Futurism Revisited: An Interview with Marjorie Perloff, Part II

Andrew David King
September 28, 2013
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[This is the second part of a series. This post was preceded by an introduction; you can read the introduction here.]

KR: What is one to make of the polemical aspects of the Italian Futurists in relation to those projects which were less explicitly polemical? Are they coextensive? Intriguing to me is the bombast of Marinetti’s 1909 manifesto, in which he writes of “factories suspended from the clouds by the thread of their smoke; bridges with the leap of gymnasts flung across the diabolic cutlery of sunny rivers: adventurous steamers sniffing the horizon…” What seizes me about this passage is that its imagery and tone almost border on the lyrical until their counterintuitive, ahistorical contents pull them back. Marinetti himself, in an October 1913 letter to Severini, wrote of an “art of making manifestos”—one that perhaps finds ancestors in Edmond Duranty, who, fifty years before Marinetti, called for the burning of the Louvre (Pissarro, despite an apparently mild demeanor, is said to have done the same). In a recent interview with Charles Bernstein for Jacket, you said that Marinetti was “a great polemicist,” but that his poetry and fiction were “not that good.” But what do you make of the relationship between art and polemic, especially since polemic seemed in many sense to be an artistic form, a vehicle, for the Italian futurists? A century later, it’s harder to see what was at stake—or what wasn’t at stake—for Marinetti, Boccioni, Khlebnikov, Kruchenyk, and others.

MP: Bear in mind that Marinetti was a lyric poet before he wrote the 1909 Manifesto and that even this manifesto has, as you say, a traditional lyric component. Still, it was the form of the manifesto (its “violence and precision,” as Marinetti put it) that was new and that, in fact, has never been surpassed. The manifestos produced in the last few decades seem pretty flat by comparison because everyone knows there is nothing at stake! No poet or even group of poets is going to cause the excitement caused by a manifesto printed on the front page of the leading newspaper, of the European capital—the Paris Figaro. Imagine a manifesto today on the front page of the New York Times! The art world was a much smaller place a hundred years ago and so l’arte di far manifesti was possible. In 2013, we’re at the opposite pole: anything goes, even those who have strong views on art realize that they have to coexist with dozens of rival schools and groups whose aesthetic is quite different from their own. Today there is very little substantive debate about the value or function of rival poetic movements.

KR: I wanted to think about your insistence on describing Futurism in temporal terms, as a “moment”—a fixed, if nebulous, coordinate in a progression which gave way to Dadaism, Surrealism, and even some “proto-Fascist” strains of Modernism. It was Boccioni who said, in the Technical Manifesto of 1910, “The gesture which we would reproduce on canvas shall no longer be a fixed moment in universal dynamism. It shall simply be the dynamic sensation itself… all things are rapidly changing…” Later, in a 1912 manifesto, he wrote, “The simultaneousness of states of mind in the work of art: that is the intoxicating aim of our art.” (In a sense, Marinetti’s “Absurd” bears some resemblance in its chaos to what some scholars, such as Stephen Goldsmith, have argued about the pre-apocalyptic moment in Blake.) Seeing that Marinetti, according to Martin, fluctuated between Dynamism and Futurism as names for his movement, it’s hard to avoid contemplating notions of time, agency, and object-ness against each; Marinetti seemed both to want to proceed on the basis of inherited assumptions about those notions but to ultimately obliterate them. He praised speed (“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,” Marinetti writes), but in the context of the object (“A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), which is of course governed by temporality and physical law. In individuals like Malevich, however, there’s a desire to get out of, or beyond, object-ness: “I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and got out of the circle of objects.” Does this semi-mythical or mystical tendency (see also “the black spirits which rage in the belly of rogue locomotives” and the “young lions” of the 1909 manifesto; and Giovanni Papini’s description of Futurism as “the renewal of the spirit through a new art and a new vision for the world”) outweigh the desire for a strictly material existence, or vice versa? Marinetti goes on to write, “At last Mythology and the mystic cult of the ideal have been left behind”—but is this really the case? Or is Futurism necessarily paradoxical?

MP: The reason I called my book The Futurist Moment rather than The Futurist Movement (and often people have referred to it incorrectly when they introduce me at lecture venues!) is that, as I said in my answer to your first question, I think the Italian movement was short-lived and that, although scholars generally refer to postwar “Futurism” as a worthy successor to the first phase, the later version was really quite different. Futurist painters like Carlo Carrà, for example, returned, after 1918, to formal portraiture and landscape painting: one would barely know they had ever been Futurists.  In Russia, Futurism shaded into Constructivism after the 1917 Revolution and again underwent profound change. But then I believe it’s the nature of avant-garde movements to be brief: the young agonistic artists grow older and enter the Establishment. The celebration of the transitory, the new, the instantaneous freezes and becomes familiar.

You asked about the mystical dimension. Certainly, the Russian avant-garde had a strong “otherworldly” component. Ouspensky’s “fourth dimension” was central to their concerns. And although they rejected the immediate past, they were always drawn to medieval icon painting and folk art. In Italy, where religion was so heavily institutionalized, such mysticism was much less common.

KR: “If collage and its cognates (montage, assemblage, construction) call into question the representability of the sign, such related Futurist modes as manifesto, artist’s book, and performance call into question the stability of genre, of the individual medium, and of the barrier between artist and audience,” you write in The Futurist Moment. Benjamin, in Illuminations, writes, “…[T]he distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. …At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer,” which is, you say, “precisely what the Futurists wanted to happen”—a goal of collapsing separations, one that would later be taken up in the existentialist thought of Sartre and others. But where can art go once this boundary between creator and receiver, between subject and object, is broken down? Is a pragmatic, contextual definition of art (one that abandons as pointless the project of delineating artistic traits across multiple periods) enough?

MP: There are two different separate issues here. Benjamin is talking of the then new mass culture in which any citizen could write a letter to the editor and expect to get it printed, thus becoming an author: he disapproved of this sort of levelling which reflected a populism gone wrong and longed for a return to the aura of the individual writer. Now the second erasure of the distinction between author and audience is aesthetic rather than sociological. The Futurists longed to create a participatory art where artist and audience might merge. Of course, as was later the case with John Cage, audience participation is in fact a form of simulation. The audience is made to feel included but their movements and reactions are really governed by the artist’s decisions, as in a Merce Cunningham dance piece or a Fluxus performance.

KR: In your conversation with Charles Bernstein for Jacket, you say, “What Yeats and Stein and Pound have in common is that all three believe, as Yeats puts it, that ‘Our words must seem to be inevitable.’ That to me is the key to poetry. Our words must seem inevitable… And the idea of the inevitability of language, even more than just the sound, was central to Yeats. He revised endlessly in order to get words absolutely right. …Language is used [by Yeats] very brilliantly as it is by Stein, as it is by Pound, and what I have a real resistance to, especially in much poetry written today, which seems to me in the vein of 1909 before Eliot and Pound came on the scene, is that it’s just slack. There are too many words used. There are endless extra prepositions and verb forms that you don’t need, and it just goes along like prose.” In many ways, this preference for tightness seems a decidedly Futurist preference, one that meshes an admiration of precision with art praxis. How did you come to take an interest in Futurism, and how do you think it has influenced your poetic interests and critical writings?

MP: What I meant in the interview with Charles Bernstein is that this concern for le mot juste unites Modernists of different stripes: Eliot and Stein, Pound and Proust. As we get further away from the early twentieth century, we can see more and more clearly that there never was a hard and fast distinction between Modernism and the avant-garde.   Modernism is best understood as a broad spectrum: at one end we have highly finished novels like Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain or closural poems like Robert Frost’s; at the other, we have the openness and greater casualness, the verbal play and undecidability of Apollinaire or Williams, Mayakovsky or Gertrude Stein.  Joyce and the early Eliot are somewhere in the middle; they are considered Modernists but they are also avant-gardists. I became interested in what was so-to-speak the left wing of the Modernist camp when I wrote The Poetics of Indeterminacy. There I argued that John Ashbery’s mode was more challenging than its neo-Symbolist counterpart—say, the poetic of Allen Tate and Robert Lowell. In this context, I came to see Futurism as laying the groundwork for the contemporary poetry and visual art I especially admired—a sort of first-stage poetics of indeterminacy.

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