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

Tales of the City

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

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

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat