October 15, 2009

Opening Salvo: Three Questions for the Futurist Moment - RoseLee Goldberg, Marjorie Perloff, Frank Smigiel

Archival still of Angelo Caviglioni, Tato (pseudonym of Guglielmo Sansoni) and Marinetti, Bologna, 1920-22, Rovereto, Italy; © Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Archivio del ‘900, Fondo Tullio Crali

This week sees the arrival at last of the SFMOMA LiveArt/Performa 09 collaboration, METAL+MACHINE+MANIFESTO. Events started Wednesday evening with a symposium at the Italian Cultural Institute and continue through the weekend here at SFMOMA and elsewhere. Open Space has already seen some significant discussion of the project a few weeks back. Here, a Q/A round-robin between art historian, critic, curator and Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg; literary critic Marjorie Perloff; and our curator of public programs Frank Smigiel. RoseLee began with a question to each of the others:


I couldn’t agree more with Marinetti’s comment, “Down with women fainting all over the place!” —but I also couldn’t agree less with his insistence on “scorn for women.” Was his scorn in fact for fragile “fainting women” or was he plainly misogynist? Is it possible to re-think the idea of the Futurist woman, or to offer a revisionist history in this regard?

Marinetti’s scorn was not for “woman” as such but for the whole business of Romantic love—the pretense that sex didn’t exist but that the beloved woman was an object of worship, still in the tradition of courtly love. The best thing to read regarding RoseLee’s question is Marinetti’s hilarious essay “Down with the Tango and Parsifal,” subtitled “A circular Letter to some cosmopolitan women friends who give tea-dances and who Parsifalize themselves.” Here Marinetti spoofs the Tango, then the popular new dance:

“Monotony of seductive, swaying hips, between the flashing eyes and Spanish daggers of de Musset, Hugo, and Gautier. . . . The last manic yearnings of a sentimental, decadent, paralyzing Romanticism for the cardboard cut-out femme fatale.”

And he added, “Down with the tango and its cadenced swoons. Are you really convinced there’s a lot of pleasure to be had, gazing into each other’s mouths and ecstatically examining each other’s teeth, like a pair of hallucinating dentists?” There follows a comic link between the Tango and Wagnerian opera with such great love scenes as that between Tristan and Isolde. Throughout, the emphasis is on sublimated sex as something false and dishonest.

Far from having scorn for woman, Marinetti felt women deserved better than such sentimental posturing. He was not at all a misogynist. But it is true that, so far as art cenacles were concerned, Marinetti’s group was entirely—and aggressively—masculinist. Women played a very peripheral role although his second wife, Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, was a fine artist in her own right and the two worked closely together: see Lucia Re’s biography of 1998. In assessing the sexism of the Italian Futurists, bear in mind that the Dada artists of the Cabaret Voltaire were not very different—again, an almost all-male group, bonding with one another. To find a different treatment of gender, one must look at Russian Futurism where women played a major role.


We’re thrilled that you were in New York for Performa 05 and Performa 07, and that we now have a kindred spirit in San Francisco who is as excited as we are about performance in the 21st century. One of the major reasons I started Performa in New York was to re-ignite a 1970s ethos of artists from different disciplines coming together. Do you see the possibility for re-igniting a community in San Francisco, of the kind that we associate with City Lights and the radical literary scene there in the 1960s?

As someone with a relatively modest tenure in the Bay Area so far, I wouldn’t put myself in a position—at least not yet—to gauge the recent history, current temperature, and larger perception of the arts communities here. I will note that a sense of belatedness often clings to conversations about cultural production, with long-standing San Franciscans telling me, simply:  “you missed it; the dot.com boom killed everything.” If City Lights itself soldiers on in North Beach, it’s easy to find agreement that the tech bubble fundamentally disrupted a local ethos of experimentation, radical politics, and signature forms of collaboration and circulation. Money changes everything, the old story goes, and luxury condos + soaring rents = an artistic mass-migration, in this case to LA, Portland, or Berlin.

For an insightful account of this felt transformation in Bay Area culture, I’d start with Rebecca Solnit’s Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, which tracks this pivotal moment and highlights the way not only artists but also the heady mix of characters, classes, and cultures that mingled and made culture here were in fact under siege by the bubbling new economy. After our most recent burst bubble, I must confess that cultural life can indeed feel precarious, threatened by the Google and Genentech buses moving our neighbors south to their still-working new economies but never depositing them in ATA, the Brava theater, or a Thursday night film screening at SFMOMA. And the real estate bubble burst seems not to have lowered anyone’s rents (mine just went up). Ghost neighbors ever-commuting and art houses with empty seats? Now there’s a scary cultural recipe.

If there’s a palpable desire in a city like New York to recapture the energy of its economic ebb in the 1970s, a moment when decline fueled an explosion in artistic practice & possibility, I’m not sure I feel a yearning in the Bay Area to recapture a 50s Beat moment, a 60s counter-culture moment, or a 70s conceptual moment. A pre-dot.com moment, maybe, but then what would such mean and look like? I’m very excited by Jens Hoffman’s course for Joseph Del Pesco’s Pickpocket Almanack, “The Center of the Periphery,” which will examine RoseLee’s question here in greater depth. There’s also the long conversation here about the fate of New Langton Arts, and what the situation for this key San Francisco art space means for arts in the Bay Area.

In my own provisional answer about new types of energy & enthusiasm, I find myself drawn, again and again, to the means by which artists here build their own infrastructures. Neighborhood Public Radio. Center for Tactical Magic. Queens Nails Projects. Future Farmers. It seems that “community” or “audience” or “public” or even “alternative space” are something artists now build too.

With Tanya Zimbardo’s recent post in mind, examining Jim Pomeroy and the institutional v. alternative art space divide, the question for me, at SFMOMA, is how artists might use the museum too. Can we bring something to a complicated plumbing that someone else is building? A plumbing we don’t, ultimately, own? How can the museum be a platform for projects that might be bigger than it is? Or a stage for artists interested in what we contribute and not what we contain? Pomeroy’s desired “one night stand,” at last?

To RoseLee then, a question does remain for me about the model of artistic culture imagined in so many invocations of 1970s New York. For me, and for many artists I know, the era presents such a seductive story and study. Yet Marinetti would certainly not approve of our backwards glance. Would Matta-Clark? Do you? Can you say something about the key values of that era—and how those values continue to engage us? Especially against that of the Futurist example, whose rhetoric & images we might find difficult to take up, at best?

Stay tuned for response from RoseLee, who’s arriving in SF any minute.

Comments (1)

  • Although I’m posting this in much tardily, I just found this letter buried in ye olde inboxe, from the writer Brent Cunningham, giving a gloss on his questions and thoughts following Marjorie Perloff’s lecture on Marinetti last fall. It’s worth a read, so I’m posting it in, here and now. Apologies, Brent, for such long delay:

    Some Notes on Perloff’s Marinetti (Open Letter to Open Space)
    Hi, Suzanne,
    Truly enjoyed the Majorie Perloff lecture last night and have been thinking a lot about it. Since time ran out rather quickly on the Q&A last night, I thought to write down some of my impressions and lingering questions. Maybe they’d be appropriate for the blog? Or just for you if you prefer.

    I’ve always found Perloff quite tremendous at stating (and staging) complicated ideas & histories with enough starkness to get one’s mind rolling, while still preserving the requisite level of nuance and accuracy. It’s clear that, on the rhetorical level, she has some value for both sides of that “precision and violence” formula she talked about as Marinetti’s definition of a “true” manifesto. Hence it’s maybe not surprising that I’ve mostly been thinking about some of the positions she took that I’m unsettled by. This is all very much in the overall context of being delighted by the lecture, especially the explication of what one could maybe call Marinetti’s “politics of syntax,” her stress on understanding the literal and social context of that first manifesto as it appeared in Le Figaro, the attention on that fabulous G. Stein response in her Marry Nettie poem, the great analysis & slides of the typographic experimentations, etc. & etc.

    If there had been time to speak up afterwards, first I would have wanted to at least register my sense that her apology for Marinetti’s militarism was far deeper and more persuasive to me than her apology for the sexism of his “scorn for women.” Hopefully it was mostly because she was just running out of time.

    I thought she made a good case, regarding the militarism, for keeping it in the context of a pre-WWI sensibility, and also for considering his sense of “war” as more akin to revolution and resistance to the middle class. And when she talked about the Russian futurists & how wonderful it was that they avoided M’s degree of militaristic rhetoric (though surely Mayakovsky is an exception?), she made it clear that she wasn’t trying to whitewash Marinetti’s disturbing aggressions, but accepted them as thorny. Yet, in the case of the misogyny, I was surprised how swiftly her lecture hurried over it, and how sure she seems that there’s simply no problem there. Her response to Roselee Goldberg on the Open Space blog on the topic goes much further into detail, thankfully. But even granting the other primary sources she brings forward, it’s quite hard for me to read M’s flat statement in the manifesto (“we want to glorify…scorn for women,” which unlike pretty much everything else in the manifesto stands there without any mitigating or modifying phrases) as something other than, at the very least, a very intense patriarchal despotism.

    This is connected to the disagreement I have with one of the broadest through-lines in Perloff’s talk. I don’t disagree with her idea, which was a major thrust in the lecture, that Marinetti’s manifestos and poetic persona were “theatrical” (or, as Joanna Drucker put it, an “intervention in media”) but I have trouble understanding what that’s supposed to change or indicate in terms of these other debates. Perloff seems quite willing to be Marinetti’s apologist in a variety of ways, but this can lead to the easy assumption that she believes that Marinetti’s theatricality somehow helps clear his name. That’s not how I see theatricality: even though I think ethical questions can and do operate differently theatrical space than in non-theatrical space, that’s not the same as saying it’s a space outside ethical relevance. If you want to illustrate this hyperbolically, you could note that Hitler and Ghandi were both equally skilled at intervening in media, so it has to be a matter of the content, intent, purposes, or at least *something* specific to the given intervention. Otherwise how can you distinguish between, say, the WWF’s Wrestlemania, which has as much popularity as Marinetti in his day, uses violence and theatricality as effectively as M., and also appeals to the same socio-economic class as Marinetti’s spectacles. What makes one a theatrical intervention in media and the other a sad and complicit circus? To me, that’s an absorbing question to try to answer, and whenever Perloff looked at the works there was the shape of an answer there.

    As a whole, even though it’s very stimulating and interesting to watch, I suppose I question Perloff’s strategy of trying to absolve Marinetti rather than, say, just allowing at the outset that he’s got unsalvageable views about aggression and gender. For me, those views don’t make much difference in terms of reading him, valuing large parts of him, studying him, even celebrating him. In fact I see the recognition of Marinetti’s sexism and militarism, i.e. the attempt to value his ideas and work while simultaneously admitting his regular political fatheadedness, as an essential acknowledgement of the double-edged sword of media manipulation of all sorts. Throughout the lecture and the Q&A, the fact that Marinetti’s provocations “worked,” i.e. created popular interest (especially because they reached the working class) seemed to be almost self-justifying, but I really question that assumption. If it’s just about getting the attention of working class people, lots of things work. But what is the relationship between gaining that attention and then, when and if you get that attention, turning it into some kind of increase in the awareness among the working poor of their real social position, and their possibilities for practical resistance or change. Massive & difficult question there, not at all reducible to crude or apparent answers I think, but worth asking and contrasting.

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