Postmodernist art as re-mirroring and re-framing our world

Until modernism developed – as a reaction – art was thought of in the terms of Shakespeare’s Hamlet;

“To hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Although Shakespeare’s Hamlet refers to the “purpose of playing”, it can be taken to refer to the role the fine arts play in society as a whole. All forms of art have long been used to better understand our world and ourselves.

In this idea art is supposed to re-present reality through verisimilitude – and thereby make reality clearer.

Then along came modernism. One definition of Modernism is this;

Theory & practice in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, which holds that each new generation must build on past styles in new ways or break with the past in order to make the next major historical contribution. (

Here we have the need for ‘newness’ (progress) as well as the need for a ‘breaking with the past’.

More recently we have been told we are now in post-modernism which has a variety of definitions depending on whether the speaker is a philosopher, an architect, a literary critic or a fine artist.

Post-modernism means different things to different people a) a reaction against modernism, b) a counter-balance to (Flatland) modernism or c) a continuation of modernism

More narrowly postmodernism = the idea that there is no ‘truth’ only interpretations, and all interpretations are socially constructed ( e.g. by elites to exploit groups e.g. women or colonies)

Important in pm = ‘there is no grand narrative’ that binds – such as the Christian story. My answer = ‘yes there is – being human in the world, with others, seeking truth, beauty, goodness and justice = the perennial grand narrative’.

The bad side of modernism = the empiricism of science has like a cuckoo forced out ‘I knowing’ and ‘WE knowing’. Inappropriately applying the scientific way of knowing (empiricism) to other areas of life is called scientism . Devaluing the other two ways of knowing, and the inappropriate application of ‘IT’ knowing creates ‘Flatland’ thinking and reality. It also ultimately leads to viewing others in a de-humanized way, and atrocious cruelty.

Fundamentalism is, in part, derived from the rejection of modernity – its unwillingness to espouse the core values of modern civilized behaviour and e.g. in rejecting separation of state & religion. However the Modern Western Mindset is as much at fault in ‘flat-landing’ everything. In both world-views we have lack of balance through the unwillingness to let the I, WE & IT voices grow separately – and have their separate ways of knowing.

The good side of post-modernism – it teaches us that

1 Reality is not always pre-given, but in some significant ways is a construction, an interpretation. The belief that reality is simply given, is referred to as ‘the myth of the given’.

2 Meaning is context-dependent, and contexts are boundless.

3 Cognition must therefore privilege no single perspective. (SEE Wilber The Marriage of Sense and Soul p121)

From a review of the book The Frame and the Mirror we have this;

If the postmodern is a collage — as some critics have suggested — or if collage is itself a kernel of the postmodern, what does this mean for our way of understanding the world? The Frame and the Mirror uses this question to probe the distinctive character of the postmodern situation and the philosophical problem of representation…………

‘The Frame and the Mirror’ advances our understanding of the contemporary world by relating its features to the peculiar characteristics of collage. Ultimately, Brockelman shows how collage demands that we reinterpret modernity, conceiving of it as suspended between a loss of certainty and a new kind of knowledge about the human condition. In doing so, his work … offers a new & ironic view of the cultural space in which contemporary & historical events occur.

Framing or re-framing, therefore is a short way of talking about a central aspect of postmodernism. Collage of course is a radical re-framing. New texts are created out of parts of old texts, but in so far as the bits are still recognisable they bring with them the ‘echoes’ of the contexts in which they were, conventionally, to be found. Consequently referentiality can become rich, dense or ‘thick’.

However the purpose is still to hold up a mirror, but not to a ‘one-to-one’ re-presentation of external reality. Instead the mirroring is of inner experience. This is evident in the Impressionist painters. However their inner impressions were of a world that was still assumed to be classically representational – in which there was still assumed an external reality that had general agreement. With post-modernism we have a discourse in which there is no such agreed external reality – so that the world referred to as well as the artist’s experience of it can both be dis-located from any agreed world-view.

Of course difficulty comes if the experience re-embodied, and the method of re-embodiment, are so particular and individual that in effect a private language is created.

However art for a small %age is consumed in far larger ‘quantities’ than ever. The gallery-cathedrals are visited much more than ever before, although the success in widening the %age of the population eludes them. I say gallery-cathedrals because they are an answer, at least for the ‘middle-class’, to the widely felt need for the spiritual – not answered for many by religions as they are.

The alternative to art-experience as satiating the need for the spiritual is consumerism. It also has its new kind of cathedrals in which to worship; shopping malls.

Does the richness and denseness of post-modernist art require more or less in learning its language by the viewer? I am not sure. At one level when it speaks effectively it can be more universal. On the other hand it can also leave many feeling much more lost than with earlier art.

The conceptual in contemporary art still dominates and in this it seems to have encroached on philosophy. Certainly most contemporary philosophy is much more elitist and inaccessible than art so perhaps it is involving many more in discourse than philosophers do?

So do we have a situation in which art is functioning as philosopher and as religion, or at least as a primary source of spirituality?


Frame and the Mirror, The: On Collage and Postmodernism by Thomas P. Brockelman 2001 Northwestern Uni Press.

SEE also


All postings to this site relate to the central SunWALK model in the PhD.

Summaries are HERE

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