[Futurist Portrait of Marinetti , by Tato] Futurism: Proto Punk?

Karen Pinkus
In many ways, Italian Futurism could be considered an unacknowledged precursor to punk. The Futurists, led by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, were members of the Italian bourgeoisie. Punks were working class, but both movements shared a disdain for high culture, for detatched bohemian/hippie art, and for lethargy or nostalgia. Marinetti wrote his founding manifesto of the Futurist movement in 1909 and quickly found a following in a group of painters, sculptors, poets, dramatists, architects, and musical innovators-- including Carlo Carra, Umberto Boccioni, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, Antonio Sant'Elia, Fortunato Depero, and many others.

The aim of the movement was to utterly transform the passe and anachronistic society of Liberal, parliamentary Italy. To drive Italy into the future, Marinetti's first manifesto extols speed, virility, technology, and war. In a brilliantly calculated move, he published the manifesto on the front page of the most respectable newspaper in Europe, Le Figaro. This line sums up Marinetti's whole aesthetic program: "A speeding car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."

Futurism created an immediate mass scandal, and the members of the movement began to organize "evenings" (happenings) that combined drama, music, politics, provocation, and assault on the audience. The performances were violent, and as the Futurists gained notoriety throughout Italy, they were stalked by a sizable police presence which only helped to further arouse the curiosity of the spectators. The Futurists traded insults with respected members of the town they visited, objects were thrown on stage, and performers and spectators engaged in gobbing, an act that later became a punk trademark (although according to John Lydon, nee Rotten, it all started not as a planned program to break down traditional performer/spectator boundaries, but because of his sinusitis).

For Marinetti, the term Futurist specifically suggested forward motion and speed, and he used it in opposition to "armchairism", his concept of the home-bound bourgeois patron of the fine arts. So although the unrealized (and unrealizable) drawings of architect Antonio Sant'Elia, for example, appear "futuristic" in our sense of a science fiction of utopia, the movement was not particularly concerned with fantasy so much as with the exploitation of available technology. Marinetti loved cars. After World War I, the Futurists conceived of "aeropainting", a mode of representing the world as it would appear from the cockpit of a speeding plane.

Marinetti hated art museums, universities, and pasta ("It weighs you down like a ball and chain"). He advocated a diet based on pills, which he hoped might one day be broadcast over the radio waves into every home. He orchestrated special Futurist dinners featuring dishes like Ball Bearing Chicken. The Futurists practiced a D.I.Y. form of production and distribution; they tore up newspapers to make violent proclamations, and they also had their own printing press. Some Futurists manufactured toys and clothing that bore the official stamp of the movement.

It might be possible to see parallels between Marinetti and Malcolm McClaren. Both men had large egos and positioned themselves as the fathers of their respective movements. Marinetti, however, maintained a greater degree of control over the spread of Futurism in the end because he worked from inside Futurism, rather than standing outside and above.

Like Punk, Futurism lived a brief period of energetic "actuality", marred by the tragic deaths of major protagonists. The Futurists eagerly enrolled in the Lombard Volunteer Cyclist Battalion, the Italian "speed" division during WWI. Marinetti suffered a hernia, Russolo was quickly injured, and thirteen other Futurists were killed during the war. After an initial burst of innovation, both Futurism and Punk continued on for many years in a (watered down?) version in which the movement names were ironically appropriated as marketing tools.

Here's an example of what happened to one Futurist after the "first wave": Fortunato Depero moved to a small town in the Dolomite mountains. He married, started a small factory manufacturing brightly colored pillows, and invented a form of furniture lacquer. But he continued to call himself a Futurist and even had the words "the most violent art" inscribed on his billing inventories, perhaps the equivalent of signing to a major record label, but saying "fuck" on a live television awards broadcast to maintain indie credibility? Occasionally, Depero would organize wild parties during which he would insult his clients to boost sales.

Futurism continued throughout the 1920s and 30s. Marinetti and company were strongly allied with Mussolini when he came to power. The movement officially ended when Marinetti died during WWII.

Futurist Fashion

Like certain punk or new wave bands, the Futurists wore dark suits and skinny ties. They sneered before the camera, and fixed their short-cropped hair to stand up. Their conformity in matters of fashion only helped to make their performances and manifestos appear all the more outrageous. When you look at photographs of the Futurists, you get the sense that they were in uniform, or, to paraphrase Mr. Rotten on Sid Vicious: their clothes wore them.

I would say that neither Futurism nor Punk seriously engaged in cross-dressing. At least, playing with gender wasn't as important as distinguishing one's self from the bourgeoisie/Teddy Boys against which the members of the respective movements defined themselves. Lydon recalled that "we would always visit gay clubs because you could be yourself". This self, obviously, is an unambiguously gendered one. And besides, he continued, "there were always loads of girls in those places. Always. They were there for the same reason we were, to avoid the boot boy harassment."

The Art of Noise

Luigi Russolo, a painter, and Francesco Pratella, a composer, were responsible for two important manifestos: "The Art of Noise" and "The Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music", respectively. Russolo essentially believed that any sound received by the human ear should be legitimately called music: "sky, water, forests, rivers, mountains, the entanglements of ships and swarming cities..." "The Art of Noise" did not utterly reject the music of the past, only the formal modes of presentation and limitations imposed on music by high cultural institutions. He wrote:
"We Futurists have all profoundly loved and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. Beethoven and Wagner have shaken our nerves and hearts for many years. Now we are satisfied by them, and we take greater pleasure in ideally combining the noises of trams, explosions of motors, trains, and shouting crowds than in listening again, for example, to the Eroica or the Pastorale.
Traditional instruments could imitate these various sounds, but new instruments would have to be created. Russolo was responsible for various "noise-intoners", cabinets with megaphones attached. Inside the noise-intoners, motors produced exploding, crackling, humming and other sounds. Later, the Futurists performed with entire orchestras of noise-intoners, and Russolo also invented a new system of music notation to accompany his instruments.

Music was never central to Futurism. It was presented as part of a larger aesthetic/performance package, and in comparison (or contrast?) to Punk, the musicians tended to hide their personalities behind the instruments.

Futurism/No Future

One of the reasons Italian Futurism is not better known today has to do with the relation between the movement and Fascism. This relation is highly complex, and remains unresolved as far as I'm concerned. The Futurists were, for all intents and purposes, fiercely nationalistic. They traveled around Europe and Russia, exercised a substantial influence on various avant gardes, but they remained committed to the ideal of Italian military and political domination. Marinetti wrote a poem, "War is the World's Only Hygiene", in which he advocated Italy's intervention into WWI as the only solution for cleansing the society of its passivity and dullness. Many aspects of Mussolini's programs seemed appealing, but then, we have to remember that the Futurists were upper class, and they stood to benefit, for the most part, from their adherence to the Regime.

Punk's relation to Fascism also remains ambiguous: did Siouxie wear a swastika just to get a rise from the audience, or did she really mean something particular? No one in the Sex Pistols seemed to really recall the significance of the link between the Queen and the Fascist Regime. In any case, your basic art history textbooks are not going to dedicate a whole lot of space to Futurism, and you are not likely to read anything about a figure like Luigi Russolo.

Also, the sexual politics of the Futurists do not sit well today. They believed that women slowed them down. It was better to eat a high-carbohydrate sculpture of a woman made from sugar and figs than to be dragged into a stupor by the sexual act. In his first manifesto, Marinetti describes his car crash as the precipitating event in the foundation of the movement. His speeding, supercharged Bugatti veers off the road into a moist ditch where it lies festering until his friends help him pull it out. The symbolism is pretty obvious: woman as the putrid trench that seeks to swallow up the speeding male, but he manages to violently penetrate her space and then rise above it all with the help of his male colleagues.

A few years later, Marinetti wrote Mafarka the Futurist, a novel in which he fantasized about an Arab king who grows an eleven-meter long penis that he coils around his body as he sleeps. But rather than allow his prized possession to be tainted by the female, King Mafarka manages to mate with the (male) sun and produce a superheroic (male) offspring. No dirty ditches for him! Ultimately, though, in spite of this rhetoric, the Futurists tended to maintain bourgeois marriages. Marinetti named one of his daughters "Light"; Balla named one of his daughters "Propeller". These women go around the world defending their fathers as feminists, claiming that Futurism really aimed to liberate women (as well as men) from the chains of conventional society. But if you read the manifestos, poems, novels, and so forth, you would have a difficult time buying their defense.

I try to avoid judging the Futurists because I find their work so energized. But the comparison with Punk ends up also suggesting that any movement which thrives on "the new" is bound to be short-lived and inevitably falls into a state of imitation and statis. So in spite of the optimism suggested by the name "Futurism", the movement, like "Punk", really points to "No future". In spite of the pessimism implied by the Sex Pistols' mantra, if you're part of a screaming crowd, you don't really understand "no future" as a political statement so much as a binding, ritualistic form of energy lived out in the present moment.

(Valid HTML 4.01 Strict) (Valid CSS)