What is a postmodern practitioner?

It is difficult for us, as practitioners, to segment ourselves into a type and define our practice in terms of being Modern, Postmodern, Post-Postmodern, or what might come next. It would seem, whilst the period is occurring, that we are none of these options and that we cannot encapsulate our practices within a definitive category until our time has passed. We need an outsider to take an objective stance and define our time period for us. While the Modernists called the period we are in now ‘Avant-Garde’, we call it Post-Modern (or Post-post-modern, depending how far into the future you are).

Let’s take Modernism for example. When Modernism was actually happening, there were many rules, boundaries and confines to which the practitioner must adhere to; in any practice. In terms of Postmodernism, these boundaries are not only less rigid; they appear to no longer exist. The impetus for many postmodern practitioners is the ability to be able to cross any remaining trace of boundaries, to break the mould and, because of this, invent new approaches in Photography, techniques in Fine Art, designs in Graphics and styles in Fashion.

The key to many aspects of Postmodernism in practice seems to be adaptation, or recycling the past so it suits the needs of our present. Any definite time period can be seen as a reaction to the period immediately prior and often to the extreme. So this has not only happened with Postmodernism following Modernism, but Modernism following Romanticism, Romanticism following the Age of Enlightenment and so on. Each period is a backlash against the previous, so we move through time alternating between considerable, realistic and ‘normal’ boundaries, almost scientific in approach, to the repercussion of these eras being quite the opposite, rather more lacking in boundaries, more explorative in a less meticulous way and full of layers through the depths.

It would seem that we are due a new era similar to that of Modernism or the Age of Enlightenment, according to the pattern of history. Is this really a possibility or do we know too much to be able to strip back our creativity to such a basic level? It seems to me that we need the next period to be minimal, stripped back, and calm. Something to do with the essence of materials, the quietness of small gestures, and perhaps the lone genius can come back into play; all opposites of the cacophony of now.

An argument that occurs frequently is that which asks if Postmodernism, or any resulting periods, can ever be ‘original’. As a creative practitioner, it is a challenge to create entirely original work. Even if the thought has not been directly inspired or influenced from another, it is quite likely that someone somewhere has produced something very similar, if not exactly the same. Of course, we have the practitioners who aren’t ashamed in the slightest to rehash a piece of work already in existence, put a fancy name on it and call it their own and often the question that follows this is: why should they be ashamed? Or, should they be ashamed? Take Kanye west, for example. He has received a notable amount of criticism for his oft use of sample tracks in his work, but is it deserved? He is making an original piece after all, just ‘borrowing’ from another creative. I am irritated every time I make a small series of work, thinking how wonderfully original I am with my ideas, only to find, two years later, that someone is showing work at Photo London that has such a similar aesthetic, it’s hard to tell the two apart. It throws up so many questions, my mind races.

So, a Postmodern Practitioner is one who aims to develop and create better than the past, steps over any boundaries that no longer exist and brings the Avant-Garde to the present. Many obvious examples may be found in the entertainment industry:

Lady GaGa: the number of references to how this woman is Postmodern would be too many to list but, if you don’t know her work, Google some images and you shall be enlightened.

Kanye West is another artist with postmodern connotation in his work to the degree that the visual language he has used previously has attracted lawsuits – such as the one from Evel Knievel after West wore a similar jumpsuit. Is that copying or borrowing? Is it inspired and postmodern?

What I find incredibly frustrating is that it seems everything Postmodern has a freedom, an ability to express through theory, relevance and creativity, to enhance what already exists. Just not in Photography. Postmodernism in photography is not necessarily about a beautiful aesthetic, but instead, a realistic theory. It is more about honesty and documentation of truth.

Many postmodern photographers do get it right, however, and Martin Parr is a great example. He documents life as we know it, but many of these images contain a level of humour, even if he has been criticised on occasions for portraying the British public in a certain light; he is doing what a Postmodern practitioner of photography does, he shows us the world.

As an end note, above I mentioned the ‘lone genius’ – here’s what it means:

  1. The artist works alone and the pieces of art suddenly appear, finished. This doesn’t acknowledge the research that might go into the piece; it is as if the piece appears from nowhere.
  2. It is a more contemporary notion to work in conjunction with others at least by developing ideas, if not making the final piece. Keith sawyer talks about creativity as collaboration rather than being based on solo practice as inevitability in ‘Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration’ (2007).


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