Postmodernism refers to a wide range of literary, artistic, and philosophical texts that explore the subjectivity of experience and attempt to undermine dominant social and cultural discourses.
Key concerns of postmodernism include the deconstruction of grand cultural narratives, playful use of language and discourse, and questioning of socially-constructed ‘regimes of truth’.
Examples of postmodern art and literature include Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, Barbra Kruger’s I Shop Therefore I Am, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
Below are 10 themes in postmodernism and real-life examples of those themes in postmodern texts.
Postmodern literature and art often embraces a fragmented narrative structure as a way to challenge the idea of the “grand metanarrative”.
Post-modernists reject the idea that one coherent narrative can explain the world and instead embraces plurality and contradiction.
As a result, you may find postmodern literature with conflicting viewpoints and nonlinear storytelling.
This fragmentation reflects the postmodern embrace of the importance of individual subjective experience rather than the search for objective truth.
Real-Life Example of Fragmentation in Postmodern Art
Artist: Jean-Michel Basquiat
Artwork: Warrior (1982)
Explanation: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings are characteristically fragmented, with jumbled and chaotic lines, splatters, and scrawls that overlap and clash as a challenge to the normative expectations of art.
Postmodernists believe that reality is constructed through discourse – or in other words, through the immersion in the influential language and texts of your time.
As a result, postmodern literature and art often incorporates elements of other influential texts and popular culture of the era.
This intertextuality reflects the postmodern interest in the way meaning is constructed within a cultural context rather than in isolation from other texts.
Real-Life Example of Intertextuality in Postmodern Literature
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Book: The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
Description: In “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon, intertextuality is used regularly to demonstrate how meaning is constructed through cultural reference. The book makes regular references to Shakespeare, the Bible, and medieval mystic Roger Bacon.
Pastiche refers to the mixing and blending of different styles and genres within one single text.
Like fragmentation, pastiche is a technique designed to challenge and undermine tradition with the idea that there is no one ‘best’ or most ‘coherent’ way to approach literature and art.
By playing with forms and undermining them, the postmodern artist is also undermining the metanarratives about truth and beauty that those forms attempt to construct.
Real-Life Example of Pastiche in Postmodern Art
Artist: Chris Ofili
Artwork: No Woman No Cry (1998)
Description: If you look at the art and sculptures of Chris Ofili, you’ll notice the blending of African textiles, Hindu deities, and popular culture.
Postmodern literature often uses irony as a way to subvert expectations. Irony makes us double-take because it undermines our expectations.
The message from the postmodern writer here is: “Look! You’ve been trained to expect a certain grand narrative. I just subverted it to show you how much society has shaped how you think!
Real-Life Example of Irony in Postmodern Literature
Author: Milan Kundera
Book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
Description: A good example of post-modern irony is in the novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera where Tomas (the protagonist) is a womanizer and hedonist; yet at unexpected moments he is also a deeply introspective character who challenges our expectations of how he should behave. Irony helps to challenge stereotypes.
Like existentialism, postmodernism plays with absurdism. We might define absurdism as the idea that the world is irrational, meaningless, and literally absurd.
This reflects this postmodern idea that the stories that we are told and that are normalized in dominant discourse are somewhat ridiculous if we can only remove ourselves from our context and take a look at them from some other perspective.
Real-Life Example of Absurdism in Postmodern Literature
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book: Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
Description: In “Slaughterhouse Five”, time is presented as an absurd concept that traps and constrains us. Through the narrative, the absurdity of time, past and future, are all presented as ways to undermine our assumptions about time that have been presented to us throughout our lives.
6. Multiple Narrators
You will often find that postmodern literature has multiple narrators. This is an attempt to demonstrate the inherent subjectivity of truth.
Postmodernism critiques the idea that there is one objective truth to be found. Rather, it embraces the idea that there may be multiple truths and that we come to truth through our own social, cultural, and deeply personal contextualization of information.
Real-Life Example of a Postmodern Text with Multiple Narrators
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Book: Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
Description: “Slaughterhouse five” does a great job at using multiple narrators to undermine and challenge the main narrator’s perspective. In fact, the main narrator presents himself as inherently unreliable and the reader is encouraged to question his accounts of events.
7. The Nature of Identity
Postmodernism is concerned with undermining metanarratives about identity – particularly when it comes to race, gender, sexuality, and social class.
As a result, you will often find postmodern art and literature challenging our expectations of identity stereotypes. The texts encourage us to re-think our assumptions of identity norms and see identity as a fluid, changing, and even playful concept.
Real-Life Example of Postmodern Explorations of Identity
Author: John Fowles
Book: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)
Description: In “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” John Fowles explores identity in Victorian England times through the characters of Charles and Sarah. Both characters are presented as complex individuals who are struggling with their own identities in an era where there are tightly controlled expectations of how they should behave and present themselves to the world.
9. Pop Art
Pop art has been used extensively by postmodernists, perhaps most notably by Andy Warhol.
The use of Pop Art can help to demonstrate how popular culture is a highly influential intermediary in helping to shape our perceptions and beliefs. Warhol, and other artists like Barbara Kruger, often play with this idea by presenting pop art in ways that challenge its normative presentation (particularly in advertising) and demonstrate how pop art constructs dominant discourses of gender, identity, and capitalism.
Real-Life Example of Postmodern Pop Art
Artist: Andy Warhol
Artwork: Marilyn Diptych (1962)
Description: Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych uses pop art style to critique how Marilyn Monroe’s identity was constructed and idealized by mass media.
10. Installation Art
Postmodern art often takes the form of interactive installation art. Interactivity is often used as a message that subjective interpretation of art should be encouraged.
Subjectivity, of course, is central to postmodernism: the postmodern theorist believes that everyone comes to understand truth and their world through subjective processes (with the assistance, of course, of the intertextual discourses that surround them).
Real-Life Example of Postmodern Installation Art
Artist: Yoko Ono
Description: Yoko Ono’s art installations regularly encourage people to create art themselves, break things, touch things, make sounds, and be playful. You are supposed to walk through the artworks, interact with them, and construct your own meaning through those interactions.
Postmodernism is one of the most influential approaches to art and literature in the past 50 years. It centers the consumer’s subjective experience, undermines the authority of the creator of texts, and encourages people to play with concepts like identity, truth, and the meaning of life. Through postmodern theory, we can learn to challenge the stories we’ve been told since childhood and re-examine longstanding social and cultural assumptions.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]