Friday, May 25, 2007

Brief Comments on Futurism & Fascism

Personal connections aside, I am pleased that the Queen of Eyes over at the Glass Hotel picked up on my somewhat inconclusive dazzle-post yesterday and brought the Italian Futurists into play. She is right to put forward that the Futurists were unique in the scope of their ambitions, and I am with her in being unable to name (allowing for my limited art historical training) any other avant-garde movement that combined that all-encompassing, revolutionary outlook with cultural and political power well outside of their coterie. Arguably the Futurists share with Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Soviet Russia (e.g. Magnitogorsk -- see Stephen Kotkin's Magnetic Mountain) and Nazi Germany the ambition to take at least one aspect of civilization (the city) and apply modern engineering to reshape it after their own designs. Indeed, the among the Futurists was an architect, Antonio Sant'Elia, who until his combat death in 1916 sketched out different urban complexes that would comprise the Futurist city. All of these movements sought in some way to rearrange the relationships of individual with individual and individual to authority; the so-called totalitarian states were obviously most successful in realizing this desire. But while Le Corbu and Wright were able to "merely" produce manifestations of their architectural designs, the Futurists could claim an active working-class following shortly before World War One: their words were conveyed to tens of thousands through the newspaper Lacerba (Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism, 1977. p. 166) and their performance seen at large "Futurist Evenings" held at music-halls throughout Europe. There was, finally, a Futurist Political Party by 1918, and F.T. Marinetti, the Futurist ringleader, stood as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in 1919 (Tisdall and Bozzolla, 203-204).

But the link between Futurism and Italian Fascism has been, I am convinced, overstated, and has done the movement a great deal of harm. The Futurists' pioneering forays into typography (in Lacerba, mimicked by the Vorticists in Blast, then by the Dadas, and copied innumerable times, if unconsciously, in recent years with the advent of computer publishing), music, performance art, and cinema seem to be buried under the off-handed dismissals to which their association with the Fascists has condemned them. As Tisdall and Bozzolla point out, the veneration of technology, violence, and youth that the Futurists shared with Fascism enabled the two movements to draw inspiration from one another (200). But the Mussolini that Marinetti admired was not yet Il Duce, and the street-fighting, revolutionary Fascism that drew upon Futurist rhetoric was not the Fascism that eventually ascended to power. Surely Tisdall and Bozzolla are correct in stating the incompatibility of Futurism's individualistic, chaotic, anarchic program with Mussolini's historicizing, authoritarian government. As the avant-garde in Bolshevik Russia and Weimar Germany (and perhaps elsewhere?) experienced, the artistic love of modernity and desire to overhaul society lost out to its competitor and perverse sibling, the authoritarian state, which hated profoundly the demands for individual freedom, and which, in a grand and terrible paradox, used modernity (in the form of mass culture, industry, and technology) to wrench back the clock on Modern culture and bourgeois democracy -- although the latter was not worth very much to the Futurists.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Formed a Blog -- I Formed a Blog!

It has been some years since my last exercise in internet solipsism. Ten years have elapsed; times have changed; these days one doesn't need even minimal knowledge of FrontPage Express to rocket one's thoughts into the infinite vacuum of the Web. Gone (for the most part) are the animated GIFs that were once a young webmaster's bread-and-butter, and gone is the rough-edged novelty of trying to manage one's place in a banner circle (or whatever it was called) or crafting miserable little graphics on shoddy freeware. Life is easier! Life is more democratic! Lo! how the MSM trembles before the trillion firebrands of the blogosphere!

Et cetera.

I will save the manifestos for the avant-garde, who comprise the subject of my first earnest post. Why "dazzleship?" The dazzle art movement -- there is evidence enough, it seems, to suggest that it was at least an aesthetic fad -- is something that I have foggily known about for a while and been occasionally piqued by for a good year. It is not yet something I have read any books about, so I have only enough authority to claim it as one of those interests that sits lightly on the most superficial layer of thought: rooted deeply enough to persist, but enjoying only rare flashes of intellectual sunlight. I intend for this to change, and for dazzle art to get promoted up the ranks of my fancies, but I am not willing to promise it to myself.

Dazzle art: one of those intensely curious moments in history where art and warfare join in true alliance. Not the kind of representational association between battle and battle painting, nor as between, say, armor and sheer decoration. The concept of modern camouflage, according to Timothy Lawrence Williams,
...was developed by a group of French artists serving in the First World War, who had the idea of using abstract painting techniques to conceal their battery from the enemy. This led to the formation of a Section de Camouflage in 1915. Nearly all the soldiers assigned to the section were artists; those of note include the cubist Jacques Villon, Jean-Louis Forain, Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac, Othon Friesz, Abel Truchet and Andre Mare founder of the Maison Cubiste. The French Section used the methods of the cubists to create deliberate distortions, forms that merge into other forms, planes or tones that bleed into other planes and tones and subtle use of colour and shading.
Think of it! The application of fine art to aid warfare in an active and directly material way. A phenomenon, I suspect, made possible only by the unique conditions of the Great War (general belief in and fascination with technology, the nation-state, and the positive usefulness of combat) -- and rendered in later decades distasteful because of that same war. Dazzle art, creation of the British Vorticist Norman Wilkinson, aimed not to conceal but to confuse. Its geometrical patterns and unnatural color schemes, painted on the surface of naval vessels, were meant to disrupt the image of a ship as it appeared, most specifically, in the periscope of a U-Boat. The profile of the ship would be fractured by the pattern, making the vessel's heading less obvious and making it a much more difficult target for gunners and torpedoes. Its success was and is debated; but it certainly captured the imagination of its contemporaries -- and mine.

With a Score By Dimitri Shostakovich

I pledge, on Wyndham Lewis' grave, that the nautical metaphors will be kept to a minimum.