Past, Present, Futurism
For years I’ve been hearing it said that young artists think art began with Andy Warhol. It’s never been true. But now what I hear is art historians complaining that none of their students want to study anything but contemporary art. Among young art historians, it seems, to delve as far back as the 1960s is to be considered an antiquarian. “They only take my courses because they think they need some ‘background,’” one Renaissance specialist told me. “We have to accept almost anyone who applies saying that they want to study anything before the present, just to give our current faculty something to do.” What a time, when the art historians have less historical consciousness than the artists—and no wonder that the former, these days, show so little interest in what the latter actually do.
When I was a grad student (in a different field), the budding art historians I knew were studying medieval, they were studying mannerism, they were studying the Maya. No one thought of studying living artists. The most adventurous ones might be investigating Italian Futurism. Now the Futurists seem as distant as the Maya. But might this be their own fault? They were the artists, after all, who vowed to “destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind”—to unburden themselves of the dead weight of culture and history. The Futurists meant to be men of action; and, following Nietzsche (who warned in his Untimely Meditations that the knowledge of history presented more disadvantages than advantages for life), they believed forgetting to be its inescapable prerequisite. “As the active person, according to what Goethe said, is always without conscience, so he is also always without knowledge,” the philosopher taught. “He forgets most things in order to do one thing; he is unjust towards what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of what is to come into being now.” Filippo Tommaso Marinetti made the point more succinctly in a 1909 manifesto, already waving away the objection that his belligerent posture was nothing new: “Who cares? We don’t want to understand!”
The museums, the libraries and the academies are still with us, but their keepers are increasingly beguiled by the present and would like to become its curators, librarians and scholars. They are no longer “passatists,” but neither are they Futurists, for Futurism was still beset by historical consciousness; the Futurists’ fear and hatred of the past—a fear and hatred of their own potential weakness in its face—is another thing altogether from the indifference of today’s presentists, for whom it really might be true, as the Futurists vainly boasted, that “Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.”
Would the Futurists have recognized the eternal speed of the Internet as the future they had envisioned? I doubt it. The galaxy of eyeballs glued to smartphones has little in common with the “great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot” of whom Marinetti promised to sing. Only our data—and not we ourselves, it would appear—stream forth in the “polyphonic tides” of fervent commotion that he dreamed of, and that Umberto Boccioni evoked in early masterpieces of Futurist painting like Riot in the Galleria (1910), The City Rises (1910–11) and Simultaneous Visions (1911), or that Carlo Carrà summoned in his astonishing Funeral of the Anarchist Galli (1910–11). On the other hand, perhaps Marinetti’s knack for creating buzz truly was ahead of its time. He proclaimed the birth of a movement, in advance of the production of any of its works, with a burst of propaganda; one senses he would have instinctively understood the ways and means of viral marketing. And the Futurists would surely have taken satisfaction in today’s cult of youth and the feeling that the velocity of change has rendered experience worthless. Largo ai giovani! the Futurists demanded: “Make way for the young!” And then, Marinetti predicted, “When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts—we want it to happen!”
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Whatever one’s doubts regarding the relevance of Futurism to art today, the present exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe”—on view through September 1—is the largest and most comprehensive presentation of the movement ever held in this country and, as such, is indispensable for anyone interested in artistic modernism. The irony involved in the museum’s embrace of the putative museum-wreckers has long been noted and is almost too obvious to mention. Even by 1929, as exhibition curator Vivien Greene points out, “the movement that had despised the academy saw its leader, Marinetti, become a member of the Academy of Italy.” But it should be added that Futurism might seem a bit less like just another tombstone in history’s cemetery were it not presented, as it is here, as mainly an affair of painting (and a bit of sculpture). Even the best work of the Futurist painters (Boccioni and Giacomo Balla among the early adherents, Fortunato Depero among the second wave of recruits) is pretty thin stuff compared with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Mondrian, Malevich and a dozen others among their contemporaries working elsewhere in Europe. Putting Futurism’s animating literary and political ideas aside, the paintings, for the most part, simply lack body; they don’t live on the canvas. Despite their modernist styling, most are still really conceived of as old-fashioned pictures, depicting great events taking place elsewhere rather than embodying events in themselves.