World War I: “War—the world’s only hygiene”

Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War, Carl von Clausewitz wrote On War, and both texts have been rather disturbingly, in my opinion, reinterpreted for self-help and business-management books. Business as war or the overcoming of personal difficulties cast as a battle is a rather grotesque, vulgar metaphor for violent conflict. Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz are indeed considered ‘philosophies,’ and the latter is famous for the statement: “War is the continuation of Politik by other means.” In 1915, the Futurist Carlo Carrà would rewrite that phrase as “war meant nothing but art pursued with other means.” The Italian Futurists dared to promote the idea that War is Art and then reversed it à la palindrome: Art is War. The Guggenheim is now hosting an exhibit, Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe, from 21 February to 1 September 2014.

The reason I chose to focus on the Italian Futurists in this series on World War I is because their legacy has informed art and politics today. Chromatic colors, explosive energy, dynamic movement, are all the hallmark traits of Futurist art. Electricity, light, man and machine, speed and violence were their obsessions. Futurist architecture is Art Deco. Futurist painting is the dog in motion in Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912. Futurist musicians created new instruments and sound systems, often made with mechanical tools. Futurist literature is F.T. Marinetti’s sound-poem book and typographical experiment Zang Tumb Tumb, which took its title from the sounds he heard as a journalist during the Bulgarian artillery bombardment of Turkish Adrianople in the Balkan War.

I believe that the Italian Futurists irrevocably changed advertising, consumerism, the psychology of influence, and most importantly, media. They would show future governments and terrorists that ‘manufacturing consent’ is essential to their interests, and that ‘consent’ requires a systematic and panoptic media machine. The Italian Futurists, just as Sun Tzu and von Clausewitz had, wrote brief handbooks.

Their manifestos, with their inflammatory rhetoric, attacked and redefined architecture, fashion, food, literature, music, and sculpture. They declared War on the past and asked that all art forms glorify violence in order to return Italy to international cultural and political prominence. Their founder and spokesperson F.T. Marinetti declared, “War — the world’s only hygiene.” He saw violence as a cleansing, transformative experience. In all fairness, however, many of the combatant nations welcomed World War I as a ‘good-bye to all that,’ as Robert Graves put it, but the ‘good-bye’ every one expected was a ‘hello’ to a new social order. Not quite the case with the Italian Futurists. They wanted ‘total art.’

Read the list of avant-garde movements of the last century. Note their nations of origin and approximate dates: Cubism, France, 1907; Vorticism, England, 1913; Dadaism, Switzerland, 1916; Constructivism, Russia, 1919; and Surrealism, France, 1920. All these movements that I have just named, in all their artistic permutations, were interpretations, reactions and statements against World War I. I will write about the Russian Futurists in a future essay on Vladimir Mayakovsky. Italy had the only art movement that was for War.

F.T. Marinetti would lob the bomb, his Futurist Manifesto, where no Anarchist could ever gain legitimacy: on the front page of Le Figaro, the major French newspaper, in 1909. The Futurists did not seek to overthrow a government; they sought to change the way people thought and perceived the world around them. The Futurists imagined possibilities through a sensational reformation of art. The common trait of revolutions is that they wish to topple an existing order, and return to some idealized past or state. The Futurists rejected the past and sought the technological Future. The only thing of the ‘past’ that they desired was Italy’s ‘unredeemed’ lands, the places where Italian was spoken, but where the inhabitants were under foreign rule. Eyes turned to cities along the Adriatic coast and the Trentino province. World War I provided the opportunity to reclaim these lands. Italian irredentism is a contradiction to Futurist ideals because a unified Italy is a nineteenth-century ideal.

The Italian Futurists used polemic as their means to convince Italians that War is necessary, both moral and justified; and their use of multimedia sharpened how governments used propaganda and businesses influenced consumers after World War I. Using the pamphlet as their model, the Futurist manifestos used a simple format of either one page or short essay. There is a preamble in which a context for the complaint is explained, followed then by a numbered list of prescriptive declarations.

Art was not ‘decadent’ or racial, just old and passé. These manifestos, however, did not use the persuasive argument and logic found in Thomas Paine’s pamphlets; they were single-page screeds. The fundamental and profound difference is that the Futurists were not dismissed as fringe lunatics; they were organized and systematic. They ventured out into public squares, plastered manifestos on walls, interrupted theater performances, and they created art. They owned a printing press, formed a political party, and they counted architects, inventors, journalists, musicians, painters and sculptors amongst them. They were grass-roots artists, not politicians, although none of the architects of Futurism was from a lower-class family. This fact is important.

Italy at the time was a relatively new nation, with a high illiteracy rate, mostly agrarian and poorly industrialized. In pop psychology terms, the nation lacked self-esteem. They had a glorious past for an artifact, but not much else, and Marinetti would exploit it. How the Futurists would influence future governments and their use of media is through their insight into crowd psychology. Marinetti, Mussolini, and Hitler had studied Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) and developed their own ideas from this book that explained group dynamics and, unfortunately, also propagated race theory. Marinetti would focus on the arts, Mussolini on the reification of Imperial Rome, symbolized by the bundle of sticks and axe, the fasces; and Hitler, on Germanic myth and folklore. All three men would spew out words full of xenophobic and racial prejudice.

The aesthetic of the Italian Futurists is pervasive in modern popular culture. We associate speed with progress, technology with affluence and social mobility, even superiority. The new is strong; the old is archaic, irrelevant. These are all Futurist values. Marinetti despised museums because he saw them as houses of the dead, as places of worship that kept people in thrall to Italy’s Renaissance. The city is Action; the countryside is Rest. Where Baudelaire the flâneur observed Ennui in Paris, Marinetti reveled in noise and pollution in Milan. Bronze and steel are modern; marble is old-fashioned. Aluminum was the metal of the Futurists. Tea is colonial and quaint. Coffee is liquid speed, clarity of thought, invigorating, and it isn’t just brewed; it is available on the stove top, ready when needed. Automatic. There is no better example of the Italian Futurist ideal than the Bialetti Moka Express, the twist-top brewer on the stove. There is hardly an Italian home without one. The next evolutionary step was the espresso machine that dribbles out potent coffee in seconds. Man in control of a sleek machine that provides instant access to power  — think of car adverts – is iconic Futurism.

Speed was both literal and metaphorical to the Futurists. The first cars ran on electricity and then on steam, not on gasoline, because it was a minority power source. Enrico Bernardi built a gas-fueled tricycle car in 1884. Giovanni Agnelli’s first car for Fiat was capable of speeds up to 22 mph in 1900. Italian automobiles would get faster and faster in the subsequent years. The so-called Italian Motor Valley, the area around Modena that is home to Ducati, Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati, is in the Emilia-Romagna region, the birthplace of Futurist and later Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Coincidence? Marinetti wrote: “a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Marinetti would claim that Futurism was conceived from an automobile accident that he had had in 1908.

While the motion-picture industry was in its infancy, television in the far distance, the Futurist had the written word and radio. The early Twentieth Century saw a lot of experiments with language, but I find some interesting parallels between what the Futurists had to say about language and how writers today are told to write. Journalistic and telegraphic prose is clean, lean, and quick to the point. Hemingway would retire Henry James. Copy has that economy and speed that the Futurist found so endearing. Here is what Marinetti has to say about language:

We must destroy syntax by placing nouns at random as they are born.

We must abolish the adjective so that the naked noun can retain its essential color.

Writers are told today to eschew darling adverbs, to prune their prose of adjectives, and use active voice. Passive voice is verboten: it is flabby, weak; put another way, not active. Active voice is present, immediate, and vigorous; in other words, action. Think for a moment about all the implicit violence in this aesthetic. The past tense is relegated to back-story. Action, movement, spectacle leave little time for reflection, but we should exercise some caution about passivity, about the Italian Futurists’ impact on literature. I believe that their influence is far-reaching in visual media such as painting and sculpture. Film was a relatively new form. Reading a novel before the Twentieth Century was passive in that details slowed down the action (read plot), whereas post-Hemingway novels have become cinematic, where the reader is along for the ride and reflects afterwards. Then again the fascionable Aero Portrait of Benito Mussolini the Aviator (1933) was a sign of what was to come out of the cult of man, machine, and violence.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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