On February 20, 1909, French newspaper Le Figaro printed a piece called “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” on its front page — written by a relatively-unknown 32 year-old Italian poet named F.T. Marinetti. (I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read the full text.) The bombastic and incendiary tract sent shock waves through the European artistic community in its call for a total upheaval of preexisting artistic convention. The poet advocated the demolition of museums, libraries, and traditional morality. And in the ruins, Marinetti wanted to foster a new aesthetic called Futurism that would embrace technology and the modern psychology of the machine age, echoed in the famous line that “a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Although Picasso’s cubist paintings had ushered in the age of modern art years before Marinetti’s writing, the Manifesto articulated the Modernist ethos as a philosophy for all artistic pursuit, and in the process, provided a high-energy clarion call for the subsequent century’s avant-garde artists, social visionaries, trouble-makers, and all-around punks.
One hundred years later, Marinetti’s Manifesto no longer succeeds in épater les bourgeois, and many of its core ideas — once intended to stab directly into the eye of the aging establishment — sound like romanticized justifications for powerful forces of reactionary evil. The Futurists’ push to “glorify war” sounded righteous in the nationalistic atmosphere of the early 20th century but almost instantly became abominable as millions were slaughtered in the trenches of the Great War. Marinetti’s misogyny (“contempt for women”) and racism (comparing factory sludge to the breast-milk of a Sudanese wet nurse, for example) have not accompanied the arc of progressive Western society. Even Marinetti’s cavalier espousal of “the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness” takes on a sinister ring as we seek to hose down the conflagration of the Bush presidency. Marinetti is often roundly dismissed as a proto-Fascist. True, he was an early supporter of Mussolini. And even if we counter that the poet eventually felt betrayed by his old pal when Fascist Italy took on a necrophilic infatuation with ancient Rome, you can still draw a straight line between the idea of Futurist “cleansing violence” to Nazi and Fascist Europe. And in our new battle against environmental depletion, Marinetti is again on the wrong side of history. He loves industrial waste and factory exhaust — his verse potential PR copy for the defenders of polluters on K Street.
The Manifesto does, however, contain sympathetic and benevolent ideas, but these have lost their impact for a totally opposite reason. Futurism now suffers from its success: the last century has been Marinetti’s. The Italian poet’s revolutionary embrace of automotive beauty is no longer novel in the shadow of dime-store hot-rod culture and widespread SUV mania. Marinetti’s preference for youth and novelty has morphed into the central philosophical engine to consumerist culture. Creative destruction is not just for poetry, but guided American capitalism to international dominance. Technology has permanently nestled into creative culture and can no longer be cleanly removed. The power-drill pulse of gabba music, for example, would surely overshadow the wildest ambitions of Russolo’s intonarumori. Like all great cultural innovators, Marinetti has seen his legacy suffer by being successfully subsumed. His angry manifesto now graces a million creased textbook pages — the kind of yellowed volumes he would want drowned in a diverted Venetian canal.
And like all prophets, he was completely wrong about the future. The Manifesto does not make specific predictions, but Marinetti tied the particulars of the Futurist aesthetic to his own historical circumstances. The idea of cacophonous technology is pure nostalgia: ancient dynamos may have been ear-piercing, but our cornucopia of truely life-integrated personal gadgets make no external sound at all. Marinetti heard the future as a bang, but the art of product design has offered a century of softer and softer whimpers. Our latest and greatest vision of the future wants technology to design itself out of the picture: eco-consciousness is poised to erase the modern era with the same scorn as Marinetti feels for classical times.
And yet, the Manifesto can still be a useful corrective for any contemporary artist and writer and thinker, with applicable lessons for this deeply Futurist-inspired future. Despite the familiarity of the Manifesto’s convictions, I still swoon in its romantic energy. Even in translation, Marinetti’s prose jabs against familiar rivals with the speed of a master pugilist, almost proto-gonzo. Thank god for the historical detail of good newspaper placement, or otherwise he could be easily charged with unbearable pretension and self-indulgence. But it is exactly Marinetti’s choice of romantic idealism over cynicism that allows the text to still feel alive today. His belief in belief comes in stark contrast to our sour generation, who protest equally at no one and everyone, spit at meaning, conviction, and hope. Ha, you say: these “suspect” virtues recently elected a president! That may be true, but they are still fundamentally unwelcome in the corrosive culture of cool that permeates every part of the youth culture experience. We are stuck in a strange corner: worshiping the romantic idealism of the past while immediately tearing down anyone attempting a modern analog.
The word “futurism” now regrettably refers mainly to Alvin Toffler types, sober armchair sociologists trying to predict coming waves of complex patterns for an audience of Sunday afternoon dreamers and long-term stock analysts. Marinetti had no aims on Nostradamus, but instead, aspired to be a kamikaze pilot nosediving towards stale convention, walking the walk, dreaming of poetic suicide — and yes, counting the days until “younger and stronger men” would throw him “in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts!” So what would Marinetti think of our rotting shell of a pop culture, still looking to its 1960s Old Masters, judging all success against the unrepeatable case studies of Lennon/McCartney, Zimmerman/Dylan, Keroauc, slouching against the canonical ideas of 20th century art under the legitimizing banner of post-modernist sampling and pastiche. Marinetti’s call for constant artistic progress still inspires! But alas, the irony: when we waste “the best part of our strength in a useless admiration of the past,” this time Marinetti is part of the problem. To love Marinetti is to bury him. You cannot just kill your idols, but you must also burn your “Kill Your Idols” T-shirt.
Calls for Neo-Futurism will go unheeded, and I doubt I will see a day when artistic manifestos are screamed to the world from the front pages of a major daily news publication. The Futurist Manifesto, in the end, never embodied an eternal, absolute, and ahistoric philosophy, able to be adopted afresh by every waking generation, but instead is merely a single, well-executed love poem to the future of Marinetti’s present — a grip of the razor edge and sharpened point, a vivid dream of routing a long list of gray demons and sagging enemies, an artistic mission to realize the perfect human community. Marinetti seems more charming in the haze of hindsight — a contemporary version would rightly feel like an obnoxious demagogue — but admit your admiration: who does not dream of standing on the world’s summit and launching once again an insolent challenge to the stars!