The Futurist Moment: AVANT-GARDE, AVANT GUERRE, AND THE LANGUAGE OF RUPTURE by Marjorie Perloff (University of Chicago: $24.95; 288 pp., illustrated)
“We exclaim that the whole brilliant style of modern times--our trousers, jackets, shoes, trolleys, cars, airplanes, railways, grandiose steamships--is fascinating, is a great epoch, one that has known no equal in the entire history of the world.” Tone down “exclaim,” throw in tape recorder, TV and telephone for outdated trolleys, railways and steamships, and we might think we are reading something from the pages of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. In fact, this comes from a manifesto by Russian Futurists in 1913. Whence the interest of Marjorie Perloff’s informative book, which examines the heterogenous, heterogeneric artistic productions of the period 1909-1914. Her purpose is twofold: to correlate Italian and Russian Futurism with a host of nonaligned but homologous works of the period so as to exemplify a “moment” in which art and letters embraced the violence and energy of the Machine Age; and furthermore to illustrate (quite543647086artistic sensibilities and theories of the present time.
The first five chapters mostly serve the first purpose. Perloff ably reconnoiters and interrelates the myriad experiments of Delaunay (both Robert and Sonia), of the early Cubists, of Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and the early vorticist Ezra Pound. These are works to which the iconoclastic as well as creative impulses of Futurism are clearly hospitable, as suggested by this article from a manifesto of 1910: “1416126836stale and threadbare subject matter in order to express the vortex of modern life--a life of steel, fever, pride and headlong speed.” Separate chapters are devoted to the unduly neglected Cendrars and to Pound; they nicely serve to frame intervening chapters on collage, on the manifesto as art form, and on the word play and typographical high jinks of the Russian Futurist book.
We rightly continue to be fascinated by these productions, as they beckon our attention to what Baudelaire was the first to recognize as le fantastique reel de la vie . And Perloff just as ably succeeds in showing, in her final chapter, how they resonate with current preoccupations: Performance art is high on the list, as are the boundaries between art and life, art and theory, art and artifact.
Today we call this Postmodernism, which Perloff cannily dubs “a disillusioned or cool Futurism” for its ironic, not to say parodic revival of similar themes. This is borne out by lengthy comparison-contrast of texts by Cendrars and Malevich and Roland Barthes on the Eiffel Tower--which simply horrified the earlier generation of fin de siecle artists. It is further illustrated by extensive commentary on the “protoconceptual” production of Robert Smithson, whose funky evocations of New Jersey’s industrial landscape do not fail to remind us of a Futurist project for the modernization, nay the Hobokenization, of quaint, sleepy, museumized Venice.
Perloff’s lucid commentary and scrupulous research offer a good introduction to Futurism in its wider implications. Of course, we may ask whether we need an introduction to the works of the period, which these days strike us as being as archly self-explanatory as the pages of Artforum and the prose of Barthes to which they are judiciously compared. And the author is not always to blame if these works lose in translation and in academic criticism what jokes lose when they are explained to us. Yet Perloff’s precise skills as stylistic analyst often seem superfluous when applied to works whose intentions and effects are so sensational and self-conscious, and which are themselves so transparently deliberate and programmatic in their challenge to genre and media boundaries, to traditional aesthetic value and modes of representation. In sum, we have to ask, after Duchamp, whether we need more evidence for our already-made-so-much-of crisis of representation, which now perhaps only propels academic careers, where it goes by the name of Postmodernism.
As to what this notion portends, one could quarrel with the author’s conception, at least as it concerns a statement like this: “But in the last few decades, this spirit of invention, of rupture, of the conceptual art work as something that can actually change our landscapes has once again become important. The machine in its fantastic and ironic guises once again stimulates the poetic imagination.” Our irony toward the machine is informed, of course, by its massive dedication to destruction through two world wars and possibly a third, definitive one. Perloff’s sense of this comes through, but not, irony of ironies, a consequent sense of fin de siecle affecting our “moment.” She accordingly betrays no awareness either of what is post-industrial about our postmodernity; our decrepit machinery, even as glossed by Smithson, evokes the pathos of ruins, of antiquarian nostalgia rather than an ethos of triumphal creativity. As more theoretically ambitious critics like Jean Baudrillard in Paris and Eric Gans at UCLA have noted, our culture is no longer guided by the economy of labor, production and machinery, but of service, simulacra and software. Information, not industry, is our “moment,” as even our author obliquely testifies when she closes her preface with a word of acknowledgement to her word processor and jet laser printer.