Sunday, June 8, 2014

Futurism & Nihilism

War Stories

Fortunato Depero, Skyscrapers and Tunnels (Gratticieli e tunnel), 1930 (detail)
Photo Credit & Source: Guggenheim

The Guggenheim Museum in New York City has mounted an exhibit on Futurism, entitled Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, which runs until September 1, 2014.

The site gives a brief overview on this movement, which touched all aspects of Italian society:
Italian Futurism was officially launched in 1909 when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an Italian intellectual, published his “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” in the French newspaper Le Figaro. Marinetti’s continuous leadership ensured the movement’s cohesion for three and half decades, until his death in 1944.

To be a Futurist in the Italy of the early 20th century was to be modern, young, and insurgent. Inspired by the markers of modernity—the industrial city, machines, speed, and flight—Futurism’s adherents exalted the new and the disruptive. They sought to revitalize what they determined to be a static, decaying culture and an impotent nation that looked to the past for its identity. Futurism began as a literary avant-garde, and the printed word was vital for this group. Manifestos, words-in-freedom poems, novels, and journals were intrinsic to the dissemination of their ideas. But the Futurists quickly embraced the visual and performing arts, politics, and even advertising. Futurist artists experimented with the fragmentation of form, the collapsing of time and space, the depiction of dynamic motion, and dizzying perspectives. Their style evolved from fractured elements in the 1910s to a mechanical language in the ’20s, and then to aerial imagery in the ’30s. No vanguard exists in a void—all are touched by their historical context.

The Futurists’ celebration of war as a means to remake Italy and their support of Italy’s entrance into World War I also constitute part of the movement’s narrative, as does the later, complicated relationship between Futurism and Italian fascism.
An article in the Hannah Artendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College gives an excellent reminder on the consequences of futurism and its nihilistic beliefs, so to speak. The First World War, for example, was viewed by such believers as a necessary battle to cleanse the earth and purify it; this meant, of course, cleansing the earth of undesirables, both people and the middle-class values they held.

The article states:
That war cleanses speaks to the ascetic virtues of the warrior and wartime civilization. But while the virtues of war are ancient, the vision of war as a salve for the meaninglessness of life is modern, part of the 20th century rebellion nihilism, the devaluing of the highest values that is endemic to the 20th and now 21st centuries.
When no values are worth fighting for, all that matters is the fight itself, and victory, no matter what the cause. As Marinetti writes in 1915, “With us begins the reign of the man whose roots are cut, the multiplied man who merges himself with iron, is fed by electricity, and no longer understands anything except the sensual delight of danger and quotidian heroism.” Marinetti, like so many other European intellectuals, had got the war he wanted, “the finest Futurist poem that has materialized till now.” The point was to tear down the bourgeois world of consumerism and careerism, to find in war a cause—whatever the cause. The futurist yearning is to win, to assert one’s power, which is the only measure of virtue in a world—to give oneself fully to a movement.

It is important to understand both the justification for and the danger of such contempt for bourgeois, middle-class society. In 1914, the elite of Europe went to war, as Thomas Mann noted carefully, because they believed “war was ‘chastisement’ and ‘purification’”; they believe in “‘war in itself rather victories, inspired the poet.’” Hannah Arendt quotes these words of Mann’s and compares them to Lawrence of Arabia’s determination to lose his self in the inscrutable and unstoppable currents of history. Both Lawrence and Mann are responding to what Arendt calls a “violent disgust with all the existing standards, with every power that be.” The elite of Europe, Arendt writes, went to war in 1914 “with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life might go down in its ‘storms of steel’ (Ernst Jünger).” Like the Futurists, and writing in the same early years of the 20th century, these European elite expressed a violent disgust for society, consumed with consumptions and sterilized by security. War offered hope, because war was a breeding ground for courage, chivalry, honor, and manliness. It was also a symbol of equality, where birth and rank offered no protection against a well-aimed bullet or an unprejudiced bomb.
Such ideas as courage, honour and manliness still persist in the narratives and myths of nations, a necessity, it seems, to enforce the ancient idea that this battle is necessary, if not to build a better future world, then to ensure that the present values will remain. The latter is understandable in defense of a nation under attack; the former is not. We are not here talking about progress in the betterment of all humanity, such as in the curing of diseases or in the improving our food and water supply, or in the creation of jobs and economic opportunities, but a progress by destruction, a progress by elimination.

This is a type of futurism disguised as nation-building in the emotional language of nationalism or patriotism; it is present, yet not always seen or apparent, when nations wage war. The desire to build a sleek modern efficient world, void of soul and genuine meaning, purifying the messiness of humanity, seems to some an appealing ideal; to others, including this writer, a nightmare of ghoulish proportions. The cost to humanity is too great.

You can read the rest of this article at [HannahArendt]