Founding of Futurism
Unlike our discussion on postmodernism, which has no clear definitive definition, Futurism with a capital ‘F’ refers to the movement established by the Italian poet F. T. Marinetti. When people use futurism with a lowercase ‘f’, they’re often referring to a loosely associated movement that attempts to predict the future. Both Futurists and futurists LOVE technology and generally see the future as solving problems of the present. We’ll focus on Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, but there were others in his movement. Also, we’ll focus on Italian Futurism, but there were other Futurist movements in the early part of the 20th Century: Russian, English, Slovak.
For dates, Futurism’s heyday was 1909-1916 (WWI pretty much ended the movement).
Major Themes in Futurism
- Technology: Above all else, Marinetti looked to technology as a muse for Futurist art. Just as John Gast’s “American Progress” painting shows technology as a force of civilization (and as good), Marinetti saw technology as a way for humans to evolve and harness more power over nature and progress from the past.
- War: Along with consumer or everyday technologies (e.g., the automobile) Marinetti thought war and militaristic technologies (e.g., tanks, machine guns, dirigibles) were important to pursue to make Italy great.
- Although we think of Italian culture (and, therefore, the nation of Italy) emerging from the Roman Empire, modern Italy as we know it wasn’t unified until 1870–that’s after the US Civil War.
- Not surprisingly, Italy was unified through battle, and these wars were relatively recent for F. T. Marinetti (born in 1876).
- Fascism–although Marinetti aligned himself with Mussolini, considering him to be “just another fascist” is short sighted. Like fascists, he was pro-military and nationalistic (believing in panitalianismo, Italian unification), but what do we call pro-military nationalistic citizens…patriots.
- Got a taste for the thrill of battle as a war correspondent when Italy invaded Libya during the pre-WWI push for European nations to colonize Africa and other parts of the world.
- Dynamism: Art was to reflect constant motion or movement. Nothing was to stand still–kind of like this sculpture.
- Ahistoricity: Forget the past. Marinetti wanted to be (metaphorically) reborn and detached from his own past. He lamented and chastised Italians’ and foreigners’ love of past Italian art.
- Museums were worthless (ironically, Futurist artworks are in many museums)–art should be for the moment, avant-garde.
- Buildings shouldn’t use archaic styles of “the dead” past; instead, they should drop ornamentation and use “the straight line” as much as possible (e.g., Sant’Elia’s La Città Nuova [1912-1914])
- Avant-garde movements are all short lived
- Ironically, they are credited for shaping modernist art in the 20th century.
- Parole in Libertà: Marinetti wanted to free the bounds of everything he could think of–history, weak human bodies, and grammar. Yes, he wanted to promote a syntax without grammatical rules that he saw as inefficient.
“The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism”
Founding: Marinetti and friends are enamored with the technologies they see around them—they seem to be the muses that inspire the group to take off on their quest. A few of the technologies (circa 1900):
- “red-hot bellies of locomotives”
- “hellish fires of great ships”
- “roar of automobiles”
And not so pleasant but somehow inspiring…
- “O maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain!”
- “faces smeared with good factory muck—plastered with metallic waste, with senseless sweat, with celestial soot”
There are also many references to throwing off the “chains” of past intellectual values. Futurism tried to separate itself from any aesthetic ideas of the past:
- “For hours we had trampled our atavistic ennui…” (boredom with the past)
- “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.”
- “Museums: cemeteries!”
- “Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors”
- “We establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni* and antiquarians.”
- *Ciceroni (pl, pronounced chi-chair-o-knee) are learned folks, perhaps quasi-philosophers, who guide tourists through museums, ruins, and other cultural sites. It’s derived from Cicero, the ancient Roman philosopher. It isn’t an insult per se, but, because Marinetti doesn’t like the idea that Italy is known for its past, he looks down on ciceroni for helping the world hold onto Italy’s past. Obviously, Marinetti wants to look to the future.
Marinetti had a timeframe for this movement: roughly 10 years, when the members turned 40 and “other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts.” There are many influences on Marinetti’s aesthetics, but the era with its industrialization and technological advancement were major influences on his movement.
“Destruction of Syntax–Imagination without strings–Words in Freedom”
Marinetti would like to practice what he preaches, but even he recognizes that he needs to explain his “synthetic lyricism, imagination without strings, and words in freedom” using correct syntax and punctuation. He’s still efficient, so that adheres to Futurism’s aesthetics. Here’s a good summary of why he’s advocating these avant-garde aesthetics:
Futurism is grounded in the complete renewal of human sensibility brought about by the great discoveries of science. Those people who today make use of the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the train, the bicycle, the motorcycle, the automobile, the ocean liner, the dirigible, the aeroplane, the cinema, the great newspaper (synthesis of a day in the world’s life) do not realize that these various means of communication, transportation and information have a decisive influence on their psyches.
Basically, because contemporary technologies of his time period appeared to speed up life and offer the world to newspaper readers, he felt humans needed to allow this new techno-mediated phenomenon to influence all communication. If there are wasteful phrases, syntactical structure, or burdensome grammar, we should get rid of it. He wants words to convey the essence of the objects they refer to.
Imagination without Strings (also translated as “Wireless Imagination”)
In Italian it’s “Immaginazione senza fili,” which is literally “Imagination without strings.” During the decade before Marinetti’s first Futurist Manifesto, Guglielmo Marconi was exciting the European public (and the overseas public) with his contributions to “telegrafo senza fili” or “wireless telegraphy.” Marinetti was a HUGE admirer of Marconi and claimed his invention inspired his aesthetics.
Marinetti gives us this summary of how to free objects by having their essence communicate without being bogged down in metaphors or analogies (i.e., personification) of the past:
The imagination without strings, and words-in-freedom, will bring us to the essence of material. As we discover new analogies between distant and apparently contrary things, we will endow them with an ever more intimate value. Instead of humanizing animals, vegetables, and minerals (an outmoded system) we will be able to animalize, vegetize, mineralize, electrify, or liquefy our style, making it live the life of material. For example, to represent the life of a blade of grass, I say, “Tomorrow I’ll be greener.”
War, the World’s Only Hygiene
It’s pretty obvious here that Marinetti is infusing a militaristic approach to his movement. As Italy contemplates getting into WWI, he and the Futurists are advocating Italy get involved. Ultimately, WWI ended the Italian Futurist movement. Marinetti was injured and several major members were killed. Into the 1920s and the rise of High Modernism, Futurism fizzled out and Marinetti was mainly considered a quack. His allegiance to Mussolini also hurt his reputation.
Even though he’s not placed in league with T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, he and his movement captured the time period’s moment of industrialization, militarization, and speed. As are all artists, he was a product of his era and saw things in the culture that ordinary folks didn’t. He gave technology and science an artistic outlet, which is exactly what we say about science fiction—technology and science are themes, characters, muses for writers.
As I mentioned, he’s not usually considered a science fiction writer, but he’s engrossed in technology and does project a techno-futurist vision where technologies are amplified to fuel the progress he considers inherent in technological advancement. The belief that technologies will progress is part of contemporary American culture’s consciousness–we believe technologies will get better. We just might not have the same techno-fever Marinetti displayed.