Postmodernism is old art done in a new way. In order to explore the aesthetic and social issues of postmodernism, the resulting schools of thought in the art world can be divided into a 'postmodernism of resistance [and] a postmodernism of reaction' as proposed by the group around the journal, October. (Hopkins).
Dividing postmodernism is like splitting a plate of spaghetti into two halves with a spoon. It can be done, but it is neither clean nor exact, and it is hard to differentiate one pile from the other, at first glance. However, this contrast is an important distinction in art because in order to keep a fresh edge on new artistic pursuits, old ideas should not stagnate, but be reinvigorated through the practice of new artists. This can be done in two ways: a postmodernism of resistance is the appropriation of imagery, demonstrated by Cindy Sherman; and the postmodernism of reaction, which is the amalgamating of the old and new, as in the work of Yasumasa Morimura. Both of these artists are photographers who are using the visual language of what has come before them to say something on their own terms, with their own self-portraits but are approaching it in these two different postmodern ways.
Postmodernism is a term that describes the paradigm shift happening in the world after modernism. Postmodernism is the change from the tenets of modernism that occurred not just in art, but also architecture, literature, and other disciplines. This shift takes place from shortly after 1945 and World War II, until contemporary times (Bertens, 162). In the art world, this meant moving away from the modernism canonized in institutions like New York's Museum of Modern Art. (Connor, 5) and this movement can be divided into the postmodernism of resistance and the postmodernism of reaction. According to Usher, a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction play off each other.
The postmodernism of resistance is esoteric, self-referential work, which appropriates the imagery of other artists and the work of modernism. The postmodernism of resistance is to 'deconstruct modernism and resist the status quo' (Usher, 16). By subverting what has come before it, the work begins to reference itself, becoming more inaccessible for people who are unfamiliar with its allusions.
An example of this is the photography of Cindy Sherman, who counters Hollywood culture with her series “Untitled Film Stills” (Connor, 89). Cindy Sherman is deconstructive; she is not original in her compositions or the way she sets up her props or her body; she appropriates "Hollywood film stills” and so she puts herself into the stereotypical characters that are often present onscreen: the housewife; the sex-pot; the ingénue.
"The… inscribing is as evident as the subverting challenge in, for example, Cindy Sherman's early self-posed self-portraits modeled on Hollywood film stills… they are hardly innocent or uncompromised.” (Hutcheon, 13)
Her body is the thread that pulls together her series of film stills, which are also self-portraits. However, by copying the visual language of movies, and placing herself in the female roles, she removes the individuality a self-portrait usually carries. This lack of individuality, the appropriation of visual language, and this theft of voice are key components of postmodernism of resistance.
The postmodernism of reaction plays off of the postmodernism of resistance. The postmodern art of reaction is the combination of old and new ideas into an eclectic mode of expression in hopes of shocking or unsettling the jaded postmodern person.
Instead of stealing and subverting, as the postmodernism of resistance does, a postmodernism of reaction is the product of an amalgamation of both old and new ideas. This repudiates Modernism, which was completely about the avant-garde. This amalgamation is a reaction to modernism, as well as a return to old traditions (Buchloh, 40). It is the sudden return to old traditions such as representational painting after the modernist departure from these more traditional modes of artistic production that Buchloh criticizes.
An example of old ideas combined with the new is Yasumasa Morimura, who is a Japanese photographer who inserts himself into art history, using iconic paintings and combining them with his own self-portrait. Unlike Sherman, whose body is a stand-in for the character, Morimura imbrues his presence in his photographs. Instead of trying passively, to pretend to be the character, he remains himself, complete with his Tran sexuality and his Japanese heritage, and this combination creates a rich vocabulary that gives his work a strong voice.
For example, Morimura converts Manet's classic painting Olympia into a photograph titled Portrait (Futago), and mixes himself in, with the postmodernist's ladle. This stirs the subtleties of his own identity in with the art history that the painting Olympia already carries (West, 211).
Buchloh thinks that this return to old ways of thinking also returns value to the male gaze. However, Yasumasa Morimura uses this male gaze for his own purposes. He pretends to be a woman in the same comical fashion as a man dressed up for Halloween- still obviously a man, but self-confidently appearing in the part of a woman.
The appropriation and the amalgamation of postmodernism is a circular process. Since postmodernism uses what has come before it, eventually postmodern art turns into an ouroboros, endlessly referencing itself. For example, Morimura's work, "To my little sister: For Cindy Sherman" (1998) sees Morimura inserting himself into Sherman's appropriations (Balkema, 98). This work is a perfect example of how seemingly opposing postmodernist approaches play off each other and artists recycle each other’s imagery.
Neither form of postmodernism would stand without the history of the work they are appropriating. Postmodernism is nothing and everything: nothing, because by its existence it is unoriginal. Postmodernism is chewing modernism's cud; the difference between resistance and reaction is which of the cow's stomachs this digestive muck is sitting in; it all ends up in the same place.
Essentially, postmodernism in the art world is the manner things, which have already been done, are incorporated into contemporary works. On one hand, there is the postmodernism of resistance and the work of Cindy Sherman, which is the appropriation of the old, and on the other hand is the postmodernism of resistance and the work of Yasumasa Morimura, which is an amalgamation of the old. In the postmodern world, there is really no new way to do things, but there are always new individuals to insert into the big picture.