John Walsh: 'Futurists, Vorticists, Imagists: where are the manifesto writers today?'

Tales of the City

Share
Related Topics

Whatever happened to manifestos? There was a time, 100 years ago, when you couldn't open a paper without seeing a litany of avant-garde statements, or a crazily idealistic declaration of political attitudes, or a sternly numbered list of arty Dos and Donts, as portentous as the Ten Commandments. Writers, poets, sculptors, artists and freelance visionaries would meet at the Eiffel Tower restaurant or stay up all night in bordellos, thrashing out their stroppy jeremiads like kidnappers writing ransom notes. They may have been a few elephants short of the full zoo, but by God they were passionate.

These thoughts are prompted by a preview of the new Futurism show at Tate Modern. It starts on Thursday and its star is Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, a crazy whirlwind of Italian energy. He and his pals wanted Italian art and literature to celebrate modern machinery, speed, work, engineering, violence and The Young, rather than becoming stuck in the museum-land of the past. An admirable movement (so JG Ballard).

Unfortunately, Marinetti was a barking mad Fascist sympathiser, who thought war was a necessity for cleansing the human spirit and wanted to demolish all museums and libraries, so one does not wish to praise him unduly. But have you read the Futurist Manifesto? It's an amazing 2,000-word, unparagraphed, poetically-charged rant about how he and his poetic mates stayed up all night "under mosque lamps" discussing how fabulously solitary and out there in the vanguard they were; his sentences are crammed with images of celestial armies, runaway trains, deluged festivals and the Gates of Life, until he sounds like Kerouac crossed with Bob Dylan ("We drove on, crushing beneath our burning wheels, like shirt-collars under the iron, the watch-dogs on the steps of houses...") He called for a new, 11-point aesthetic ("5. We want to sing the man at the wheel, the ideal axis of which crosses earth, itself hurled along its orbit.") And this Italian seer got all 2,000 words of genius printed in the conservative French daily Le Figaro on 20 February 1909. On the front page! How did he manage that?

However much of a social pariah Marinetti became, his manifesto was a tremendous ringing cry for modern art. Four years later it was the turn of the Imagists. By chance a huge book has just been published, The Verse Revolutionaries by Helen Carr, which celebrates the practitioners of this brief movement. Their poems were exceedingly short, haiku-like productions and their manifesto was tiny as well – just three not-quite-sentences calling for "1) Direct treatment of the 'thing' whether subjective or objective; 2) To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation; 3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome." That's it. How clever, how heroic of them, to launch a literary movement involving a dozen book-world luminaries of 1914, to be praised by TS Eliot who dubbed Imagism "the starting-point of modern poetry," and to have 900-page books written about them a century later, all from such terse, indeed boring, little injunctions.

Scarcely a year later, the Vorticists were having their short-lived time in the sun, when Wyndham Lewis launched their manifesto BLAST in June 1914. It was indeed a blast of yelling, screaming capitals against everything the movement found wrong with the nation: "BLAST First (from politeness) ENGLAND CURSE ITS CLIMATE FOR ITS SINS AND INFECTIONS." Lewis spent 30 pages distributing Blasts and Blessings apparently at random, including "BLAST HUMOUR Quack ENGLISH drug for stupidity and sleepiness" and even took a swipe at people who dared to smile while reading him: "CURSE those who will hang over this Manifesto with SILLY CANINES exposed."

I don't recall seeing an art manifesto worthy of the name since the Dogme 95 group of film-makers rejected special effects and embraced pure storytelling in March 1995. Since then, rien. Surely, on the anniversary of Futurism, someone is prepared to stick their neck out and draw up a litany of avant-garde undertakings to be argued over in cafes and garrets across the nation, before being quietly dropped by its signatories? Where is the Phil Marinetti of 2009?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high