To be honest, I was quite startled when I began looking into the futurist movement. I was startled because I had gotten used to fascist and prefascist material breaking the stereotypical image they have been given in pop culture. I had also grown fond of the respect the fascist philosophers had given history and myth. But I started reading the Futurist Manifesto and it had things like this:
“We intend to destroy museums, libraries, academies of every sort, and to fight against moralism, feminism, and every utilitarian or opportunistic cowardice.”
My first reaction was a feeling of confusion. I had just been reading another prefascist, Arthur J. Penty, who had taught that we must learn to “revere the past”; and Giovanni Gentile’s influential book, “On Education” which contained as one of its core concepts the conveyance of culture.
But the the founder of Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, almost anticipates Gentile’s sentiments when he states:
“The refined and mendacious mind tells us that we are the summation and continuation of our ancestors—maybe! Suppose it so! But what difference does it make? We don’t want to listen!”
Well, at least they had spunk. So curiosity drove me to learn more about them.
First of all, one must understand that the Futurists originally came from Italy. If you’ve visited Rome, you will have noticed that history dominates everything. Swimming with tourists, there is much more interest in the people who lived there two thousand years ago than there is in the Italians of today. It is easy to see where the hostility towards ancient things comes from. As Marinetti put it:
“Museums: cemeteries!…Why wish to rot?”
Another thing one should know about them is that they were essentially young artists and had quite a flamboyant character. Marinetti was at heart a poet rather than a politician or an academic, so many of his pronouncements are made in extreme tones, for effect.
But there is a certain truth to what Marinetti says which is why Valentine de Saint-Point stated:
Futurism, even with all its exaggerations, is right.
These “correct exaggerations” are perhaps the most noticeable in Marinetti’s comments on war. These are also the comments which most resemble fascist stereotypes:
Art, in fact, can be nothing if not violence, cruelty, and injustice.
We intend to glorify war—the only hygiene of the world
War is the highest form of modern art.
It’s enough to make a pacifist cry. The “truth” in these statements is best exemplified by the art movements of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in the 1920s…Which particular art pieces, you ask? Oh, every single one of the zero pieces produced after the death of these two empires in World War I.
Art – as is everything that exists – is intrinsically linked to survival. The art that we see is necessarily the product of a culture that has proven dominant on the warfield. The aesthetics of the vanquished don’t survive unless the conquerors choose to adopt it for themselves. Alternately, it is music, art, philosophy, and religion which can give a people the unity they need to fight a war.
Listen closely and you will hear the sound of all the animals that refused to kill for their own survival; all the creatures who were against murdering any living thing for its own sustenance; all the plants who would steal neither sun nor water from their compatriots. Their call: a deep resounding silence.
Another controversial area the Futurists explored was “feminism”. Marinetti called for the gradual elimination of marriage and parity between man and woman; ideas which at the time were quite appalling to many, but today might seem like rather run of the mill left-wing ideology.
More interesting than Marinetti, however, was Valentine de Saint-Point, the writer of the “Manifesto of the Futurist Woman”, who writes:
Humanity is mediocre. The majority of women are neither superior nor inferior to the majority of men. They are equal. Both merit the same disdain.
And contrary to Marinetti, she states:
Giving duties to women is equivalent to making them lose all their fecund potency.
The prophetic nature of this argument is observed when comparing national birth rates before and after women entered the workplace.
The hijinks of the futurists were quite legendary. The car crash which inspired the Futurist Manifesto took place after racing through the streets at high speeds:
And so we raced on, hurling watchdogs back against the doorways; they were flattened and curled beneath our scorching tires like shirt collars beneath a pressing iron.
They also used to play pranks on audience members who came to Futurist plays by glueing them to their seats, or selling ten people tickets to the same seat and watching the melee which ensued.
One thing which cannot be overlooked with regards to the Futurists is the extent of their influence. Twentieth century art can be characterized by a radical break with tradition. Movements like cubism were already making the split, but the Futurists were the first to state it outright. More impressive than its anteriority was the sheer scope of the movement. It was composed of influential members from a variety of arts. They each wrote their own unique manifestos in painting, architecture, music, literature, photography, dance, religion, women, fashion, cinema, and cuisine.
The Futurist Party
In 1918, as the First World War was drawing to a close, Marinetti founded the Futurist political party. In some ways it held views often associated with socialism/communism:
“We must prepare for the future socialization of land in a vast pool of state property…There should be steep and progressive taxation on inheritances, and limitations on the number of successive heirs.”
But they strove to distance themselves from the communist party and condemned Communist mediocrity.
We are more audacious than ever, tireless and rich in ideas…We are therefore in no mood to take directions from anyone, nor, as creative Italians, to plagiarize from the Russian Lenin, disciple of the German Marx. Communism…is an old mediocritist formula which war-weariness and fear have refurbished and transmuted into an intellectual fashion.
Although Futurism had become an international movement, they embraced the Nationalist point of view and promoted patriotism.
The idea of the fatherland cannot be abolished except by taking refuge in a form of egotistical absenteeism. For example, to say: I’m not Italian, I’m a citizen of the world, is equal to saying: Damn Italy, Europe, Humanity, I’ll think of myself.
But the primary focus of the party was still the preference of the future over the past.
The fastidious memory of Roman grandeur should be cancelled by an Italian grandeur that is a hundred times greater…The only religion: Italy of the future. For her we shall fight and perhaps die, without worrying over the forms of government which will necessarily follow the theocratic and religious middle ages in their fatal decline.
This spirit included anti-clericalism along with the aforementioned prejudice against museums and tourism. They also promoted the concept of anarchic individualism, which they saw the world moving towards. So, we see there is a balance that must be struck between the individual and society, which is addressed like this:
All freedoms should be granted to the individual and the people, except the right of being a coward…Let it be proclaimed that the word ITALY must predominate over the word FREEDOM.
In 1919 the Futurist party merged with the Italian Fasces of Combat (an association of veterans groups later to become the National Fascist Party).
Marinetti and Mussolini
When Marinetti visited Mussolini’s newspaper and had his first impression of the future “Duce” in early 1919, he was less than dazzled. He wrote:
He is not a great mind. He didn’t perceive the necessity of the war. He was an anti-militarist demagogue without a fatherland. Now, out of the inevitable conflagration against the autocratic empires, he discerns a need and will for discipline at all costs, for a reactionary order and militarism as an end in itself. He doesn’t see things very clearly.
However, his opinion must have changed because by the time of the founding of Mussolini’s Fasces of Combat he was one of the original 130 participants at the meeting.
His membership continued until a conflict of opinion concerning Marinetti’s staunch anti-clericalism caused him to resign in 1920. He then quit all political activity to pursue a rebirth of the Futurist art movement through “tactilism”.
Later, after the Fascist Party’s rise to power, Marinetti wrote some flattering articles about Mussolini and would afterward be hand selected by the Duce to be one of the academics at the prestigious Italian Royal Academy. This may have been a pragmatic endeavor. When one secretary of the treasury proposed a streamlined civil service in 1929, Mussolini objected:
We have to adopt a policy of the maximum number of jobs in the state bureaucracy if we don’t want an insurrection on our hands—an insurrection caused by the hunger, I repeat hunger, of intellectuals.
Futurism and Fascism
Although Marinetti left the Fascist party in 1920, some Futurists stayed on, and some who had left with him later returned. However, there were some fundamental differences between Fascism and Futurism that made a true unification impossible. Futurist Giuseppe Prezzolini explains:
As a defender of clear ideas, I cannot quite manage to find, in the development which Fascism has recently undergone, much of a place for Futurism…Fascism, if I am not mistaken, wants hierarchy, tradition, and observance of authority. Fascism is content when it invokes Rome and the classical past. Fascism wants to stay within the lines of thought that have been traced by the great Italians and the great Italian institutions, including Catholicism. Futurism, instead, is quite the opposite of this. Futurism is a protest against tradition; it’s a struggle against museums, classicism, and scholastic honors.
And there it is – an apparent incompatibility. Either we revere the past or we embrace the future. But who’s right?
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Futurists spoke in extremes. If we completely embrace the greatness of the past, following traditions out of respect, we eclipse the possibility for our own greatness. However, if the same extreme is applied to Futurism we arrive at a similar result. For isn’t greatness measured in terms of the respect it is given by future generations? If every generation focuses solely on establishing its own pre-eminence, ignoring every tradition of its forefathers, a culture of perpetual amnesia will be created in which no greatness can actually be achieved.
So, in fact, a balance must be struck. A culture must remember what it is, but it must also realize its role in creating the future. It must retain the right to reject traditions and dream of the future while at the same time realizing that it is living out the dreams of previous generations.