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

Tales of the City

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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?

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