August 12, 2009

Why I won’t celebrate Futurism’s anniversary

Luigi Russolo, Intonarumori, 1913

Luigi Russolo, Intonarumori, 1913

This October Performa 09 and SFMOMA will mark the centennial of the publication of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, in many ways a defining document of a certain sort of modernism, with a number of different events: some critical, others celebratory.

Much as I’d like to see the re-created Luigi Russolo noisemakers, I won’t be joining in. My reasons are summed up, with ruthless verve, by items 9 and 10 of the Manifesto we’re now to consecrate.

9. We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

These aren’t anomalies amidst a larger field of raucous ideas. They’re principles, which are pursued by Marinetti and others into the 1920s with greater resolve. They describe the real ambitions of the dominant Futurism – which Marinetti never truly repudiated or gave up. Maybe the memory of the Bush years, where these edicts were embraced as policy, is too close for me to set them aside as mere provocations. Certainly we are living now in the brutal aftermath of a certain kind of Futurism.


Futurists Antonio Sant’Elia, Umberto Boccioni, and F.T. Marinetti in military uniform, 1914. Sant’Elia was killed in the Battle of Isonzo in 1916; Boccioni also died that year, trampled after falling from his horse during training exercises.

Perhaps we might “celebrate” Marinetti by recalling him as cultural advisor and arse-licker of his “old comrade Benito Mussolini, (the link is to a site praising Oswald Mosley, antisemite and founder of the British Union of Fascists, for whom Marinetti was spiritual ally and hero); as the disruptor of Socialist rallies in 1919 and 1920; as the one who wrote in 1922 that “The coming to power of the Fascists constitutes the realization of the minimum Futurist program.”

The programming for the event includes some brilliant and gymnastic reframings. Not least of all the event scheduled for October 18, “Action! Futurism Projected + Performed,” which presents Futurist plays and films at Brava! for Women in the Arts, alongside a film by committed future-feminist Lynn Hershman Leeson among others. All due respect for my colleagues involved, but my allegiances lie elsewhere – with the “the foul tribe of pacifists” and “fervent adversaries of war” Marinetti decried in his asinine poem Guerra sola igiene del mundo: “War, The Sole Hygiene of the World.”

Count me in for 2016, when we can raise our glasses to the Cabaret Voltaire.

Comments (13)

  • Brent Cunningham says:

    Really impressive level of discourse on this topic, just want to say thanks for the great intelligence brought to bear here.

    I know a lot more about russian futurism than italian, & so accept Bernard’s just tremendous historical summary with gratitude. I’d like to think he provides a lot of specific support for what I was gesturing towards, but either way, very lucid and helpful.

    Leigh’s point about fascism seems basically right to me, but I think I had something else in mind. In my hurry I was thinking more of the way the national socialist party, both in Germany and Italy, built much of their popular support by playing on the prejudices of a disenfranchised and abused working class, the likes of Mussolini’s blacksmith father, etc. That is, as with the republicans today, the ideology of fascism was not at all crafted out of resistance to capitalism, that’s true, but to grab and retain power they meanwhile became skilled at exploiting angers and frustrations that were clearly rooted in inhumane working conditions and other products of raw industrial capitalism. Maybe that’s not saying much, and in some ways Leigh’s point is subtler and more interesting, but that’s where my mind was.

    And for Julian’s last question I’d say that, as much as I believe in considering the socio-economic and political meanings of an artist and am happy this is a space that considers it so relevant, we might possibly look at the work to know why Marinetti still matters. You probably haven’t read the Untamables? If you read that, then try to pick up something perhaps more politically palatable from the time–let’s say, to be a bit unfair about it, an Arnold Bennett novel–then I think it’s possible to see M’s bizarre imagination as a generally rare feat in published work of that, or any, time. However his work was produced, through whatever theories or politics, I do think his “true weirdness” is of course central to what’s being celebrated and explains much of the continuing interest.

    Anyways, I hope SOMEBODY goes, and reports on it here!

  • To A.Vikram: Are then not all potentially dangerous moments in history worth celebrating now they have been rendered to bone? If it is that easy, we can celebrate anything, though it seems, most still need to choose. But, perhaps as mentioned earlier, celebrate is simply the wrong word.

    And to L.Markopoulos and (A.Huyssen): Though time has done most of the work in taking the fight out of vital, revolutionary practice, we should always begrudge the institutions of art display for sealing the coffin with its final nail. Exhibitions of once transgressive art actions should always be seen as failure, betrayal and defeat. Why? It means They, I, and We fell short of eradicating Our opposition.
    And so, the war continues.

  • Leigh Markopoulos says:

    “The fact that surrealism and all the other avant-garde movements themselves ended up in the museum only goes to show that in the modern world nothing escapes the logic of musealization. But why should we see that as failure, as betrayal, as defeat?” (Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, Routledge, p.20)

  • Julian, it seems to me you hit it right on the head. “Do the Futurists stand for Avant-Garde™, all their virulence relativized by history – the avant-garde in its Walt Disney version?” All the potential danger of Marinetti’s ideas and allegiances is negated by the fact that history, and institutions, have absorbed and ossified that revolutionary spirit into a charming artifact. This is why we can “celebrate”.

  • Julian Myers says:

    The discussion here argues convincingly that a more developed historical understanding of Marinetti is possible, than the one I put forward – which is certainly more than yesterday’s squib could have dreamt of being the occasion for.

    Futurism’s early moment was more unpredictable or open-ended than I have allowed. Futurism in 1909 didn’t know its own future. (Though I do keep thinking of Hugo Ball crossing Marinetti’s name from the Dada Manifesto – the Russians and then the dadaists both backing away from Futurism in the teens. The differences weren’t apparent, but they became so.) Bernard, you’re right: the unlikely alliances and ferment amongst suffragettes, syndicalists, nationalists, Futurists, et cetera, are part of what makes the historical moment so vital and fascinating. Particularly in our era where political positions can seem so ossified and vision-less.

    But we still need to ask: Just what is it that we should celebrate, when we celebrate Futurism? Following Boris Groys in the Tate interview I link above, do we love Futurism because its premonition of Mussolini’s fascism was already a clownish caricature (and therefore a reassurance of the dictator’s own eventual, ignominous failure)? That is, do we love Marinetti because we do not love Mussolini? Does our praise pick out the aspects of Futurism we think are kosher and leave the rest behind? Do the Futurists stand for Avant-Garde™, all their virulence relativized by history – the avant-garde in its Walt Disney version? Are we nostalgic for their faith in ruthless modernization on every front, their loathing of a past from which we cannot free ourselves? Or what?

  • Leigh Markopoulos says:

    @ Brent, thanks for getting “the subtler sense of historical context” ball rolling. Without distracting from the fascinating discussion of Futurism’s political affiliations above, can I just return to your characterization of nascent Communism and Fascism and point out that while the former could be seen as a response to the toll taken by industrialization, the latter cannot. Fascism at the beginning of the C20th is probably better characterized as rampant nationalism (which occasioned WWI, rather than being a “political option” to it) and was a concomitant of industrializing/modernizing drives in Europe. In Germany, Fascism in its National Socialist form developed out of the devastation occasioned by WWI and more particularly the crippling reparations required by the Allies and agreed to in the Treaty of Versailles. Inasmuch as Hitler himself was stolidly middle-class, there is an aspect of Fascism that might be claimed as a revenge of the petty-bourgeoisie, but “ideologically” it was not about destroying capitalism (as was Communism) but rather about coopting it into the service of a greater evil, nationalism.

    As you point out, Marinetti was “anti-bourgeois,” but, as Bernard Vere elaborates, Anarcho-syndicalism is more likely the root of this aspect of his political stance.

  • Bernard Vere says:

    Like anybody else who’s read a fair amount of Marinetti, I share Julian’s unease at an unequivocal “celebration” of the centenary of Futurism and Brent’s sympathy for anyone who finds Marinetti’s views abhorrent. But I want to question whether we can so clearly identify the principles that Marinetti pursued with “greater resolve” (to use Julian’s phrase) in the 1920s and also ask how much we can read into the different positions within the movement.

    Obviously, once the Fascist party is established, Marinetti is thoroughly implicated in it, from standing for election before they come to power, to dying at Salo, Mussolini’s last, brutal regime. He is not wholly uncritical of Mussolini; he decries his alliance with the Papacy and writes in his diary of his “decidedly reactionary cast”, which “smacks of militarism for its own sake”. Marinetti is, however, in the late teens and 1920s, a Fascist, albeit at times a dissenting one. But before the war, when Futurism is pursuing its own political programme, things are much less clear.

    The attack on woman in the manifesto is principally an attack on the symbolist, romantic conception of woman as femme fatale. What make this more complicated is that Marinetti is attacking his own past as a Symbolist poet in attacking this version of woman. Similarly, you can find the symbolist depiction of woman in Russolo’s early works. Despite the hostility to feminism here, Marinetti consistently advocates votes for women. He even goes on suffragette marches when he visits London. (Wyndham Lewis, incidentally, also liked the suffragettes, as long as they weren’t slashing art works.) The window-smashing demonstrations and the arson of a seaside pier and a luxury hotel were “destructive gestures” carried out, not by the Futurists, but by the suffragettes.

    Which brings me on to Anarcho-syndicalism. The Futurists were given their first international exhibition, at the Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1912, by Félix Fénéon. An ardent supporter of Seurat and Signac (he coined the term ‘neo-impressionism’), Fénéon’s commitment to anarchism might (or might not) have extended to throwing a bomb into a restaurant. It was certainly enough to have him put on trial by the French government. Marinetti associated with such anarchist figures when he was a fin-de-siècle Symbolist poet and was a familiar figure at Syndicalist rallies. He was a nationalist, certainly, but was also heavily involved in Syndicalist politics and this makes it difficult to place him, at the time of the manifesto, unequivocally on the Left or the Right. As an example, we could take Georges Sorel, the political theorist whose works were as influential on the Left as on the Right (he was translated by Mussolini and T. E. Hulme, but Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe still consider him important enough to consider at length in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy).

    The point is that, as much as being the “caffeine of Europe”, Marinetti was also an effective barometer of his intellectual times, at times depressingly so. It’s not hard to see a partial, but widespread, reading of Nietzsche behind the attacks on morality, feminism and cowardice. Some of the ideas he propounded then can be linked fairly clearly (but not, for the most part, necessarily) to Fascism, but I hope there’s enough to here to suggest that this was not evident in 1909 and there were many other people (both within Marinetti’s circle and outside it) who were pursuing similar themes who didn’t end up Fascists. As Brent points out, unfortunately Marinetti, or proto-fascism generally did not have a monopoly on patriotism or militarism, and it was the policies of militarism and nationalism pursued by governments, not by Marinetti, that led to the First World War.

    On principles, the attack on museums is incoherent even within the terms of the manifesto itself. As soon as he’s made the attack he goes on to grant everyone the right to see the Mona Lisa once a year (but no more than that). Asked about his attitude, Marinetti passed it off as “a violent image of our desire to get right away from enchantment with the past, from the despotism of pedantic academies, which stifles intellectual initiative and the creative power of the young”. That’s not a principle that Marinetti pursues with greater resolve in the 1920s and more’s the pity. I think we can all agree that such an attitude is more worthy of celebration than Marinetti’s delight at being appointed to the Fascist Accademia d’Italia in 1929, as despotic and pedantic an academy as it is possible to imagine (happily, he looks rather ludicrous in its uniform).

    The final thing that’s worth pointing out is that, contrary to the impression that is often given (and that Marinetti courted), Futurism was not led by half-a-dozen shocktroops who all shared the same ideas. Dom’s noted that Russolo and Carrà had differences with Marinetti. So did the other painters in the first wave. But there were still Futurists, such as the Romans Paladini and Pannaggi, pursuing radical left-wing agendas into the 1920s and not behind Marinetti’s back either. One thing I remember being especially surprised at was seeing Marinetti’s name in El Lissitzky’s address book. Yes, heroic modernists tend to be flawed, but it’s that sort of surprise, one that disrupts your expectations, that keeps me coming back to them.

  • @Julian,

    When mentioning the policies of the Bush years, I’m sure you know this about the SFMOMA board, right?

  • Julian Myers says:

    Brent, I forbid myself very little in this life, and certainly nothing in the realm of art. I do look at Carrà and admire Russolo who, Dom is right, opposed Marinetti’s fascism along with many others. Wyndham Lewis is on my shelf, though you wouldn’t catch me celebrating him. And the polemical character of my post doesn’t really admit of the tumultuous complexity of politics in 1909, or of the true weirdness of Marinetti.

    And yes, you’re right about the anti-bourgeois thing. An important difference between F.T. and W.

    I am all for weighing legacies and trying to understand communism and fascism. Indeed, that sounds like my idea of a good time.

  • Ha! Well, that certainly should be qualified. I see also that Performa 09 has the phrase “celebrating this historic occasion”. We should be as up front as possible about the political associations and attitudes of Marinetti and some, but not all, of the Futurists (Russolo, for one, was opposed to Fascism). There were more than a few modernists with extreme right-wing tendencies – Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Martin Heidegger – I’m all for weighing their legacies, and (in the light of those legacies) I can’t deny that there are things to celebrate.

  • Brent Cunningham says:

    Indeed Italian futurism does travel easily and overtly with the politics of the right of that time, though at the same time it’s maybe noteworthy that it’s not the only futurism on the block–the Russian futurists were equally influential & generally of the left, and would have been surprised to learn theirs wasn’t the “dominant” version.

    Your critique is fair enough in a sense, but by the same logic I think you’d have to forbid yourself a pretty huge amount of art, film and literature from the early part of the 20th century, and probably the vast majority of art prior to that. I’m pretty much out of heroic modernists myself–if they’re not fascists they’re philanderers, if not philanderers anti-semites, on and on.

    I do think a subtler sense of historical context is possible here. This may get me in trouble but I believe it’s at least useful to understand both fascism and communism, especially in the nascent forms they took at the beginning of the 20th century, partly as responses to the devastations that industrialized capitalism was wreaking across the lower and lower-middle classes. That’s not not not to say that their eventual culmination in Stalinism and Hitlerian fascism weren’t terrible human disasters and offenses of the highest possible order, just that in historical context the other major political option was quite busy exploiting and killing people with a systematic brutality of its own, and at a level we now have trouble remembering and appreciating. Such a lens can be a different way to view Marinetti, who was certainly, if anything, anti-bourgeois, and differs rather totally from Bush in that respect.

    At the same time I really don’t blame anyone for getting queasy reading about his views–they’re frequently, if by design, quite appalling.

  • Julian Myers says:

    Hi Dom,


  • Julian, when you write “celebrate”, in quotes, are you quoting a text put out by SFMOMA or Performa? I see the phrases “mark” and “weigh the legacies of”. I’m not saying “celebrate” is not there, I’m just not seeing it right away.

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