The Futurist Roots of Fascism
"to admire an old painting is to pour our sensitivities into a funeral urn"
“What is the use of looking behind us, since our task is to smash the mysterious portals of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We live already in the absolute, since we have already created the eternal omnipresent speed.”- FT Marinetti
Historical understanding of the relationship between modern art and fascism is often oversimplified. It’s commonly understood that fascism, explicitly, is inherently anti-modernist and modern art is, implicitly or explicitly, anti-fascist. The modernist roots of fascism have become obscured.
There are endless statue avatar trad accounts dedicated to denigrating modern art and extolling “traditional” art. ( By which they invariably mean Greco-Roman statuary and the neoclassical revival inspired by it. Some accounts are dedicated to classical and neoclassical architecture. But that’s about it. I’ve never seen a statue avi trad recommend a play.) The delineation is clear: traditional art (statues) good: modern art bad. Depending on the account there will be different levels of crypto-fascist claims of the degeneracy and decadence of modern art. Their understanding of art is, obviously, incredibly limited, and would be barely worth mentioning (though I hope to do a deeper dive into these accounts as I go forward). However, the traditional art- modern art binary is often reinforced by those trying to rebuke trad art fetishists. [Both implicitly work from the idea that traditional art is the domain of fascism. No one thinks modern art is inherently anti-fascist, but they do seem to think that fascism is inherently anti modern art.
However, the relationship between modern art and fascism is more complicated. . Modernism, even progress itself, are not inherently anti-fascist. Modern art played a much deeper role in the creation of fascism than most people think. The modernist, futurist, roots of fascism have largely been forgotten by both the left and the right. I’m hoping that this will be the first entry in a series exploring the relationship between modern art and fascism, with an emphasis on avante-garde poetry. There are a lot of things to cover, and I can’t cover all of it in this post. For example, I’m not going to be able talk about Ezra Pound and his speeches for musssolin in this entry, but I plan to come to this as this series goes on. With this post I want to assert the relationship between the two, focusing on the writer of the Fascist Manifesto, FT Marinetti, who was an avante grade poet best known for the his futurist manifestos.
A Trad Twtter Account Comparing “Nymph”- Giovanni Battista- 1864 with “Fountian”- Marcel Duchamp- 1917; A twitter user commenting on the OP, with a screenshot of the Wikipeida page for Degenerate art
There is no doubt that fascists, especially as the ideology codified throughout the 20s and thirties, expressed a violent antipathy towards modern art. This antipathy was strongest in Nazi Germany. Hitler, the failed landscape painter, especially professed such a deep personal hatred for modern art that he impressed his taste on the entire country (though even then the relationship between Nazism and modernism is often more complicated than a simple gesture towards the Entarte Kunst exhibit suggests). Fascist art, especially Nazi art, venerated folk traditions and neoclassical order as a celebration of the Aryan ideal. It is certainly true that modern art and fascism were in conflict with each other, but that was not always the case, especially in the early days. (The modernism of the Nazi party is better understood by studying it’s cinema, it’s uniforms, and especially it’s use proganda. This is not the focus of this current post but I think the case could be made that the Nazi’s are the truest embodiment of the “Modern”. I will expand on this in later entries.)
A lot has been written Hitler’s and his Nazi regime’s disdain for modern art. A lot less has been written about Italian fascism’s relationship to futurist art. This relationship is is a lot less clear-cut. Something I have never seen discussed is the fact that the first fascist manifesto was written by a modernist/ futurist poet. The movement has it’s roots in avante-garde poetry. The first manifesto of fascism was not written by Mussolini but Alceste De Ambris and FT Marinetti in 1919. Before writing the fascist manifesto, and even today, Marinetti is and was best known for his manifestos for a futurist art that exalted speed, violence, and the machinery of the modern world. It’s striking how antithetical the views are art and literature of Marinetti’s earlier manifestos to the trad view. In these futurist manifestos, the author of the fascist manifesto lays out a vision where artists “will sing of the great crowds agitated by work, pleasure and revolt; the multi-colored and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capitals”. The “multicolored, polyphonic surf” especially stands in contrast to the racial purity of fascism. It is surprising that the author of the fascist manifesto would have written any ode to it. Other contradictions to the contemporary understanding of fascisms view of the past abound in Marinetti’s writing. In a direct rebuke to future statue avi trads Marinetti claims that the great statues of the ancient world can not hold up to the beauty of a car: “a racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”
Marinetti explicitly discourages admiration for old art in general. He asserts that “To admire an old painting is to pour our sensitiveness into a funeral urn, instead of throwing it forward by violent casts of creation and action. Do you mean thus to waste the best of you in a useless admiration of the past that must necessarily leave you exhausted, lessened, trampled?”
Marinetti, the author of the fascist manifesto, expresses digust at the idea of (military age men) wasting their lives looking towards the past instead of dedicating them to the violent action of the modern world. Why look at a painting when you can ride a motorcycle or die in war. He asserts that the art young men should make should be violent and modern. It should not just reflect the violence of the modern world but inspire violence in the modern world. And through his influence on fascism, he did create an art that influenced devasting violence for the modern world. Trad artwork, and staues especially, are anithetical to his view of fascism.
Romanticization of the past is, of course, an intrinsic part of fascist ideology, but it is not the only part. The romanticization of the fascist romanticization of the past is often in direct contradiction to Marinetti the author of the first fascist manifesto. Fascism has always mingled that yearning for the past with a violent fetishization of the modern world. The Nazis idealized pastoral beauty in propaganda, but the ultimate manifestation of the Nazi ideology in the factories of the concentration camp, an undeniably modern atrocity.
This isn’t to say that futurist art is inherently fascist. Early 20th century russian artists like Kazmir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova were heavily influenced by the Italian Futurists and Marinetti’s manifestos. The art of the Russian futurists became one of the definitive styles of the Bolshevik revolution and early Communist Russia. [it’s a shame that the phrase “communist art” is more likely to bring to mind the staid soviet realism of the ossifying Stalin regime and not the the dynamic abstract art of the the revolution itself.] This is a topic for another time- I’m trying to keep this short- but the influence that Futurism specifically and modern art generally had on both the Bolsehvik revolution and fascism are important to understand and pretty under reported. The were forged in the same fire.
There is a deep similarity between Italian Futurist works and the work of anti-fascist modernists, like the aforementioned Duchamp. They are breathing the same air. Compare the violent fracturing of Duchamp’s famed Nude with Alsessandro Bruschetti’s Fascist Synthsesis. Though Duchamp’s is farther along in the process of abstraction, the paintings share a sense of dynamism and speed born from the use of slashing lines, sharp angles and vortexes. Both divide the cubist square into triangles, a more violent and fractured shape than the square.
The irony of running a trad art twitter page are inherent to the contradictions of fascism itself. Fascists may fetishize tradition, but they are, at their core, a modernist movement. Fascism, it could be argued is the definitive modernist political movement. It’s really the only political movement to be both born and killed in modernism. Most movements of the 20th century have their roots in the 18th and 19th century. The Communist Manifesto was written in 1847. The declaration of the rights of man was written in 1789. Liberalism had been kicking around since the 1600s. Democracy reaches back to classical Greece. (It’s worth mentioning, in passing for now, that Liberals drew much more on classical Greece and Rome than Fascists did. The archituere of both was deeply inspired by classical architecture, but it was only really liberals that borrowed any of the ideas. Advocats of Democracy created and defended a political mode copied directly from the classical world. Fascism, despite whatever aesthetic overtures it made to tradition, is a radical break from the Democratic model of Greece- fascists were forging a new politics for a modern world. Democracy is much more the heir to the ancient/ classical world than fascism is. To the point you could almost say: Fascism is modern, democracy is trad.) The first fascist manifesto wasn’t written until 1919. Of the dominant political movements of the first half of the 20th century, Fascism is the only truly modern one.
To admire an old painting is to pour our sensitivities into a funeral urn.
For all its gestures towards and exhalations of tradition, fascism is a thoroughly modern movement. Fascism was created in the kiln of Futurism, a movement that fetishized modernity perhaps more than any. Fascism was born in modern art. This is something that is missed by both statue avatars vacuously whining about returning to tradition and defenders of modern art. The modernist roots of fascism have been almost totally obscured.
The argument has been made, effectively, that both modernism and tradionalism are part of the same colonial, eurocentric white supremascist project. Some people even go as far as to say both should be discarded. The argument has been made that not only does fetishisizing european tradition perpuate white surpemacy but the construction of the modern itself is a white supremacist project. The postcolonial critics make undeniable points and as I delve further into this project I hope to engage these criticisms more seriously.
But here’s the thing: I “modern” art and I like “traditional” art. I like trolling irreverence of “Fountain” and admire the decilcate stone hem of Giovanni Battista’s “Nymph”. I am a great admirer of the Dada sensibility, their committed anticapitalism, and their sense of fun. I also feel like the care and dedication that go into something like Battista’s statue like that are something that’s often missing from contemporary life and it’s incredible to me that someone was able create something so soft out of something so hard. Even knowing how easily it gave life to reactionary movements I am really drawn to the dynamism and violence of modern art. (Then again, “Lacoon and his sons” has just as much motion and violence as any modern art piece.)
I’m writing this because I think it’s important to understand the connection between modern art and fascism. While researching for this essay I was surprised at how little I could find about the relationship between the two. This post is a statement of purpose for a longer, more in-depth series of essays I am writing the subject. There’s little in this post beyond assertions. I’m sorry for that. I’ve been doing a lot of research but I wanted to keep this first post short. I’ve been thinking about this for a while but I’m still really gathering my thoughts on this subject. I intend to return to this subject and really flesh it our.
For now, let this stand as one of the few sources that will even mention that Fascism was invented by avante-garde poets.
Understanding fascism as only the purview of traditionalists breeds complacency. We have to be vigilant for the germs of fascism, even in the most seemingly progressive and forward-looking spaces. There is a complacency, I think, that arises, that comes when you assume that forward-looking art, or progress in general, is anti-reactionary. We can’t simply take refuge in “progress” and assume we are safe from fascist ideology. The fight against fascism is, after all, a fight for the future.