Back to the futurism

A performance, a provocation, self-promotion — beginning with Marinetti’s mission statement in 1909,

On or around 20 February 1909, artists found their voice. That day, the Manifeste de Futurisme was splashed across the front page of the French newspaper Le Figaro. It announced not only the founding of futurism but also the beginning of the very idea of the artists' manifesto: at once a new genre and a reinvention (or remix) of the political original, Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto of 1848.

The impact of the Futurist Manifesto was both immediate and long-lasting. It loosened tongues, shortened tempers and emboldened imitators from every nation and of every persuasion. It triggered an avalanche of artists' manifestos - 50 more over the next few years from the futurists alone. The manifesto was a continuation of art by other means. Over the next 20 years, as well as the futurists, the art wars of the avant-garde produced the canonical manifestos of other movements - the Dadaists, the surrealists and their brothers and sisters and splinters - all of them owing something to this founding text and fundamental example.

To manifesto is to show or perform. The futurists may be described as the original performance artists. In print, on stage, showering leaflets from the top of the nearest tall building, they made pronouncements that performed their principles. They were dedicated to the beauty of speed and the necessity of outrage. One of their sharpest observers was Leon Trotsky. "Futurism arose," he wrote later, "as a protest against the art of petty realists who sponged on life." The introduction to the Futurist Manifesto did not disappoint: "It is from Italy that we hurl at the whole world this utterly violent, inflammatory manifesto of ours, with which today we are founding 'futurism', because we wish to free our country from the stinking canker of its professors, archaeologists, tour guides and antiquarians."

Its author was Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, philosopher, novelist, playwright, poet, propagandist and self-publicist. Its tenets were a marinade of Marinetti and his influences - poetical and political, acknowledged and unacknowledged - among them Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" and Zola's "J'accuse", Henri Bergson's notion of élan vital and Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence, Stéphane Mallarmé's lyrical experimentalism and Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical iconoclasm. Marinetti knew what he was about. The art of making manifestos, as he put it, called for a certain rigour, a verve (or perhaps a nerve) and a sense of style or form, analogous to the work of art itself.

Marinetti was not an artist, but he was a figure. Tristan Tzara, the capo of Dadaism, and André Breton, the pope of surrealism, knowingly followed in his footsteps. Every art movement's commander-in-chief is a mini-Marinetti. For all his Fascist fellow-travelling and light-fingered borrowing ("Workers of the mind, unite!"), he was a true original. Not only did he instigate a new wave; as mobiliser, organiser and proselytiser, Marinetti was as important in the history of European modernism as Trotsky was in the history of the Russian Revolution.

The Marinetti model was encapsulated in the notorious paragraph 9 of the Futurist Manifesto: "We wish to glorify war - the sole cleanser of the world - militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women."

This did not go unanswered. Soon enough the French artist Valentine de Saint-Point published her Manifesto of Futurist Woman (1912), taking Marinetti's text as its point of departure. Her Futurist Manifesto of Lust appeared the following year. Creatively and erotically, Saint-Point's only rival was the British artist Mina Loy, whose Feminist Manifesto (1914) was another slap in the face for Marinetti, with whom she had an unfulfilling affair. Loy could turn a fine phrase and had a sense of humour. She also published a satire of Marinetti-men who saw no conflict between speed and passion: "My love is eternal and my train leaves in fifteen minutes."

Manifestos are nothing if not disputatious. Artists' movements and artists' manifestos typically define themselves against someone or something. Intellectually, this causes them no trouble. It is not hard to identify who or what they are against - usually their rivals and predecessors (and perhaps their peers). In this respect the futurists were unusual only in the sheer comprehensiveness of their condemnation: they were against the past.

The lesson was not lost on their successors. Guy Debord, strategist of the situationists, had a Marinettian sense of "the necessary transcendence" of the past, a subtle appreciation of how handy it would be to retain a certain doctrinal ambiguity, and an impressive rhetorical fluency. "To those who don't understand us properly," concluded the Situationist Manifesto (1960), "we say with irreducible scorn: 'The situationists of which you believe yourselves perhaps to be the judges will one day judge you. We await the turning point which is the inevitable liquidation of the world of privation, in all its forms. Such are our goals, and these will be the future goals of humanity.'"

To specify what manifestos are for is a good deal harder. Many resolve this difficulty into a round of name-calling, where brickbats and bouquets are tossed at selected targets. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire's manifesto L'anti­tradition futuriste (1913) offers an extravagant example, throwing merde at Montaigne, Wagner, Beethoven, Poe, Whitman and Baudelaire, among many others, and roses at a long list of the notable and not so notable, beginning with Marinetti, Picasso and Apollinaire himself. Wyndham Lewis's vorticist version of this procedure was trumpeted in the very title of the journal he created, BLAST, which blasts some things ("France, sentimental Gallic gush, sensationalism, fussiness") and blesses others ("cold, magnanimous, delicate, gauche, fanciful, stupid Englishmen"). The latter-day stuckists add a pinch of history and a sense of humour - The Founding, Manifesto and Rules of the Other Muswell Hill Stuckists was issued on 20 February 2009. Blast novelty. Bless authenticity. Long live the cup of tea!

Perhaps the most striking feature of the artists' manifesto is the frequency with which it outruns art to embrace life. In the first half of the 20th century, especially, the revolution was their unavoidable preoccupation. Futurist manifestos raved about "the multicoloured polyphonic tides of revolution". The last words of Le Corbusier's influential Towards an Architecture (1923) posed the question, "Architecture or revolution?" and offered the answer: "Revolution can be avoided." Others felt differently. In 1938 Breton and Trotsky ended their joint manifesto, Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, with a ringing declaration:

Our aims:
The independence of art - for the revolution.
The revolution - for the complete liberation of art!

Revolution or no revolution, artists manifestoed, undeterred. To make a manifesto is to imagine the promised land, wherever it may be. Robert Bolaño's 1998 novel The Savage Detectives offers a glimpse of that vision:

You're a Stridentist, body and soul. You'll help us build Stridentopolis, Cesárea, I said. And then she smiled . . . and she said that she had quit her job a week ago and that anyway she'd always been a Visceral Realist, not a Stridentist. And so am I, I said or shouted, all of us Mexicans are more Visceral Realists than Stridentists, but what does it matter? Stridentism and Visceral Realism are just two masks to get us to where we really want to go. And where is that? she said. To modernity, Cesárea, I said, to goddamn modernity.

The artists' manifesto is a passport to modernity. To goddamn modernity.And then to postmodernity. And beyond.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His latest book is "100 Artists' Manifestos" (Penguin, £12.99), to be published on 27 January

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency