Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #18: Postmodernism


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Continuing our week of -isms today, we have:

Terms of Art #17:


Also not a meme I created. People are just THAT into not being able to define postmodernism.

Pronunciation: postMODernism (accent on “mod”)

Definition: As far as I can tell, everybody’s favorite thing to say about postmodernism is how difficult it is to define.

Siiigh. Honestly it’s not that hard.

But it does illustrate the pretentiousness that goes along with being into postmodernism. So, you know, that’s cool.

Yesterday we talked about modernism. Postmodernism is the movement that follows it, in philosophy and the arts, and primarily in Western cultures. Dates: 1970s till roughly the end of the millennium. Possible end points: (a) the 1990s, (b) 9/11 in 2001, or (c) it lives on today!

The scene: remember, modernism had all sorts of utopian hopes and ideals. But in the 20th century there were two world wars, and those faded into the Cold War. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis: the two-week, full-blown existential threat of nuclear war and mass annihilation. And then the Vietnam War. Student protests are rampant because it seems like NOBODY IN POWER KNOWS WHAT THE FUCK THEY’RE DOING.

So postmodernism is like, hmm maybe all that utopian stuff is nonsense. And they respond with:


Photographer Cindy Sherman dons various pop culture costumes and takes self-portraits
(= selfies before they were cool)
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92 (1981) [source]

  • rejecting “grand narratives”* like universal truth, the objectivity of science and reason, etc.
    (life is a bunch of meaningless shit that just happens)
  • acknowledging the social construction of everything
    (all that stuff above? you? your identity? authenticity? truth? reason? science? ALL SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIONS)
  • embracing different perspectives
    (nobody has special access to universal truths, so everybody makes up their own truth!)
  • … and so blending high culture and pop culture
    (especially pronounced in postmodern art)
  • self-awareness
    (no, we don’t have any special access to the truth either, and we know it. and also EVEN THIS isn’t one of the objective truths)
  • irony and winking humor
    (it’s all nonsense, so WHYYY SO SERIOUSSSS??)

*AKA “master narratives” or “metanarratives” – the big picture, definitive, and often teleological ways we analyze and read meaning into the world and ourselves. (For example: God saves the repentant; history bends toward justice; the scientific method is objective; man is a rational animal.)

Related terms:
pomo (or PoMo or po-mo) – like saying “rents” for parents… but for postmodernism (sometimes sounds cool, sometimes sounds a little pretentious, sometimes sounds a little art bro-ey)

Not to be confused with:
Pomo – an indigenous people from northern California!


comic by Judy Horacek

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