Blog Post

Futurism in San Francisco

On the weekend of October 15, SFMOMA sponsored a Futurist conference-festival that raised some fascinating issues for me.  My own talk--the keynote the first night--was on Marinetti's 1909 Manifesto and its offshoots, culminating in a look at Gertrude Stein's portrait "Marry Nettie" as a tongue-in-cheek critique of the great Futurist Impresario.  On Saturday, there was a marvelous concert, sponsored by Rose Lee's Performa group, of Luigi Russolo's famed intonarumori--those home-made and crude sound machines designed to produce a variety of "everyday" noises.  John Cage loved the idea of these noise-makers:  they fulfill his favorite Zen proverb:  if it's boring for five minutes, try ten, if boring for ten, try fifteen and soon you will the activity very interesting!  So it was, evidently, for what seemed to be c. 1,000 people in the Yuerba Buena theatre, the average age of audience members being about 25!  The avant-garde, it seems, lives!

But it is the roundtable the next day I want to discuss here.  For among the excellent and informative papers by Laura Wittman, who compared the pre and post-World War I Marinetti on issues like anarchism and authority, and Harsha Ram who gave a bravura performance of a section of Marinetti's ZANG TUUM TUUMB followed by Khlebnikov's "Incantation by Laughter,"  there was a long talk called "Futurists, Fascists, Nazis: Rejecting Democracy in Theory and Practice" by Benjamin Martin.  I have heard talks like this one again and again:  it turns out that Futurism was nearly equivalent to Fascism and indeed Hitler's name was brought up frequently. 

Whose Futurism?  Whose Fascism?  Everything Martin said was true enough if we label as Futurist, Marinetti's writings of the later twenties and thirties, up to his death in 1944.  The speaker assumed that here was Futurism, largely because Marinetti continued to call himself a Futurist and he had a following of now largely unknown poets and artists.  It was indeed an unsavory bunch, and Martin was right to pronounce on Marinetti's distrust of democracy.  The only trouble is that, whatever self-designated label the artists in question adopted, theirs was no longer the Futurism that mattered at all.  In point of fact, when Marinetti was composing the First Manifesto in 1908, Fascism had not yet been heard of; Marinetti was primarily a contrarian--he was a socialist-anarchist AGAINST the Papacy, the State, Parliamentary Democracy--and especially the loss of Italian territories to Austria--for example Trieste.  He was certainly a Nationalist, but one can't quite equate nationalism with Fascism.

Of the  Futurist artists of the 1910s, two of the finest--Boccioni and Sant'Elia were killed at the Front in 1916. A third, Carlo Carra, dissociated himself from Futurism by 1918, as did the Russolo of the noise-makers.  Balla and Depero, known for their abstractions, became designers:  Depero came to the U.S. and designed Vogue covers and worked on the Campari logos!  By the early 20s, Futurism was all over, the only important hold-out being Marinetti himself, who did indeed become a Fascist--and also an increasingly uninteresting writer.  

I wonder then how and why we continue to be treated to the equation Futurism=Fascism, which has hurt the early movement so much that may of its publications are still out of print and its artwork unknown.  I hope others here will explore the following issue:

How long can and does ANY movement last?  Surely not three decades!  Think of the Oxford Movement or Zurich Dada, Die Brücke or Lettrisme, Imagism or the New York School of Poets or Language Poetry.  Out of specific movements, individual great artists may or may not emerge--Duchamp being no doubt Exhibit A, an artist who transcended the Dada with which he was usually associated.  

Why, then, the continuing attempt to define ISMS as if they were fixed entities?  Russian Futurism, I would argue, was also over before 1920, its Utopian spirit and iconoclasm unable to survive war and the 1917 Revolution.  

These are issues I hope others on this blog will take up!