On the morning of October 15, 1908, Italian poet Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was speeding down Via Dormodossola in Milan. Rounding a sharp corner, two cyclists on penny-farthings blocked his way and he had no option but to veer into a ditch. His Runabout flipped twice and he was briefly knocked unconscious. When he awoke and was pulled to safety by the cyclists, he announced to them that having been a step away from death, he now knew we had nothing to fear from speed, that speed was the greatest thing to happen to man, and he resolved right there that his next move would be to launch an artistic movement.
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti was a nutcase.
Attending the wedding of some friends a few years prior, his toast took the form of an epic poem he’d composed for the occasion, entitled The Bleeding Mummy, which recounted, to the stupefied guests, the story of a pharaoh’s daughter waking each night to beg the moon for her dead lover’s body to be restored, so they could get it on in their crypt.
His play King Hoot depicted a decadent castle being overthrown by hungry peasants, who cannibalize their king and then have an orgy, but due to engorgement wind up vomiting up the king’s body parts, which reconfigure themselves back to life.
His poem The Conquest of the Stars laid out the epic battle between the sea and the sky, and depicted the stars as offensively loitering in the balconies of the firmament.
In those days Art Nouveau was all the rage, and it drove him insane. As if in contrarian reaction to the half century of industrial progress that had transformed Europe beyond all recognition in just one lifetime, the artists of Art Nouveau exalted nature and the feminine. You can feel the dichotomy of the period at any entrance to the Paris subway system, where flowing curlicues and ornate decoration provide intense contrast to the deafening clamor of the iron horse below.
The future, it seemed to Marinetti, and speed, and machines, and war, and all things loud, and harsh, and mechanical, were getting a bad rap. “I suddenly felt,” he would later write of his time laying in the roadside ditch, under his Runabout, “that all the poems, articles, and debates were no longer sufficient. A change of method was absolutely imperative: to get down into the streets, to attack the theaters, and to bring the fist into the midst of the artistic struggle.”
It was time for a manifesto.
He gathered his Like Minded People and they goaded each other into a deep loathing of everything old and traditional. They decided to love the future, to love technology, science and industry, to love war (“the world’s only hygiene”), and to love originality, however daring, however violent. They proudly bore “the smear of madness,” and resolved to destroy all museums, libraries and academies.
They were the original chaos Muppets of the art world.
The Futurist Manifesto would appear, through a family connection, on the front page of France’s paper of record Le Figaro on February 20, 1909. “We stand,” wrote Marinetti, “on the last promontory of the centuries. Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down mysterious doors of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday! We already live in the absolute, because we have already created eternal omnipresent speed. Up to now, literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.”
The Manifesto was hotly debated throughout Europe. The arts were meant to be a somewhat effete counterbalance to the dead-eyed and shark-like march of progress. The past was meant to be the subject of nostalgia, sentimentality and longing. To focus on the low and brutish and loud, and to reject the past masters sent a chill through quiet and snobby galleries across the continent.
The Futurist movement gathered steam and expanded into all the arts: literature, drama, the visual arts, music, architecture, photography, film, dance, fashion, advertising, and even cooking. Futurism became a juggernaut because it was not simply a collection of loosely connected aesthetic preferences, but rather a systematic interpretation of modern society that examined the elemental relationship between art and power.
The Futurists took over theaters and held Sintesis (Italian for syntheses), where they would sell ten tickets for one seat in the hopes a fight would break out. At showtime, they would only raise the curtain to the actors knees and then begin, drawing a surge of angry jeers and projectiles from the gallery. When they did finally raise the curtain all the way, they would attempt to perform all of Shakespeare’s plays simultaneously, crowding the stage with a mad cacophony of shouting actors. They would cover the floorboards with soap to create amusing pratfalls during otherwise tender moments. They would cover some seats with glue, so that patrons would not be able to stand at the end of the night without disrobing. The real show, the Futurists knew, was in the reactions of the audience.
The Futurists tore shit down. Marinetti would welcome new artists to the movement saying, “we Futurists are young artillerymen on a spree, as we proclaimed in our manifesto, ‘Let’s Murder the Moonlight!’ fire + fire + light against the moonlight and war every evening against the aging firmaments, great cities to blaze with electric signs.” They wrenched the direction of societal gaze from the bygone past to the bold a beautiful future. The Bolsheviks in Russia took it up as a favorite theme.
It was to be one hell of a century.
But then the atrocities of World War One that soon followed would fairly quickly render the Futurist love of war somewhat naive and childish. And the movement’s nationalistic tendencies probably fueled the rise of Mussolini and Italian Fascism. And it’s views on women and feminism were pretty gonzo. Futurism finally petered out in the wake of the horrors of the Final Solution, with George Orwell’s 1984—a crucial anti-fascist, anti-futurism manifesto that instilled in public discourse an appropriate suspicion of nationalism, love of war and glorification of the future—driving the final nail. Thereafter, any depiction of the future has been dutifully cast as a cautionary tale.
For the relative innocence of its time, Futurism served as an important expansion of scope in the world of art, but it’s popularity and subsequent delegitimization in the wake of two horrifying world wars seem to have stigmatized the future itself along with it, and made it something to dread. Hollywood unanimously considers the future a dystopian hellscape. The Matrix, Mad Max, Wall-E. Everything is going to be horrible. I write this eleven days before one of the shallowest and most horrifying examples of the worst of humanity will assume his position of the leader of the free world and probably promptly end it.
But every generation on Earth presumes itself to be the last. The biggest tenet of Christianity is based around the any-second-now return of its prophet, and most Republican foreign policy regarding Israel is intended to hasten these prophesied end times. Doomsday scenarios pervade the concept of our collective destiny, and a sad by-product of this is that it engenders a certain disregard for any future generation beyond our grandchildren. Which is partly an understandable function of human life expectancy—I would be hard pressed to give you the first name of any of my great-great-grandparents, and I doubt they gave the idea of me much thought—but this is also a pretty major copout.
What if, ten generations from now, the world isn’t a dystopian nightmare of scorched Earth? What if there are still humans (albeit thirsty ones) striving to win their days, be better, lift the odd nearby spirit and tend their planet? What if it doesn’t actually look that different than today? (Ancient Rome had banks and schools and jobs and restaurants and indoor plumbing, for Pete’s, it’s not like they were drinking blood from skulls.) And what if some of these future people are your direct descendants?
Focussing on the past, preserving its essence, longing for its return, lamenting the profanity of the present in favor of the its sacredness, these are all reinforcing the reality that we are marching backwards into the future. Yes, the future is a red-headed stepchild we inherit without asking for it… yes, it’s a pain in the ass to tend to (my son Oscar takes baths like a golf ball, in a Home Depot bucket, it’s fun for no one)… yes, the future may be pretty bleak regardless of our actions, but that’s what everyone has always thought. It’s a pretty tired paradigm.
Filippo Tomasso Marinetti may have been a certifiable lunatic, but his revolutionary befriending of the Future was a direct valentine to you and I, right now, from someone who would never meet us, across an uncertain century.
No one thinks that way. Most default to wallowing in the exquisite and self-centered misery of witnessing the end of the world, which then tacitly excuses all of our moments of paralysis when we could be looking after our great-great-great-grandchildren.
I’ll leave you with a taste of that exquisite paralysis.
The late, great David Bowie’s 1972 concept album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars opens with a ballad (in 6/8, the most persuasive of all time signatures) about receiving the news that we are all on borrowed time, called Five Years. Listening to it, one first goes into a reverie about how they would live if they found out the world would end five years hence. But then it dawns on you that he was ballparking armageddon it around 1977, and the whole enterprise feels quaint and silly.
Sure, Marinetti was a kook with a juvenile love of war. But I’m with him when it comes to championing the future, the greatest underdog of all.
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying
I heard telephones, opera house, favorite melodies
I saw boys, toys electric irons and T.V.’s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there
And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people