1909: Futurist Manifesto

Just a few years ago, museums and publications around the world marked the 100th anniversary of Futurism, a movement born as a manifesto written and published on the front page of the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro in 1909.

The author and proponents of the Futurist Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti and friends, did not so much predict the coming wars as profess an intense desire for them. Item nine of the 10-point manifesto reads: “We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”

An audio recording uploaded to the web as part of the New York MOMA’s “celebration” of the Manifesto’s 100th anniversary features a spirited reading of excerpts from the document, including an alternative (though still comparable) translation of the preceding lines. It’s hard to imagine the MOMA holding a similar event to commemorate, say, the anniversary of Mein Kampf, also a landmark document and one expressing some similar sentiments. So what is the difference?

As we move into the next decade, first into those years in which war seemed inevitable to some and impossible to others, and then onto the battlefield and beyond, I’ll be seeking to understand not only what happened but how and why we remember it and what we gain and lose by way of selective memory.

Can we approach history with anything like surgical precision? Can we carve away those bits we don’t like and embrace, for instance, the Futurist Manifesto merely as “one of the first documents to celebrate the automobile as an object of beauty and to cite speed and acceleration as aesthetic elements“?

And what of the 20th century itself and its terrible wars? Did the years of overwhelming violence bludgeon it into a shackle-like chain of “beautiful ideas which kill”? Or is it still possible to view it, with equal legitimacy as – to paraphrase the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson – “something more, a bringer of new things,” as truly bountiful years in which writers, scientists, artists, statesmen and so many others followed knowledge “like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought”?

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