- Marketing Modernism: Marinetti as Publisher
In the period when Filippo Tommaso Marinetti brought to life his ambitious project of artistic reawakening, mass society was still in an early stage of development, far from having acquired the characteristics that would subsequently become more and more clearly defined with the ever more rapid development of new technologies. Yet it was precisely this new world, just emerging at the dawn of the twentieth century, with its profound economic and anthropological transformations, that became the reference point for futurism, a movement that responded to the radical nature of this epochal shift with a project almost equally global in its ambitions, that committed itself to an aesthetic renovation also entailing moral and intellectual claims, and that sought to involve not just an intellectual elite, but all the classes and sectors of modern society. Harking back in certain ways to the criteria of collective art previously suggested by Wagner and Lautréamont, Marinetti chose to pursue a program of cultural democratization, setting himself the goal of bringing art into the realm of daily life.
The advent of mass society, as Benjamin noted long ago, entails the “decay of the auratic,” 1 a process in which art loses its halo of associations with ritual and magic as the values of tradition disappear. His viewpoint might almost have been designed to illustrate a well-known prose-poem by Baudelaire, “Perte d’auréole” (lost halo), a witty sketch in which Baudelaire explores the new marginality assigned to the artist by the world of modernity. The protagonist, a poet, recounts his earlier attempt to cross a boulevard jammed with morning traffic. Trying to leap over the mud while also avoiding the horses and [End Page 109] carriages that fly in every direction, he had made a sudden movement that caused his halo to fall into the mud. Stricken with panic and fearful of being injured, he then decided to leave it on the ground. Yet he feels no regret, he tells his interlocutor, for now he is free to stroll through the city incognito, “like all common mortals.” Now, the poet informs his hearer, he is “an exact resemblance of yourself, as you can see!” 2
Responding many years later to the same sense of the loss of the artist’s role in modernity, Marinetti attempted to relocate or rediscover the sense of aura within the forms of modernity itself. Perhaps it is no accident that he placed his own artistic rebirth in a muddy ditch as well in the famous allegorical narrative that prefaces “The Founding and First Manifesto of Futurism,” in which an automobile accident is represented as a second birth and myth of initiation to modern life:
Oh! Maternal ditch, almost full of muddy water! Fair factory drain! I gulped down your nourishing sludge; and I remembered the blessed black breast of my Sudanese nurse....When I came up torn, filthy, and stinking from under the capsized car, I felt the white-hot iron of joy deliciously pass through my heart! 3
The passage plainly indicates the necessity of descending into the inferno of modern life, of accepting the challenges posed by an existence dominated by speed, standardization, noise, and mass communications; but that project, in turn, implicitly requires that it be translated concretely into a program of recuperating, for the domain of art, the universe of new signs that is offered by the metropolis, signs that can be used for constructing a new epic, an industrial epos shaped by the mythic language of the machine.
That implicit program of recuperation is signalled not by the allegorical narrative, but by the medium of its transmission and the relationship of the narrative to the event that it heralds. Adopting a polemical stance towards the communicative means of more traditional culture, closed in upon itself and incapable of seeing beyond the institutional limits imposed by academies, universities, readers’ circles, and salons, Marinetti understands the new world of mass communications and, decades before Marshall McLuhan, intuitively perceives that “the medium is the message.” “The Founding and First Manifesto,” published on the first page Le Figaro (Paris) on 20 February 1909, embodies this...