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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Who is Our Modern Marinetti?

Friday, November 13, 2009

2009 sees the centenary of one of the most important works in the history of Modernism, Filippo Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto." In celebration, the Tate Modern recently held a major exhibition on Futurism which I heard and read much about, but sadly missed. This year, however, is certainly a good one on which to teach a course on Modern Literature, which I am currently doing for the first time.

I prepared my first tutorial for the course around the theme of "Manifestos for Modernism." Whilst many of the literary and artistic legacies of modernism can be traced back to the Victorian period, making the periodisation implied by the term "Modernism" somewhat problematic, there is no doubt that Modernism made itself known as a break with the past through a whole raft of self-conscious essays, statements and editorials explaining and justifying the new aesthetic and rebelling against the Victorian tenets of realism. Not only do we have Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto," but also the "Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting," the editorial manifesto in Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist magazine Blast, Ezra Pound's "Imagist Manifesto," and Virginia Woolf's essays such as "Modern Fiction," to name but a few that spring immediately to mind. Tangentially, and somewhat earlier than these, we also have arguably the most important manifesto of them all, Marx's Communist Manifesto.

All of these manifestos shout, rebel against the establishment, stake a claim for the new and the youthful and the energetic. Just read the rhythms and bold, urban metaphors of the opening two paragraphs of Marinetti's piece:
We have been up all night, my friends and I, beneath mosque lamps whose brass cupolas are bright as our souls, because like them they were illuminated by the internal glow of electric hearts. And trampling underfoot our native sloth on opulent Persian carpets, we have been discussing right up to the limits of logic and scrawling the paper with demented writing.

Our hearts were filled with an immense pride at feeling ourselves standing quite alone, like lighthouses or like the sentinels in an outpost, facing the army of enemy stars encamped in their celestial bivouacs. Alone with the engineers in the infernal stokeholes of great ships, alone with the black spirits which rage in the belly of rogue locomotives, alone with the drunkards beating their wings against the walls.
Marinetti goes on (naively, with the hindsight of World War One) to celebrate the anarchic power of technology, especially the automobile as a symbol of liberation:
We went up to the three snorting machines to caress their breasts. I lay along mine like a corpse on its bier, but I suddenly revived again beneath the steering wheel - a guillotine knife - which threatened my stomach. A great sweep of madness brought us sharply back to ourselves and drove us through the streets, steep and deep, like dried up torrents. Here and there unhappy lamps in the windows taught us to despise our mathematical eyes. `Smell,' I exclaimed, `smell is good enough for wild beasts!'

And we hunted, like young lions, death with its black fur dappled with pale crosses, who ran before us in the vast violet sky, palpable and living.
It is startling to read a work like this. It is also, to my mind, vitally important that we look at the manifestos for modernism, as well as the literary and visual aesthetics that resulted. This is because, in the present moment, we are able to accommodate modernist art and literature fairly smoothly, blunting the radical edge it once had. What our postmodern age lacks is a sense of the really reactionary art work, the truly rebellious, and as a consequence modernist works from the pre-war period can seem conservative rather than stimulating.

Consider the case of contemporary or "modern" art (that is to say, work produced over the last half century or so). Modern art galleries today are generally happy places, integrated into cities (such as my local, the Baltic). They have caf├ęs and baby changing facilities and are places to take granny visiting on a Sunday afternoon. The accessibility of art in the UK is something to be celebrated. However, integrated into public life in this way, art rarely disturbs or shocks; it does not occupy a place in the avant garde of culture in the truest sense of that term. With the possible exception of images of naked children - such as Tierney Gearon's I Am the Camera, which led to a police raid on the Saatchi gallery - rarely does art raise the hackles, or seem to break with a tradition that can be traced back to the dawn of Marinetti and his fellow modernists.

Contemporary art draws on the full spectrum of horror, sex and violence in a vain attempt to cause outrage in a culture that is used to seeing all laid bare on the daily news, or in cinema; responses to images neatly and safely confined in a gallery are, therefore, typically liberal and mild. One knows that the visionary or rebellious artist has been incorporated by society when Samuel Taylor Wood struts down a red carpet hand-in-hand with a 19 year old hunk, wearing a ball gown that would not look out of place on a Hollywood actress. Now Wood is a brilliant artist who probably knows full well the irony that she is part of celebrity culture. Her video of David Beckham sleeping is one of the most haunting installations I have seen at the Baltic. But that is precisely the irony: how can one offer a critique or observation of contemporary celebrity society, which Wood seemed to want to do in this piece which cast Beckham as a kind of sleeping beauty, when the artist is a celebrity themselves? Marinetti and other modernists put themselves against the mainstream of society, which they saw as bourgeois and decadent, and producing art which was smugly realist rather than subversive. In the postmodern period, rather than artists and writers being reactionary, rebellious, or strongly analytical of a society from which they separate themselves, the artist and their works have become folded in with society.

Back to modernism, then. And the trouble with studying modernist aesthetics is that it seems - well - less than modern, in the sense that the manifesto writers proclaimed it to be. In a modern art gallery, one may grumble of a Damien Hirst that "It's not art." But rarely, if ever, would that viewer say the same of Picasso's Guernica. T.S. Eliot was recently voted the Nation's Favourite Poet. Unless people were voting purely on the basis of having read the Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, this must be a striking indication that The Waste Land, in its day so groundbreaking and visionary, now seems fundamentally normal, accessible. The same goes for Ulysses, regularly voted the most important novel of the twentieth century, and recently claimed as a being a work for "ordinary blokes." In a postmodern artistic culture that expresses itself to excess in a vain attempt to differentiate itself from the "noise" of a mass media, the modernist poem, painting or novel may even seem quiet and controlled.

In one of the most important essays about postmodernism, Frederic Jameson's "Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," Jameson talks about the way modernism was passionately repudiated
by an older Victorian and post-Victorian bourgeoisie for whom its forms and ethos are received as being variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive, and generally "antisocial."
Jameson goes on to argue, however, that in the postmodern era - with the folding of subversive art into wider culture that I have mentioned above - such attitudes have become archaic:
Not only are Picasso and Joyce no longer ugly, they now strike us, on the whole, as rather "realistic," and this is the result of a canonisation and academic institutionalisation of the modern movement generally that can be to the late 1950s.
Whilst modernist writings were once seen as radical, today the radical is the canonical mainstream. Thus the single most important thing about teaching and learning modernism is, it seems to me, to recapture the sense of energy, verve, and sheer guts that drove many of the modernist writers and artists.

When teaching my topic on manifestos, I asked a question to illustrate this point. Although modernism is often associated with the avant-garde elite, the Bloomsbury group rather than the common reader, Marinetti's "Futurist Manfisto" appeared not in some niche literary periodical, but on the front page of Le Figaro. Just consider that for a moment.

Le Figaro
is and was a respected, fairly conservative newspaper. In 1909, it was arguably the most prominent daily paper in France. To publish a "Futurist Manifesto," with all its anarchic sentiment and glorious rebellion on the front page is something the word "chutzpah" was invented for (the Hebrew word appropriately acknowledges that unlike other modernists such as Pound, Marinetti campaigned against anti-Semitism). Just imagine the Frenchman, chocalat au lait in hand, spluttering croissant crumbs across the broadsheet, as he scans from reading about the King's activities in the Elysses Palace and the Caillaux conspiracy, to the sweeping, assertive, bold and brash statements of the Futurist.

An indication of how far we are from the possibility of such a shocking juxtaposition today comes when we try to hypothesise a modern parallel. Thinking of our newspaper is easy: the equivalent of Le Figaro of 1909 must be the Daily Telegraph.

But who is to appear on the front page, dominating that left hand column, incongruous alongside the picture of a soldier returning from Afghanistan, or David Cameron wafting his hands? Where is our modern Marinetti? Who would be his parallel today?

In my recent tutorial, someone sensibly suggested Nick Griffin. But the bumbling leader of the BNP, though certainly anarchic, would also utterly lack any of Marinetti's imagination. As already mentioned, Samuel Taylor Wood has already graced the front pages in her ball dress, so she is too well-known to qualify. Damien Hirst would be a bit predictable, and might just be trying to raise the value of his works. Turning to the literary arts, one might think of the fiery Norman Mailer, or the quirky Thomas Pynchon. But the former has now passed away, and the latter's more recent fiction like Inherent Vice seems almost, dare one say it, accessible. All these examples are also past their 50s. Marinetti was just 33 when he published the "Futurist Manifesto," and there is a definite sentiment across the modernist manifestos that to be physically old is also to be tied to the ideas of the past, whereas it is the young who must carry the flag of modernity.

My lack of examples is not intended to bemoan that we no longer have a new generation of truly reactionary, truly modern artists. It is, rather, to highlight - - within a postmodern context whereby the modern seems fairly traditional and conventional - just how radical and thrilling that early 1900s moment was. It was a true paradigm shift in the arts, ranking alongside the advent of perspectivism in painting, or the rise of the novel. Where our next paradigm is coming from, that will take us beyond the post-modern, I for one do not know. Any ideas?

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Posted by Alistair at 10:00 am


Anonymous Nathaniel Vaughan said...

Hello. I arrived at this posting through an inexplicable search for "Trevor Witcliffe," a name which has no personal relevance for me. I am commenting on the above post to announce my position that Modernism, like Post-Modernism and all derivative currents of propagandizing thought, has no cultural currency because it is entirely self-glorifying and political in principle and spirit. Because it does not reflect humanity it does not advance it, therefore it has no legitimate claim to history and will inevitably dissolve as a vestigial organ. Although its works are stillborn, they are most lovingly embalmed and displayed in academic circles which have lost both their taste for and ability to render tradition through atrophy. These anemic institutions, which thrive on decaying matter, are as moribund as the corpses they plunder. For these and other reactionary opinions, please visit my recently inaugurated treasury of online diatribes at http://www.stronglittleopinions.blogspot.com. Thank you.

6:36 am  

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