- The Creation of the Avant-Garde: F. T. Marinetti and Ezra Pound
Debate about the nature and significance of the historical avant-garde has reached an almost feverish pitch in the last decade, its intensity clearly a sign that more is at stake than academic questions of historical accuracy or comprehensiveness. Like an antique mirror from which the mercury has seeped and faded, the avant-garde has become the ambiguous glass in which we seem to scrutinize a perplexing image of ourselves, an image that is haunting precisely because it is simultaneously so alike and unlike, because it bears so many of the features by which we recognize ourselves and the contemporary cultural milieu, even as it also evokes a world that is already feathered at the edges, has already receded irretrievably into the past, is already remote. While it would be impossible to catalogue all the salient features that have been held to define the avant-garde or its significance for today, two questions have gradually acquired especial importance in the course of recent critical discussion: one, the extent to which, to use Peter Bürger’s formulation, the avant-garde “can be defined as an attack on the status of art in bourgeois society,” or as Bürger further clarifies, an assault on “art as an institution that is unassociated with the life praxis of men”; 1 and the other, the ways in which that attack overlaps with the avant-garde’s use of motifs, materials, and artifacts from mass or popular culture, a usage that has been dismissed by Marxist critics as “a colonization of other, formerly independent” cultural practices, 2 or defended by others for its “subvert[ing]...the hierarchical distinctions between high art and mass culture,” or for its proposing a “critique, not only of [End Page 195] prevailing market conditions, but also of the futility of the Symbolist [or high-art] response to these conditions.” 3
These views may sound either glib or unduly dogmatic in their bold assertiveness: and while partly that results from disembedding quotations from their context, partly it reflects the growing polarization, the increasingly schematic formulations that have characterized recent discussion about the historical avant-garde. Yet such well-defined dichotomies prove strangely inadequate when tested against the complex social realities informing the interaction among avant-garde, elite bourgeois, and popular cultures in the formative moments of modernism and the avant-garde, an interaction that might be traced in many cultural exchanges of the period, but perhaps nowhere better than in the dialogue of actions that took place between Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Ezra Pound during the period 1912 to 1914. Marinetti, after all, is typically viewed as one of the founding fathers of the historical avant-garde, his creation of Futurism in 1909 considered one of its paradigmatic moments. 4 Pound too is widely treated as a representative of the avant-garde, sometimes in contrast to Eliot with his more symbolist or modernist style, sometimes by virtue of his role in the formation of first Imagism, then Vorticism, the two movements in the Anglo-American literary tradition which that nearly resemble the Continental avant-gardes. 5
For the most part, however, critics have paired Marinetti with Pound only in order to dismiss the importance of the connection, and in doing so they have largely been following a script that originated with Pound himself. Writing anonymously in 1917, T. S. Eliot had already set a precedent followed by subsequent critics when he characterized Pound’s relationship to Futurism as one of implacable but informed opposition:
Pound has perhaps done more than anyone to keep Futurism out of England. His antagonism to this movement was the first which was due not merely to unintelligent dislike for anything that was new, and was due to his perception that Futurism was incompatible with any principles of form. In his own words, Futurism is “accelerated impressionism.” 6
Eliot, in these remarks, was not rehearsing a history that he had witnessed first-hand, given that he had arrived in England more than two months after Marinetti’s final visit in June of 1914, and it is more than likely that these comments...