Futurism Revisited: An Interview with Marjorie Perloff, Part I

Andrew David King
September 23, 2013
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[This interview, which will be published in parts, was preceded by an introduction; you can read that here.]

The Kenyon Review: I was interested to learn that F. T. Marinetti was expelled from the Jesuit College of Saint François Xavier in Alexandria, where he was born, for smuggling banned novels by Zola into the classroom—in revenge, he published Le Papyrus to mock the Jesuits. Splitting Italian Futurism into two phases, il primo futurism (begun by Marinetti) and il secondo futurism, in her 1968 volume Futurist Art and Theory, Marianne W. Martin writes that the main accomplishment of the second phase was “its dogged adherence to the avant-garde spirit in opposition to the pompous traditionalism of Mussolini’s sycophants.” But the regime’s “cultural provincialism” was so intense that toward the end of his life Marinetti apparently remarked that “now only he and a few others were aware of the existence of Picasso.” Marinetti’s early experience with censorship is curious to me when viewed in light of the drastic, performative calls to action and eradication embodied in his manifestos: it is as if the experience of confronting an older order of tradition at a young age resulted not in an inclination toward artistic plurality as such but in a kind of againstness, a reverse aggression. This orientation panned out unfavorably for Futurism’s reputation, argues Martin, who complains that Marinetti’s friendship with Mussolini unfairly prevented Futurism from obtaining legitimacy in the eyes of certain critics. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on the relationship of Italian Futurism to Fascism in general—and, relatedly, on how a critical project should undertake to understand any particular movement’s relationship with the politics of its time. Should the two be separated? Can they be? Are the political sins of one necessarily the sins of the other; can we undertake retrospective ethical evaluations?

Marjorie Perloff: When we assess the relationship of Italian Futurism to Fascism, we must—and here I agree with Marianne Martin (although her book of 1968 is by now inevitably dated)—distinguish between two phases: the first, from the 1909 Manifesto through World War I, the second from 1918 into the 1930s. In its foundational moment, Futurism was an attack on the status quo—on the papacy and the monarchy in an only recently unified Italy—an Italy that was considered, by its Northern European neighbors, a rather pathetic backwater, a very poor country mired in the past. Many of the Futurists—for example, Umberto Boccioni, started out as Socialists; most of them (Marinetti was an exception) were lower middle-class provincials who came to the big cities (Milan and Rome) to practice their art. Theirs was, as the great Italian Marxist critic Gramsci recognized, the first populist art movement, an attempt to reach a large public by using new and radical means. At the same time, Marinetti’s manifestos were, as you note, guilty of “reverse aggression,” and that aggression had little practical aim. On the contrary, Futurism was a Utopian movement, whose aesthetic ideas were much clearer than its political program: once war broke out in 1914, it was doomed to failure. Two of the greatest Futurists, the painter Boccioni and the architect Sant’Elia, were killed in the war, and in the postwar, Futurism was never the same.

The later version was very close to Mussolini’s Fascism, even when, as in the case of Marinetti, the poets and artists broke with Mussolini.

KR: Likewise, what can be made of Marinetti’s advocacy of war? “We want to glorify war—the only cure for the world,” he writes in his 1909 manifesto. This has been dismissed by some critics as understandable, if not unimportant (again I turn to Martin, who writes that the Futurists’ glorification of war was “above all an aspect of their desire for a courageous and active creative life”), but it seems worthy of lengthier analysis. Is this call for violence only necessarily outlandish, due to the strength of the “Romantic myth of the alienated genius,” as you characterize it? Or is it something more serious: a refusal of moral norms, perhaps? And if it is this, can Futurism ever be a project in the service of humanity, its destructive dictates somehow generative? I don’t want to mischaracterize the situation, though; you point out in your preface to The Futurist Moment that “until late in 1915, the war [WWI] was celebrated by most of the poets and painters who enlisted as the culmination of a thrilling new adventure with technology…” (It seems to have also come, then, from a larger zeitgeist—though its overlap with the two World Wars must have proven formative.)

MP: In a recent essay called “The Audacity of Hope: The Two Futurisms,” which I wrote for the centenary of Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto and presented as a keynote at Yale, I tried to put the notorious war clause, more properly translated as “We want to glorify war—the only hygiene of the people,” in the context of Italy’s situation in 1909. As the Futurist scholar Günter Berghaus has shown, Marinetti was specifically referring to the assassinations of the Tsar Alexander II (1881) and King Umberto of Savoy (1900), as well as the anarchist bomb attacks that shook Paris in 1892-94. These incidents fascinated the young Marinetti, who was a fervent nationalist and ardent member of the Irredentists, the patriots who sought to have the heavily Italian provinces that had been “lost” to the Austrian-Hungarian empire in the nineteenth century—Trieste, Trentino, the Southern Tyrol—restored to their rightful place.

War, for Marinetti, was thus vaguely synonymous with revolution. But his excessive nationalism, which soon led him to support actual war in the form of the Italian campaign to annex Libya in 1911, is distasteful and certainly compromised Futurism’s ideology.  There is, in other words, no way to make the war clause of the 1909 manifesto palatable.

KR: More about Zola, who—along with Whitman, Verhaeren, Wells, Jarry, and others—Martin describes as perceiving “the aesthetic potentialities of the machine” long before Marinetti did. In his 1880 text The Experimental Novel, Zola approaches a similarly grandiose, universalist rhetoric in describing the archetype of such a novel as one that “substitutes for the study of the abstract man the study of the natural man, governed by physical and chemical laws, and modified by the influences of his surroundings; it is in one word the literature of our scientific age…” But Marinetti’s own disdain for the status quo his era inherited lead him to make anti-rationalist, anti-positivist claims: “Let us leave Wisdom behind like a horrible mine… Let us throw ourselves to be devoured by the Unknown, not because we are desperate, but simply to enrich the bottomless reservoirs of the Absurd!” Marinetti’s thought here has been traced to Nietzsche, Croce, and Bergson, not to mention the anti-positivist inclinations of some Symbolist groups; relevantly, you’ve written that “our own postmodern urge to break down the centered, hierarchical orders of the past” that lends Futurism its appeal. But how is one to reconcile this desire “to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness” (from the first mandate of the 1909 manifesto) with the clinical precision and inhumanness of machinery? Can such irrationality really be said to be a methodological tenet of Futurism, or a shrugging-off of the past, a disavowal of an epoch’s cultural gatekeepers? What is one to make of Marinetti’s call for “the Absurd” in light of Zola’s empiricism?

MP: Zola may have understood the “aesthetic potentialities of the machine,” but for him it was a matter of content, not form. That is—and the distinction is important for our literature as well—one can write about machines and their effect on society but that’s very different from using the techniques made available by machine culture—for instance the new typography used in the parole in libertà (words-in-freedom)to give verbal-visual constructs a whole new look and sound. Marinetti’s doctrine of the “destruction of syntax” produced a new way of writing—incomplete sentences, short punchy noun phrases, typographically enhanced words—that simply didn’t exist before the 20th century. And as for the “inhumanity” of machinery, well, it was not a Futurist but Duchamp who quipped that the bridges and skyscrapers of New York were America’s greatest artistic contribution. But whereas Zola’s empiricism demanded a sober, realistic account of technology, Marinetti creates fantasies in which giant finned cars nose forward like whales, and magic factories spring up in the lagoons of Venice, replacing the “useless” palaces of yesteryear.

KR: Perhaps both consciously and unconsciously, Marinetti’s interest in technological advancement—in “the tangible miracles of contemporary life,” as Vico Baer, a close friend of Boccioni, said—is inextricably bound up in the process of production in addition to the sleekness of machinery. In The Futurist Moment you quote Cendrars’s 1927 piece “Advertising = Poetry,” in which “the Futurist doctrine that life and art are inseparable” is made manifest (“…and imagine the sadness and monotony of meals and wine without polychrome menus and fancy labels”). The same sentiment reemerges in the manifesto he published in Der Sturm in 1913: “Literature is a part of life. It is not something ‘special.’” I’m reminded of Barthes, writing of the Citroën DS in Mythologies: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” Can one marry the standardly exceptional with the standardly mundane and still have an identifiable artistic movement? What do you think the Futurists gained (or thought they were gaining) by this fusion, and could a contemporary artist—considering the dissolving constraints of space and media—refuse this fusion without risking his or her own obsolescence?

MP: The identity of art and life, which became such a battle cry in our own 1960s, was certainly anticipated in the “futurist moment” by a poet like Blaise Cendrars who insisted that his poems are “open to the boulevards,” that one should use nonmetrical “free” forms as well as prose to capture the actual variability and process of life. But the Italian Futurists themselves retained their faith in objects: after all, however oriented toward the depiction of movement and speed they were, their paintings and sculptures now have the look of classics—self-contained and framed works that are distinct from their environments. The Futurist “evenings,” on the other hand, with their intentional encouragement of public frenzy, look ahead to Fluxus and the installation and performance art of the 1970s. But even here, I’d say that the Futurists didn’t quite trust the ordinary to be sufficient: they retained the will to invent, to create new forms and situations that are on close inspection, far from life-like. Consider Marinetti’s “Contro Venezia Passatista” (“Against Past-Loving Venice”)—a manifesto piece accompanied by dropping leaflets from the clock tower in the Piazza San Marco. However “populist,” it was all planned and executed by Marinetti himself.

KR: I wanted to reframe my last question in terms of criticism: to ask, in other words, more about what you mention in the beginning of Radical Artifice. There, you quote Marcel Broodthaers’s gallery publication Art Actuel, where he writes: “ The aim of all art is commercial. / My aim is equally commercial. / The aim of criticism is just as commercial.” You concede this: “Criticism is not somewhere outside and beyond the ‘great arc of disintegration and decay’ within which we live.” But Bernstein, you point out, counters a potentially vicious regress in the Socialist Review, where he suggests an important distinction between “works of art that suggest new ways of conceiving of our present world and those that seek rather to debunk any possibilities of meaning.” In an ideally Futurist age, what might criticism look like? Could it maintain its distinction as a meaningful sort of meta-narrative, or would it, too, be subsumed into what Martin labeled “the common ideal of a ‘total art’”? What consequences would this produce—and have we, perhaps, already seen them in recent decades?

MP: Well, I suppose in an “ideally Futurist age,” criticism would have had a clear-cut target: the bourgeois Establishment as it had evolved from a past the Futurists wanted to escape. But of course this ideal was never realized. Still, what the Futurist Moment of the early 1910s, especially in Russia, did teach us is that art must be of its own time. As Malevich insisted about the new airplane travel, “If all artists were to see the crossroads of these heavenly paths, if they were to comprehend these monstrous runways and intersections of our bodies with the clouds in the heavens, then they would not paint chrysanthemums.”

One could argue that the French Impressionists also understood the need to be of their time, but at the turn of the twentieth century, there was a real gap between salon art on the one hand, and the new Futurist work on the other. To see the conventional landscapes and portraits of the 1910s in Russia side by side with Malevich’s Black Square is to become aware of a startling rupture.

Not surprisingly, then, literary criticism born in the Russian Futurist age was one of the great theoretical movements—Russian Formalism. Roman Jakobson began his career as a Futurist poet and the questions he and Viktor Shklovsky and the others asked were a direct response to the poetry being produced by their contemporaries—the poets Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Mayakovsky.

KR: In your mind, what are the foremost differences between Russian and Italian Futurism, or between those and other Futurist movements? (I have in mind your 2009 comment that “the Russian ‘cubo-futurist’ variant” of Futurism is “the great futurism” for you.) Are there any significant recent incarnations of Futurism, and if so, how do they differ from their predecessors? The Futurist heritage of Robert Smithson’s proposal for the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport—in which he argues that art “is no longer an architectural afterthought, or an object to attach to a building after it is finished, but rather a total engagement with the building process from the ground up and from the sky down”—is just one intriguing example you offer. I ask while knowing that, in The Futurist Moment, you make clear your “distrust of ism studies.” But I was curious to hear your thoughts on these differences in terms of the tension between the “cosmopolitanism and a stubborn nationalism” of the avant guerre, and in terms of, for instance, Italian Futurism’s origins in a particular moment of European culture.

MP: The foremost difference between Russian and Italian Futurism—and the difference has become increasingly apparent to me over the years—is that the Russian variant was much more radical and much more coherent, in that its aesthetic and politics went hand in hand. Marinetti could talk a lot about revolutionizing the text but despite all the posturing and shouting, his ideas were hardly complex, and even his beautiful visual compositions retained a mimetic element. The Russians, by contrast, understood that form is meaning; they fused verbal, visual, and sonic elements to create new abstract compositions, and they made much greater demands on factura, on the materiality of the art work. Khlebnikov’s proposal for “The New City of the Futurians,” for example, with its account of glass modules moving about over the rooftops on their own tracks, is at once a blueprint, a prose poem, and a kind of manifesto: Smithson’s proposal which you mention above can be seen to emerge from this aesthetic.

KR: Another question related to heritage: what would you say has been the most profound effect of “Futurist poetic” or the Futurist tradition on American poetry? You mention Cage, Smithson, Derrida, and Anderson as examples of individuals who allude to such a poetic in their works, but I’m also interested in what seeped into the culture—and what remains there—on the level of maybe-unconscious technique, approach, or philosophy, especially given that you describe collage, manifesto, performance, and sound poetry as distinctively Futurist forms, to name a few; Martin adds “memory montages, kinetic, multi-material, and noise-making assemblages.” More specifically, how do you understand the role of Futurism in the tradition of American literary collage that one finds in, say, Pound’s Cantos (from he who was “right at the center of what we might call the Futurist vortex”), Eliot’s The Waste Land, Toomer’s Cane, and Williams’s Kora in Hell (this last work, along with works by Crane, Stella, and Man Ray, being emblematic of the American avant guerre)? And how much do today’s collage artists (or even someone as popular as Warhol, or a movement like Fluxus) owe to the avant guerre idea that collage captures an “intuitive grasp of how the world might be put together”?

MP: I am rather skeptical of these connections. The technique of Pound’s Cantos, as I argue in chapter 5 of The Futurist Moment, certainly owes something to Futurist collage, but I would be careful to make the same claim for The Waste Land or Williams’s Kora in Hell. The latter was influenced by Dada and Surrealism, and to my mind it’s an experimental prose poem that doesn’t quite work: it’s a bit cute and hasn’t worn that well because in fact Williams was neither quite comfortable with Dada, nor was he a collagiste. He did not want to juxtapose radically unlike things but, was, on the contrary, a Constructivist, whose brilliance lay in creating what Williams called “machines made out of words.”

The Waste Land is our great collage poem but we must bear in mind that it was Pound’s excisions that made it such a radical collage: in its first draft, after all, it was mock epic in the tradition of Pope. And Eliot never wrote another collage poem after The Waste Land.  Again, Hart Crane never really renounced normal syntax and neither did Jean Toomer. It took half a century or so for the lessons of Futurism to be absorbed into the Anglophone world.

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