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  • Histories of the Future:The Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Reconstruction of Modernism in Post-war Britain

There is much misunderstanding of the historical basis of the modern movement which must be dissipated; there is much research to be done in diverse fields such as anthropology, sociology, the economic foundations of art, the scientific analysis of the materials of art. We do not exclude such tasks—indeed they will take on great dimensions as we proceed. But they are only the basis for a programme which projects itself onto the unknown art of the future.

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Institute of Contemporary Arts: A Statement of Policy and Aims of the Proposed Institute

History is our only guide to the future.

Peter Reyner Banham, “The History of the Immediate Future”

Both these epigraphs sound a decidedly contemporary note. Shorn of the confidence about projecting the art of the future, the first, from the 1947 founding policy statement of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London (ICA), could stand as a declaration of intent for the kind of modernist studies that emerged toward the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Perhaps, however, the perceived relationship between a modernist past and the present moment is more of a motivation for such research than this hasty qualification implies. Tom Gunning’s belief that the “two ends of the Twentieth [End Page 193] Century hail each other like long lost twins” expresses an attitude surely not limited to him among historians of modernism.1 In this, the contemporary scholar might not be so different from a critic from the postwar period like Peter Reyner Banham, for whom it was, quite specifically, the history of modernism that was the guide to postwar Britain’s immediate future. That understanding modernism had become the historian’s task suggests just how quickly the origins, development, and hence contemporary relevance of modernism had become obscured.

But the ICA was not a university department, nor a specialized academic institute, even if it did come to play an increasingly important role as a mediator between academia and the art world in London’s tangled postwar ecology of cultural institutions. The most important consequences of its reconstruction of modernism in postwar Britain were felt by artists, architects, theorists, and also—though not immediately—writers. Recent scholarship has challenged earlier periodizations that treat modernism as a spent force even before the Second World War. Such work necessarily adopts a double focus in relating the cultural expression of one period to its transformed successor, both attending to specificities of reception and distinguishing among modernism as an institutionalized archive, a series of critical and intellectual formations, and a set of styles and techniques. These challenges have called forth a diverse range of theoretical formulations. For critics such as Urmila Seshagiri, Rebecca L. Walkowitz, and Matthew Hart, postcolonial and transnational geographies intersect and transform temporal models of simple continuation and rupture.2 For Tyrus Miller, Jed Esty, Marina MacKay, Jonathan Greenberg, and Hannah Sullivan, the concept of late modernism, drawn from Frederic Jameson, has been one way in which to approach the midcentury literature of Woolf, Waugh, West, Green, Ginsberg, and others.3 Yet the term “lateness” brings its own problems for postwar writing, as David James points out: it is “imperfect because it insinuates” that postwar writers “are sifting through the relics of high modernism and its residual goals.”4 Lateness in this sense implies that such goals are static, permanently definable, and not perceived to alter due to the historically changing perspectives of later writers.

James’s study of the “modernist futures” of contemporary fiction goes some way to capturing the sense of how an identification with modernism could be a way of moving forward by looking backward, often through combative, rupturing, and dissenting strategies. James explores modernism’s futures in the style and composition of contemporary fiction, whereas this article branches outward to institutions, archives, and other disciplines and backward to the earlier period of modernism’s postwar reception. It documents a moment when modernism was constructed not just as the future, but, in Banham’s phrase, as the “history of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 193-217
Launched on MUSE
2016-02-17
Open Access
No
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