PRINT October 2009


F. T. Marinetti

FUTURISM, ONE HUNDRED YEARS OLD this year, arose from a decadent Italian playboy’s near-death experience. The innovative young gentleman in question, F. T. Marinetti, was frittering away his father’s large fortune by publishing Symbolist poetry and racing fine cars. In 1908, Marinetti ran his machine into a ditch and almost drowned. Most dilettantes would have retreated to the polo ponies. Marinetti was instantly born again as an apostle of mechanized speed and violence.

Contemporary “futurism” is a gentle, serviceable activity. In 2009, futurism coaxes clients to step outside the box of daily business routines and think in terms of “strategic forecasting.” This futurism’s primary interests are population demographics and technical development; even in a year of financial collapse and climate crisis, futurism doesn’t pout, scream, or throw lightning bolts. The grandest aspiration of a contemporary futurist guru is a place on the business best-seller list. Marinetti’s primary interest was radical convulsion. His intent was to violently force twentieth-century civilization to live in the future immediately. Henceforth, mankind was to dwell behind the steering wheel. What we would interpret as a massive traffic jam was, for Marinetti, the swift obliteration of every shibboleth that bothered him.

All the early Futurists were caffeinated with burning resentments, but Marinetti, born to ease and privilege, was the most eager to set the hated status quo on fire. He despised class differences; he hadn’t asked to be born rich and useless, and didn’t much care for that role. He despised peaceable stay-at-homes—although he was stridently Italian, he’d grown up in Egypt and was always most effective in Paris. Above all, he resented time itself. Most cultural visionaries see themselves as fulfillments of prophecy, champions of the forces of history, torches to light the way forward. Marinetti was the first of that breed to violently hate the past simply and purely because it was the past. He was a Futurist because he wanted the past liquidated.

Through a combination of wealth, guile, and personal connections, Marinetti had his first Manifesto of Futurism printed on the front page of Le Figaro. This was the first attempt by an artist to forge an alliance with the forces of mass production, with electricity, with mechanization, and with total culture war. The reaction was complete astonishment; people were just agog. The genteel denizens of the Belle Epoque of 1909, still reading Swinburne and admiring architecture that mimicked branching ivy, were stunned to see Marinetti exulting over a subterranean phalanx of radical poets, painters, musicians, and sculptors that had arisen to loudly spit on civilization. Readers were less likely to understand that Marinetti’s Manifesto was spin and bluster. There was no army of Futurists.

Marinetti was so desperately inspired, and so traumatically divorced from his own mottled heritage, that the public’s expectations of decency, veracity, and restraint meant nothing to him. Thus the aesthete-playboy had the vivid charisma of a daredevil. The frank psychosis of the Futurist manifestos (for there were many) brought passionately eager responses from all over the world. Kill the moon . . . Burn the museums. In France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and even the benighted, bucolic United States, artists flocked to Futurism, fitfully struggling to realize its tenets. Marinetti would promptly rush over to help them. But the locals would get one good look at him, judge him for what he was, and, almost as promptly, knock it off with the futurizing.

The heyday of Futurism as an art movement was colorful and also brief. Even so, Futurism did have one major innovative card to play. Because of Marinetti’s addiction to speed, Futurist artists became interested in depicting rapid, violent motion. When Marinetti wasn’t bothering them with manifestos, bannermarches, and massive street demonstrations, the calmer Futurists studied time-lapse photography, motion-capture study, the fourth dimension, and the time-centric philosophy of Henri Bergson. The artistic results were images on paper and canvas that had no historical precedent. Futurist artworks were genuinely novel. They were vivid, angular, shocking, and weird, a jolt to the senses. The Scapigliatura artists, Milan’s answer to bohemian Paris, had been dabbling in Impressionism for years. Futurism took their fondness for stippling and broken outlines and made it wild, ferocious. On the new frontier of abstract painting, the Futurist techniques of “muscular dynamism” and “universal dynamism” tore across the canvas. Futurist sculpture refused to sit still, metal monsters elbow-jacking and goose-stepping in violent bronze blurs.

But universal dynamism soon lost its ability to shock. It petered out down-market and, in the playful hands of Fortunato Depero, became advertising-poster design. When Marinetti realized that dynamic time-lapse no longer had the capacity to disorient the public, he turned to space instead: high-altitude aerial painting. The cockpit of a fighter plane had replaced the wheel of a race car. The poet-impresario–culture warrior was off to war.

MOST PLAYBOY DILETTANTES who venture out of the drawing room and onto the front lines get a swift comeuppance. But Marinetti always loved war. He loved war sincerely and without any moral qualms. Flags, medals, badges, guns, epaulets, jackboots, machine guns, dive-bombers: All were noble and good. Furthermore, he didn’t love war for the conventional reasons men love war: the male bonding, the sacrifice, the forging of character, the contest of wills, the just cause of national patriotism. (Marinetti was an émigré and world traveler; his allegiance to the Italian cause was about as strong as Picasso’s to the Spanish.) What Marinetti loved was the futuristic qualities of twentieth-century war, the way war flattened the past in a rapid, mechanical orgy of mass destruction. Artillery batteries were his particular darlings; those sleeting sheets of colored light, those brain-splitting noises: ZANG! TUMB! TUUUM!

Sickened by their peace and prosperity, the people of the Belle Epoque had universally clamored for the Great War, and none more eagerly than Marinetti and his most loyal Futurists, who flocked to the colors. The two most gifted Futurists were killed. Umberto Boccioni, whose greatest sculpture currently graces the euro twenty-cent coin in Italy, did spectacular work in the round with “universal dynamism.” Industrious and intensely serious, Boccioni was close to bringing this niche Futurist practice some broader mass appeal, maybe something like Calder’s abstract mobiles twenty years later. He died in a cavalry mishap. Antonio Sant’Elia’s fate was even more disappointing; this young architect never had the chance to build. However, Sant’Elia clearly grasped that mass transit, mass movement, would change the character of twentieth-century cities. His radical fantasies look sober, sensible, and deeply elegant today. They’re nowhere near as out-there as Dubai, Shanghai, or even Rotterdam, but if Milan was littered with Sant’Elia structures today, all the tourists would be properly impressed.

While Marinetti must have felt some chagrin at the loss of Futurism’s two best talents, masterpieces fit for museums had never been on his agenda. His schemes centered on violent, sudden, across-the-board change, on the thorough obliteration of a past that weighed on the Futurist prophet like a personal cross to bear. When the bloody horror of the war knocked Art Nouveau into the ash heap, Marinetti was left with much less to kick against. And though Futurist manifestos continued to appear, they were more tentative, more goofy and eccentric, and less furiously comprehensive. Marinetti can’t be blamed for the “Manifesto of the Futurist Woman” by “Valentine de Saint-Point,” which, in its exaltation of lust, rape, and war as an art form, is a true high point of Futurist weirdness. Valentine de Saint-Point, a bohemian dancer and mystic, was born Anna-Jeanne-Valentine-Marianne Desglans de Cessiat-Vercell and ended her days in Cairo as a Muslim convert and radical Arab nationalist renamed Raouhya Nour el Dine. Her 1912 screed invited other apache-dancers to tune in, drop out, and make up reality as they went along. She certainly did.

Marinetti was happiest in uniform, in a Great War. His merely cultural attempts to shatter civilization tended to collapse like real estate bubbles. His assaults on typography had a vogue, but they rendered his poems illegible. Luigi Russolo’s “Art of Noises” (1913) created a cult of annoying racket that aficionados have been dutifully unable to listen to for almost a century. Jolly Giacomo Balla, the warmhearted core disciple who could forgive Marinetti anything, turned his dilettante hand to Futurist furniture, clothes, ceramics, and set design. But these were all pranks and thought experiments, a means for Balla to reinvent himself. Marinetti never managed to transform the lives of the masses in a totalizing, more-or-less Soviet manner, although he longed to. He was obsessed with the power of machinery and heavy industry (especially weapons) and mass media (especially Fascist media). Yet he never allied himself with these great forces. Marinetti never thought to invent an assembly line, or a retail arm, or a market niche, or a start-up company. He never exhorted his followers to put down their easels and do industrial design. Oddly—by our lights—he never made any coherent attempt to attract engineers, technicians, scientists, or industrialists to the ranks of Futurists. Rather, Marinetti restricted his freewheeling vision to political campaigning and complaining about Italian hats and noodles. His futurism was always about rhetoric, set design, and fabulous décor; there was never any industrial sinew in it. It was as if Marinetti thought that the products he so adored—the smokestacks, race cars, aircraft, machine guns—grew on orange trees.

Facing this lacuna in his plan to storm the cosmos, Marinetti sensibly got married. At about the same point, Mussolini entered his life.

IT IS TEMPTING at this dire crossroads to backpedal and make some Ezra Pound–style excuses for Marinetti—a poet out of his depth with Fascism, and so forth—but this would be a mistake. In times of radical crisis, like today, it’s especially important to understand what it means to nail one’s foot to a simplistic and violent solution.

The existence of Mussolini was a salvation for Marinetti. The two had a clear, deeply held, lifelong, entirely sincere affection and esteem for each other. Marinetti had some political ambitions, but, like a lot of artists in politics, he found it impossible to sit behind some desk all day flattering useful idiots. Mussolini, an even emptier and dodgier human being with much more to hide, excelled at precisely this kind of political seduction. He was everything to everybody in Fascist society, but he was especially useful to a grateful Marinetti. The Duce’s intention was to empty the dusty skull of Europe and fill it with the singleminded, forward-thinking worship of Fascism. This meant that the Futurist and the Duce found not just some implicit, arm’s-length, state-artist bargain, but a beautiful friendship. Mussolini extended generous state support to the former art rebel, allowing Marinetti to protect and patronize the no-talent minions of Fascist “Second Futurism.” Marinetti, respected and secure, was free to champion such off-the-wall eccentricities as “aero-painting” and the effort to abolish pasta. In return, Mussolini got unflinching personal loyalty and some political protection from the world’s puzzled avant-gardists, who had to figure that any despot who loved and sheltered Futurists must be a farsighted visionary.

Marinetti was not a bohemian artist selling out to the Fascist establishment. He believed Fascism was great specifically because Fascism was crushing every Establishment it could reach. Fascism brimmed with a unifying, transcendent hatred of the immediate past. Furthermore, the apex of the Fascist effort was not some boring, complicated, confusing, bureaucratic, commercial, technical, capitalistic assembly line. The apex of Fascism was always oratory. It was all based on speechifying. In fact, it was based on a single speechifier, one inspired, passionate, fearless, utterly reckless orator, a man—nay, a prophet, a supreme genius—ranting from a balcony, ranting on radio, in newspapers, through state media, as a one-man spin machine, ranting to a million underlings who all turned their faces, as shiny and gleaming as tiles on a bathroom floor, to him. Marinetti himself had never reached this rhetorical Valhalla. He’d always wanted it and felt he deserved it, but it was beyond him. His personal ideas and oratory had been too advanced for the masses, maybe, too avant-garde, too refined. Still, Marinetti clearly understood the advantages of this new Fascist system. To become the Duce was painful, laborious, and dangerous. But to be the Duce’s Futurist . . . What Futurist could ask for more?

Under Fascism, Marinetti was no longer an international playboy playing Russian roulette with the banging cylinders of his sports car. He was a premier Fascist academic, a culture maven, the go-to godfather for artistic grants and favors. He had never predicted such a fate for himself, but then, the life of a visionary poet was a grand adventure to be lived day by day. Marinetti never lost his self-respect or ever felt he had put a foot wrong; he was consistently Marinetti. When things went badly for Hitler on the Eastern Front, this wealthy gentleman, over sixty, an academician and a father of three, hastened to don the Italian uniform and violently combat . . . whomever. Bolshevism, the Revolution—it scarcely mattered, as long as violent combat smashed the past.

Yet violent combat smashed the Fascists. Flimsy Italian tanks could be pierced by Allied machine-gun fire. The Italian navy had no radar. The Italian fighter planes were gorgeous art objects that couldn’t be churned out in bulk. Imperial Italy, at the axis of the new world order, was built on Potemkin blather.

When the Russian winter set in, the battlefield doctors sent the old man home. There was no home left for him. Marinetti’s ultimate leader had driven his nation straight into the ditch. Marinetti died scheming to smuggle his wife and three daughters into neutral Switzerland.

Since 1945, Futurism has lived under a Fascist cloud. This is not fair, since, although Marinetti was certainly the Futurist guru, he was never the most talented Futurist. The most talented Futurist artists were never Fascists, because they died too young. And many Futurists were not Italian: They were, for instance, French, or Czech, or British Vorticists, or hapless poetry-spouting Russian Communists.

After a hundred years, even the most violent and malignant art movement takes on new hues. After a hundred years, Futurism has qualities Marinetti never remotely expected for it: It is nostalgic. It looks sweet, even pastoral to us. It no longer seems violent, aggressive, or chaotic; we’re used to jittering, howling, interactive screens, not to silent linseed oil and framed canvas. To any design-school kid studying information visualization, a Futurist painting by Balla or Kupka or Dudreville looks tender and mild, a hapless analog thing fit for the scanners.

Marinetti’s desire to obliterate the past seems quaint. Our conservatives are armed radicals; our fundamentalists are suicidal revolutionaries. We cut and paste our past, we pastiche it, we repurpose and data mine it. Futurism cannot chill our blood with Fascist threats to burn museums. It has become just one more dissonant break beat in the heritage economy.

The past of Futurism was darkly retrograde. The future of Futurism is pastel bright.

Bruce Sterling is a writer based in Austin, Texas.