Twenty years after the publication of Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism, our field once again finds itself wrestling with its troubled relationship with institutionalism. But where once Rainey argued, incisively, that literary modernism was self-aware of its own marketability and commodification, cocreating modernism as a discrete institution in its own right, we now find ourselves productively applying this rubric to the field’s institutionalization within academia itself.
What would it mean to talk about certain strands of contemporary artistic production as in some strong, even emphatic sense, modernist? Instead of obeying Fredric Jameson’s periodizing imperatives and submitting to his privileging of the hypothesis of the break over that of continuity, we might use the model of Alain Badiou’s notion of an ethic of truths to account for how certain artists and works exhibit a fidelity to the event of modernism. A contemporary modernism would not merely imitate modernist models; instead, it would treat the innovations of Bertolt Brecht, or James Joyce, or Gertrude Stein as events whose implications required continued investigation. A change in political, economic, and technological conditions would not compel us to accept that art can no longer be modernist but would suggest that it must be modernist differently.[2