Beyond postmodernism: A case for metamodernism in fine art

Postmodernism is a term that transcends art, yet in many spheres the term is not understood, or worse – misunderstood. This means that clearly defining postmodernism is of the utmost importance. However, defining postmodernism is a gigantic task and could take as long as one would like to take. For the sake of this article, a definition of postmodernism will be given, specifically, but not exclusively as it relates to fine art.

Postmodernism is largely a reactionary movement; meaning that the project of the movement is to essentially analyze, evaluate and reject themes found in modernism. Defining postmodernism thus requires an evaluation of modernism.

Modernism arose as a cultural movement in the late nineteenth century and lasted until the mid twentieth century. The late nineteenth century had recognized that the Industrial Revolution had long since passed, which allowed the mass-production of commodities but more importantly the feeling of progress and modernization. However, while material progress was present, cultural progress was not.

This lack of cultural progress served as a motivation for citizens to create a more modern society. Art, being very closely associated with cultural identity, was obviously at the forefront of this movement. The period of Romanticism had just ended in the mid-nineteenth century, which is important because it tried to recapture the sense of awe and wonder that the Age of Reason had largely destroyed. Romanticism was important for modernism, as it displayed that reason was perhaps not of the utmost importance and the importance of self-expression, non-conformism, and experimentation could be very helpful to creating a better society.

Modernism thus arose as a culmination of the desire for progress, with little knowledge of how to do so. Fine art flourished under modernism, but in a rather strange way. Fine art became very experimental and avant-garde, willing to break rules that had been historically constructed. While exploring all the separate movements within modernism may be helpful, for the sake of brevity the important point is the new, avant-garde methods and truly unique pieces of fine art that were created. However, the purpose of all these pieces of art were founded in generally the same idea, namely progress.

Modernism believed that progress, in a very general sense was occurring throughout history. Under this presupposition modernism arose and sought to simply continue to progress in all facets of life, including art. This note is important, as this feature of modernism is mainly what postmodernism reacts against.

Postmodernism, to paraphrase Lyotard, is incredulity towards metanarratives. To simplify, a metanarrative is an approach to history that argues that there is a transcendental theme that’s runs through all of history. Incredulity of course, implies a sort of mistrust or disbelief of this kind of thinking. Relating this to modernism is quite simple.

Modernism claimed that progress was being made throughout history, which postmodernism reacted against, because this belief implied a metanarrative. Instead, postmodernism seek to argue that metanarratives do not exist, and truth on a grand scale is impossible. Postmodernism scoffs at the idea of progress, instead stating that history is fragmented and ultimately unrelated to previous parts of history. For fine art then, the process of displaying postmodern art is quite simple.

Postmodern art tried to encapsulate the idea of fragmentation and congruity and the rejection of progress. This resulted in art that broke almost every conventional rule. Instead of incorporating previous methods to produce avant-garde pieces, like modernism, postmodernism tried to create pieces that were completely devoid of previous influences. The results were both profound and confusing.

Postmodern art became very popular, but its incredibly abstract nature makes the pieces nearly indecipherable, which may be the point. A postmodern artist may not want to articulate anything other than the fragmented nature of society and the futility in trying to find meaning in things. Although this may be a general statement, it still seems to strike true for postmodernism, making its art meaningless save for the claim that everything is meaningless. However, postmodernism as an age, has existed for close to one hundred years, making this claim of meaninglessness seem redundant. This begs the question: what direction might fine art move in the upcoming decades? Quite frankly, to answer such a question is trying, in some ways, to predict the future, however, there do seem to be some reasonable suggestions that will be explored.

Metamodernism seems, at least as a movement, to show potential as the successor to postmodernism. Metamodernism, to paraphrase Akker and Vermeulen, tries to combine elements of postmodernism and modernism. It sympathizes with the desire modernism has for objective truth, yet it also understands that such a thing may not exist and relativism is the only truth. It’s a paradoxical movement that enjoys living in the ambiguity between modernism and postmodernism and continuously oscillates between both views. But how does this manifest itself into fine art? The same way modernism and postmodernism did.

Predicting certain aesthetic qualities of metamodern art is completely useless, seeing as metamodern art can materialize in a number of different ways. However, certain themes, in all likelihood, should arise. The first, and most blatant, will be the manifestation of the tension between modernism and postmodernism. Art done in this way will try to articulate modernism’s plea for progress and truth, while also asserting postmodernism’s incredulity to both of these things. This art will articulate fragmentation, anxiety, and relativism, while also expressing unity, hope, and objectivism. How this will be done is very difficult to speculate, but, in any estimation, it seems that metamodern art will, like postmodern and modern art, be very abstract, avant-garde, and very difficult to decipher.

Of course, metamodern art is not guaranteed to be the next phenomenon in art, however it seems like a reasonable approach. However, if metamodern art hopes to gain widespread popularity, like modern and postmodern art, it will be done because metamodernism gains influence as a cultural movement, with fine art, philosophy, and many other things contributing to its success as a whole. Thus, while metamodern art is certainly a key factor in metamodernism, it will not dictate the movement’s success. Instead, the movement must gain culture influence based on the ideological stance it takes. However, the odds of this happening seem fairly good, as postmodernism’s pleas of relativism and meaninglessness are starting to wane. Thus, metamodernism, in its idealism for truth, and realism in understanding that it may not exist, presents a movement that is both hopeful and skeptical – a refreshing paradox that seems to be far more appealing than either modernism and postmodernism.