'The past, we want no part of it': the legacy of Futurism

Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Garden Room Utopias

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At the turn of the 20th century, Italy was economically backward and politically stagnant compared with the more advanced nations of Europe. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti became a figurehead for dissidents and rebels who wanted to overthrow the existing order when he published his Manifesto in February 1909, launching the avant-garde Futurist movement. Inspired by the markers of modernity – the industrial city, machines, cars, and flight – Marinetti exalted the new and the disruptive. To be a Futurist in the Italy of the early 20th century was to be modern, young, and insurgent. For the Futurists, energy and speed were the watchwords to cure Italy of its languor, and to revitalise an apathetic generation.

Futurists welcomed modernity as an explosion of human creativity and an expansion of life without precedent in history. For them modernity was an acceleration of the rhythm of time, an expansion of energies both human and material, an intensification of individual and collective life through struggle. In 1912 the influential Italian painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni, one of principal figures of Futurism, summed up Futurists’ extraordinary vitality: ‘For the first time we Futurists are giving an example of the enthusiastic human adherence to the form of civilisation that is forming itself before our eyes. We are ecstatic in the face of modernity and feel the innovative delirium of our epoch’.

The belief that Italy had to become a major protagonist of the 20th century inflamed the movement. To achieve this goal and obtain the regeneration of the Italians and the creation of a ‘New State’ and a ‘New Man’, the Futurists turned their attentions to militant engagement in politics. But the Futurists’ belief in nationalism and the violent overthrow of the old order lent itself all too readily to the growing Fascist movement. Fascism became the hard-core of the cultural revolt and succeeded in translating it into a political force. Fascism sought to give muscles to an heroic and violent political culture, and to create a new human being. So did Futurism have reactionary tendencies from the outset, or is there something in its spirit that is still compatible with the more progressive, humanistic aspects of utopianism? Did fascism discredit once and for all the Futurists’ commitment to speed, technology and humanity’s triumph over nature, or can we turn back to the future?