Friday, March 12, 2010

Names of movements have a way of sounding dated pretty fast, don't they? How current does Futurism sound right about now? (Up with People, anyone?)

My friend, Bill, sent me a link to a site showing paintings of Giacomo Balla, who signed the Futurist manifesto a hundred years ago. At left is Flight of the Swallows (1913). He was interested in exploring the dynamism, speed, and vibrancy of the rapidly changing world; the movement later lost some steam and became associated with fascism, but that wasn't the early focus of its proponents.

Evidently, Balla studied the optical possibilities opened up by time-lapse photography and sought to depict rapid motion in paint. Here's Swifts: Paths of Movement and Dynamic Sequences (1913). The very idea of undertaking something so painstaking and ambitious just amazes me.

His most famous work is probably Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash - proves anything at all is a worthy subject.

I have not yet embarked (sorry) on a dog series, but perhaps it's time.


  1. Oh, I quite like the dog image.

  2. If only London were nearer!

  3. Hello Suzanne! Your blog has been a source of salvation for me since I’ve gone back to school. About a month into my incredibly objectivist, means-ends-determined program, I started to crave some kind of aesthetic experience like I had never craved it before. I’ve been looking at your blog before falling asleep, to stay sane. Anyway, I got so excited about posting here that I wrote too much and had to break it up into two posts. Here’s the first half:

    I decided to post my first comment here because these paintings remind me of my favorite essay for teaching: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin. In my last year as an instructor, before I went back to school, I began all my 200-level writing classes with this essay, which addresses the connection between art, technology, and politics. “The Work of Art” is in many ways a response to the Futurists, but it is also, more generally, an attempt to say what becomes of humanity’s capacity for self-reflection when machines can see us better than we can see ourselves.

    Before asking them to read the essay, I would give my students this background: When Walter Benjamin was three years old, the first silent film was shown; when he was in his mid-30s—some time around 1927—the first sound films were presented to paying audiences. By the time he wrote “The Work of Art,” in his early forties and shortly before his death, there were drive-in movie theatres, virtually everyone in the U.S. had seen King Kong, the Motion Picture Production Code had been established to censor major studio films, and a three-year, government-commissioned study had been published, looking at the effects of movies on children.

    In my lecture I would ask my students to think especially hard about that last fact, the publication of the government study. To me, it means that the moment in history at which Benjamin was writing his essay was a moment characterized by a special kind of change. Film technology was being developed so quickly that people were asking the question: “How will this make our children different from us?” In this question I sense all kinds of things, including anxiety, but most of all I sense this awareness that our own minds—our tastes, our values, our beliefs, our habits, etc.—are potentially profoundly affected by the technologies we use. That’s what “The Work of Art” is about. In part, I liked teaching the essay because, although it is indisputably esoteric, its basic premise was always completely relevant to my students, who were trying to figure out how Twitter and Facebook fit into their lives.

  4. Here is the second half:
    I also liked teaching it because even though I have read it dozens of times, and even though I really love it, I don’t fully understand it. (Maybe in another life, when I get a PhD …) As an English major, (like you), I too received a “scattershot” education in lots of things, including art history. It was enough to make me intrigued by, but ultimately ill-equipped to grapple with, this conclusion by Benjamin:

    Fiat ars—pereat mundus, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

    Benjamin was writing after the paintings in this post were done—at a time when, as you put it, “the movement … lost some steam and became associated with Fascism.” In his conclusion he rails against Marinetti and the other “Futurists” with what is perhaps the same kind of naivety that inspires the naming of movements. In other words, he’s arguing from the standpoint of a Marxist, not from the standpoint of someone whose historical perspective rejects the whole idea that one’s aesthetic would lead necessarily to a certain politics. To us, he inevitably sounds credulous, I suppose. At the same time, though, I look at our culture’s propensity for making ever-more-critically acclaimed war films and I can’t help but find his description apt: “(Our) self-alienation has reached such a degree that (we) can experience (our) own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” What is most interesting, though, is that the bulk of Benjamin’s essay is a celebration of film technology for its capacity to show us life in other places, and to bring us experiences in common with people who live continents away. I like the fact that Benjamin doesn’t fit into any of the technophilic / technophobic clichés we are used to.

    I feel like I could write ten more pages about this, but I’ll stop out of courtesy. It’s kind of a serious comment to post under that wiener dog picture.

  5. Fascinating -reading your thoughts I cannot but feel I've lost some critical thinking skills with each viewing of the Parent Trap. Seriously, I would love to read his essay. And one of the ironies of our taken-for-granted framework of experiencing the world thru film and other technology is that while we think it is gritty and immediate, it is successfully distancing us in ways we don't even notice. Even our references become film-based rather than reality-based, so that when you're going down a snowy slope with your kids for the first time, one of them says, "this reminds me of that scene from . . ." Scary.

  6. Here is a link to the essay:

    It's not exactly a quick read. Still, there is something about it ... I don't know how he manages so much abstraction with what strikes me as total earnestness rather than pretension.

    I cannot abide the remake of the Parent Trap, but I tear up every time I think about the original: "Nothin's any good without you, Maggie."