacities: conceiving and presenting. Our imagination is able to conceive an idea but it is not able to present an object which will correspond to the concept. The beautiful is the coincidence of conceiving and presenting. Modern art, which is in the aesthetics of the beautiful according to Lyotard, presents the fact that the unpresentable exists. But the sublime is the discrepancy between those two abilities: presenting and conceiving. The aesthetics of the sublime is the claim to present the unpresentable. The unpresentable is presented for conveying a stronger sense of unpresentable (this means that one presents exactly the impossibility of presenting the unpresentable, not just found a way to present the unpresentable). All this discussion on the beautiful and sublime was for illustrating that postmodernism is the coping action and equals experimentation, innovation, avant-garde and resistance towards institutionalized society. When the coping becomes a tradition it becomes modernism. In fact, Lyotard attempts to go beyond historicized interpretation claiming that a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern.

For Lyotard, the social bond and connection is linguistic although there is no single thread.  This bond can be weaved through infinite numbers of language games. All the disputes can be solved through pragmatic language games only within particular contexts.

Some brief comparison would sum up our understanding of Lyotard and Habermas and shed light on/upon modernism-postmodernism distinction. For Habermas modernism is an unfinished project and we are living in a modern world. Lyotard argues that this is a postmodern world and not accepting it means to not notice the changes that occur in the world.

Modernity is the endorsement of enlightenment ideals. It is related to consciousness, supports rational criterion and consensus. Rationality is a central category in the modernism. While postmodernism is the reaction against modernism. It is suspicion towards modernism as Lyotard claims. Postmodernism is the end of meta-narratives and absolute truth that modernism had created. No meta-narrative, meta-theory or meta-language exists which could have connected and represented everything. For postmodernists, modernism forcibly creates totality of life causing individual alienation from life. Postmodernism opposes all forms of totality, forced consensus, supports relativity and sensitivity towards difference and calls for tolerance towards incommensurable situations. Yet, for modernists, postmodernism is a new form of neo-conservatism, that doesn’t offer solutions and is merely a period of modernism.

By concluding it can be stated that both modernists and postmodernists are within the tradition of Enlightenment because either they accept that our free reasoning is vital for humanity (Habermas) or strictly oppose it and the other Enlightenment ideals (Lyotard – negative acceptance). The mentioned demonstrates that this debate has been existing through the mediation of Enlightenment. Therefore, a question arises as how it is possible to free postmodernism from narrowly historicized interpretation as Lyotard proposes if he himself accepts Enlightenment as a basis and starting point for initiating the debate because if a concept would have been a-historical, it could have been applied to any period of history including pre-Enlightenment. This is the reason why we abandon the idea that postmodern should be understood a-historically. But the problems that both authors speak about emerged after the Enlightenment. This demonstrates that the question of whether we live in a modern or postmodern world is not irrelevant.

Both modernism and postmodernism are utopian in their nature. If modernism tried to overcome the pre-Enlightenment immaturity and bring elevation to the humanity, postmodernism, in its turn, aimed to dismantle all the rules of modernism but elimination of all the rules becomes another rule for postmodernists. Thus, it is impossible to go beyond historicized explanation and not notice that each of these theories commits the same kind of action towards its previous as is committed towards themselves later. They try to overcome the myth and put forward another myth.

Modernism and postmodernism are fluid and dynamic oppositions which sway back and forth between hierarchy and anarchy, centralization and decentralization, purpose and play, authority and deconstruction, continuity and discontinuity. The following table borrowed from Harvey provides some schematic differences between the two concepts which show how postmodernism might be presented as a reaction to modernism. But it would not surprise one if some components of these features change their places with the opposite.

To sum it up, postmodernism is not a radical break with modernism. Instead, it is a cyclical moment until the emergence of a new condition. Modernism and postmodernism both surprisingly comprise and combine elements of revolutionary nature and conservatism, celebration of some sorts of ideas and their criticism.

  1. Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity: An Incomplete Project.” 1980.
  2. Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge MA & Oxford UK: Blackwell, 1990.
  3. Herman, David. “Modernism versus Postmodernism: Towards an Analytic Distinction.” Poetics Today, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1991.
  4. Jameson, Fredric. “Foreword.” In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, by Jean-Francois Lyotard, pp. 7-23. University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
  5. Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” 1984.
  6. Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to The Question: What is Enlightenment?” Konigsberg in Prussia, 1784.
  7. Langford, Lary. “Postmodernism and Enlightenment, or, Why Not a Fascist Aesthetics?” Substance, Vol.21, N.1, Issue. 67, 1992.
  8. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “Answering The Question: What Is Postmodernism?” University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
  9. Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10, 1984.
  10. Robinson, William. “Theories of Globalization.” 2007.
  11. Segre Anna, Ferraris Maurizio. “Postmodernism and the Deconstruction of Modernism.” Design Issues, Vol. 4, No. 1/2, Designing the Immaterial Society, 1988.

Author: Marine Khachatryan. © All rights are reserved.



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