Modernism & Postmodernism

Modernism is a school of thought that took place on the late 1800s and early 1900s. It advocated rational thinking and the use of science and reason for the advancement of man. It aimed at creating a clear and rational view of the world; believing that through science and reason mankind can advance and grow. Modernist artists experimented with form, technique and processes rather than focusing on subjects, believing they could find a way of purely reflecting the modern world.

Modernist photography by Alexander Rodchenko

Modernist photography by Alexander Rodchenko

Postmodernism is a movement that took place after Second World War and gained popularity around 1960s. It was a reaction against modernism. In a chaotic era it advocated that there is no universal truth. Unlike modernism it used an unscientific approach to life and believed that all things are irrational. In art, postmodernism was specifically a reaction against modernism which had dominated art theory and practice since the beginning of the twentieth century. 

While modernism was based on idealism and reason, postmodernism was born of skepticism and a suspicion of reason. The modernists embraced clarity and simplicity; postmodernism was all about complex and often contradictory layers of meaning. 

Postmodern photography is often considered as manipulated photography and many of the photographers of that era are also the earliest users of computer manipulation. Like Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman

Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall

Postmodernism refused to recognize the authority of any single style or definition of what art should be and because postmodernism broke the established rules about style, it introduced a new era of freedom and a sense that ‘anything goes’.

I myself have been working on a series of self-portraits that have this kind of postmodern surrealist feel to them. See a few examples below.

Structuralism & Semiotics

Structuralism and semiotics is the study of signs and codes and the underlying structures of signification. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel. 

In other words, it strives to understand and decode meanings beyond their obvious definitions. For example a cat means a furry little animal that meows, but it also beholds a huge number of of other cultural and symbolic meanings and connotations. Mysterious, independent and pharaohs are just a few examples of the connotations that immediately popped into my head. 


This is a very important topic to understand in the art world, since visual arts is largely based on constructing messages and meanings through visual symbols and codes. Decoding an artwork is just that, digging into the underlying structures of meanings and relations to understand what the artist wants to say and what are his/her reasons to do so. 

Here, I will talk about this photograph by Susan Meiselas, which has become to known as The Molotov Man, in terms of semiotics and how this gets affected after decontextualizing the image. 

After reading this article On The Rights of Molotov Man , I learned that this photograph pictured above was the subject of a copyright issue between the the photographer Susan Meiselas, who took the original photo, and a painter Joy Garnett, who did an appropriation painting based on the image (picture below). 

Joy Garnett's series of paintings was created as a response for United States decision to invade Iraq in the Spring of 2003. He came to think of it as the Riot series. 

As in fact the person in the original photograph had nothing to do with a riot. So Garnett appropriated the man throwing a Molotov's Cocktail into having a different symbolic meaning from what it was originally intended to have. 

A few days after Garnett had closed his exhibition in New York, that featured this painting, Susan Meiselas' lawyer contacted him about the copyright issue and demanded credits and licensing fee for any further use. Garnett turned onto his colleques for advise on how to go about this situation and got supported by people in an online conversation platform. This started an unexpected wave, as artist after artist started to appropriate this image of Molotov resulting in a solidarity campaign of sorts. It took the question of the original purpose of a work of art, even further and a question raises: "Does the author of a documentary photograph have the right to control the content of this document for all time? and should artists be allowed to decide who can comment on their work and how?

The reason why Susan Meiselas wanted to protect the image, wasn't so much about the actual copying of the image, but for it being decontextualized and given an entirely different meaning. The whole context of the original photojournalistic picture was banished as the image was reproduced in appropriations. Meiselas states that an artist like her owes the debt of specificity, to not just one another, but the subject whom she feels that we have an implicit contract with.

Her final words in the paper On The Right of Molotov are as follows: "I never did sue Joy in the end, nor did I collect any licensing fees. But I still feel strongly, as I watch Paulo Arauz's (The Molotov Man) context being stripped away–as I watch him being converted into an emblem of abstract riot–that it would be a betrayal of him if I did not at least protest the diminishment of his act of defiance"

I believe that an artist has the right to be heard regarding his/hers own work and what it means, but they can't have control over other artists work. If the freedom of speech, or in this case artistic freedom, is being limited in such way that an artist can't comment on someone else's work I feel like we are taking away from the essential power of art. Of course, it is in everyone's own consideration to create such art, that intends not to harm, but to show a different perspective. I wish to believe that no one would deliberately want to diminish the legacy of someone else's art work.