futurism as 'entartete kunst': the sound too intense even for dictators?
cover artwork, The New Blockaders' "History Of Nothing"
“There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character.”
-F.T. Marinetti , from The Futurist Manifesto
“Let us demolish these fetid blocks of security, of tradition, of certainty, of unquestioning worship…..let us be murderors [sic] of the past! The obscene progression of regression shall be halted by us, The New Blockaders! Let us be anonymous. O brothers and sisters, let us work in subtle ways, and then at dawn our hour of glory shall come! Let us be chameleons, let us enter their ranks unnoticed…only attacks from behind ever succeed! Let us sever this parasite called history, it has nothing to do with us…this is the future! This is now!”
-sleeve notes from ‘Epater Les Bourgeois’ single, The New Blockaders
The 2nd quote above comes from one of ‘anti-music’s’ most legendary merchants of storm and stress. For those unfamiliar with their sound, do give it a try sometime: persistent listening will be rewarded by amusing visions of garbage cans being overturned and dragged through the street, motor vehicles being dropped one on top of the other, or maybe even a situation like the kind outlined in J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise- affluent apartment dwellers throwing social convention to the wind, joyously resorting to primal nature while fighting petty battles over elevator shafts and vandalizing ‘enemy’ building floors. There isn’t any regimentation, or really any music at all, to be found on TNB recordings- instead there is a strong feeling that human labor has been totally abolished in favor of meaningless play and/or the building of new communication methods from scratch. TNB are one of the nerve-shredding highlights of the underground ‘cassette culture’ of the 1980s, a culture which provided urban deviants with 1,001 nights of metallic clamor before its main technicians became fatigued, mutated into more technologically-enhanced beasts, or (in some notorious cases) found religion and repented of their Bacchanals.
The New Blockaders, in making such statements and such sounds, are nothing if not the late-20th century descendents of the Italian Futurist movement. The Futurists operated and agitated from about 1909 until the defeat of the Mussolini’s fascist forces, and, although their allegiance to fascism can be questioned in their later years, they did initially lend an air of artistic or poetic legitimacy to its violence: take, for example, the actions of April 15, 1919, when the Italian socialist newspaper Avanti! had its offices and its communications apparatus (linotype machinery) wrecked by an unholy alliance of Futurists and arditi [the former frontline soldiers who would become so useful in furthering fascist policies of the ‘20s]. Over time, the Futurist coterie led by F.T. Marinetti (a ‘multi-disciplinary artist’ well before the term existed) would eventually see fascist politics as being insufficently innovative, while the Duce would eventually seek an artistic movement that better combined Italian traditionalism with progressive tendencies (and, of course, he would find marauding thugs like the arditi more useful in accomplishing his aims than the curious abstractions of poets and cultural theorists.) Outside of Mussolini’s Italy, Futurism’s acceptance by fascist demagogues was also called into question when Adolf Hitler, hosting an exhibit of Nazi-denounced entartete Kunst [degenerate art] in 1938, included a selection of Italian Futurist works in the show.
This now-infamous exhibition (which never did travel to Italy, thanks to some outrage and protest on the behalf of Marinetti), was first unveiled in 1937 and avoided the outright prohibition the works of modern art’s prime movers, which could have led to their martyrdom. Instead, it dragged the offending works into the limelight (this was one of the most highly-attended art exhibits in Germany ever, to that point) and forwarded the pretense that the German public was free to judge this work for themselves. Come the following year, though, persecution of ‘degenerate’ artists would begin outright, with some of the brightest minds of Surrealism, Bauhaus, Cubism etc. fleeing for the less suffocating environments of Switzerland or New York. True unmediated creativity would be next to impossible with the Gestapo continually breathing down artists’ necks, and ‘acceptable’ artwork would have to be starkly formalist, presenting a neatly photogenic portrait of man and nature: anything but this kind of literalism was surely the product of cultural parasites, perverts, and the gleefully insane.
Der Fuhrer’s deliberate snubbing of the Futurist artwork endorsed by his chief ally might seem puzzling, but then again, the curatorial logic behind the Entartete Kunst exhibit was not exactly water-tight to begin with: for an exhibit which claimed to lay bare the corruption and moral sickness of the ‘Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy’, only 6 of the artists on display were actually Jewish. Card-carrying Nazi party member Emil Nolde also had over a thousand of his paintings removed from German museums in 1937, many of them making the cut for inclusion in Entartete Kunst. The branding of select Futurist works as ‘degenerate’ did point out, if nothing else, the fundamental difference in the utopian visions of the two fascist dictators: while Hitler consolidated power through promises of resurrecting a vainglorious past, Mussolini used the Futurists to conjure a utopia yet to come- one where the dominant aesthetic would be one of unyielding dynamism and intensity. Technology and automation would be romanticized too, if not outright sexualized- the 1914 play by Marinetti, Elettricità sessuale, would bring robots to the stage years before Karel Čapek brought the term into the international literary vocabulary, or a full 13 years before Fritz Lang immortalized them on celluloid in Metropolis. Herein lies one of the major offenses of Futurism against the German völkisch spirit, expounded on by Hitler and ideologists like R. Walther Darré. While Marinetti’s poetic works outline these ideological differences quite well, the activities of the Futurist sound artists made the stark contrast even more vivid. With the pugilistic Luigi Russolo as their spokesman, penning the immensely influential pamphlet L’arte dei Rumori [The Art of Noises], characters such as Francesco Batilla Pratella and Giacomo Balla would batter away at the concept of harmonic music- to them it was all nothing but a protracted nostalgic sigh. They would write musical odes to typographic machines and, in their poetry, often reduce the human voice to a kind of exasperated exclamation machine. And just think how a quote like the following one from Russolo‘s L’arte… might have rankled Hitler, who adored the epic bombast of Wagner’s orchestral pieces:
“It is hardly possible to consider the enormous mobilization of energy that a modern orchestra requires, without concluding that the acoustic results are pitiful. Is there anything more ridiculous in the world than twenty men slaving to increase the plaintive meowing of violins?”
Hitler, had he been able to personally obtain a copy of L’arte dei Rumori, must have had one of his notorious fits of pique while reading this passage- let alone the ones right before it, in which Russolo claimed that the public was “fed up” with the “heroic and pastoral symphonies,” and that orchestral music was lacking in tone color, despite all the polyphonic and atonal experiments then sweeping Europe. Russolo’s assessment of the concert hall is loaded with even more venomous contempt: he rejects it as a “hospital for anemic sounds,” in the same way that Futurist boss Marinetti likened museums to cemeteries.
Thanks to such dismissals of formal, classical grandeur, it’s no wonder that Hitler was hostile towards the Futurist undertaking as a whole. He had already slammed them at the Nuremberg rally of 1933, shortly after his ascendancy- and again in 1934 when the Futurists compiled an exhibition for showing in Berlin. Hitler was incensed that this group of racial aliens would attempt to create a heroic art movement purely from their own imaginations, rather than acting as the echo chamber for history. Now then, to say that Russolo didn’t share some of the same crusading tendencies as Hitler would be fallacious: a tincture of Nietzschean adventurous masculinity, for one, hangs over L’arte dei Rumori when Russolo claims “the characteristic of noise is to bring us brutally back to life.” Still, nothing could earn the enmity of the Nazi cultural elite quicker than the suggestion that brave new artistic enterprises could be totally distinct from previous ones –as Futurist architect Antonio Sant’elia stated in 1914, “every generation must build its own city.”
When it came to the presentation of music and sound, the Futurists certainly put their money where their mouths were. Their German contemporaries in the Bauhaus movement were content to adopt jazz as the ‘house music’ of their movement (the Bauhaus contained a jazz ‘big band’ from 1923 until its own designation as entartete Kunst, and Bauhaus architect Adolf Loos was so enamored with singer Josephine Baker that he designed a home for her.) As early as 1913, though, Luigi Russolo was already hard at work forging not only his own music, but his own instruments as well. Russolo’s principal innovation here were the intonarumori: basically waist-high acoustic boxes connected to bullhorns and operated by hand-cranks or electric buttons- they didn’t require athleticism or extreme agility to operate; they were economical instruments which needed just a minimum of human input to create a bracing sonic output. The intonarumori had only about a one-octave range, adjustable in tones or semi-tones, but 27 different types were created according to the type of sound they were meant to generate: there were howlers, cracklers, exploders, thunderers, crumplers etc. These could then be assembled into an orchestra in their own right- one requiring a fraction of the manpower needed to keep those violins “mewling”. The instruments were built in collaboration with the painter Ugo Piatti, confirming the multi-disciplinary, non-‘specialist’ nature of Futurist art. It is also worth noting that Russolo considered himself a Futurist painter who just happened to have some novel ideas about music, not a trained musician or composer in any sense of the word- through this alone he has a special kinship with the artistically omnivorous factions of the 20th century avant-garde: Fluxus, Aktionismus, the ‘Factory’ scene centered around Andy Warhol, and Industrial music, to name just some of the more publicized ones. This is to say nothing of individual composers like Iannis Xenakis, who occasionally saw music from the view of a practicign architect. The musical spin-off from the wildly successful entartete Kunst show, entartete Musik, reserved its critical ire for German composers like Schoenberg, and for black jazz- but by damning and forbidding Futurist visual art within the Reich, Hitler was, by default, also forbidding its sonic manifestations.
No educational narrative on radical modern sound, let alone an assessment of post-industrial musicians, can be totally complete without some mention of Russolo. L’arte dei Rumori is reverently quoted in at least one crucial CD retrospective of post-industrial sound (Z’ev’s One Foot In The Grave compilation, released on Touch in 1991) and the number of sound artists now paying homage to Russolo, whether they’re aware of it or not, is manifold. Marinetti’s insistence that extreme violence was an aesthetic device (since, after all, life and art were inseparable) was taken to heart by more than a few of the post-industrial scene’s more confrontational performers: early 80s concerts by artists like Minus Delta T sometimes devolved into riot situations requiring police intervention, and the demanding physicality of performances by Z’ev and Einstürzende Neubaten localized the violence to within the performers’ own bodies, while re-envisioning the metallic waste products of the industrial beast as magical totems. Things become paradoxical here again, because while the Nazi tastemakers fetishized steel and iron, they still had one foot planted firmly in their ‘blood and soil’ cosmology extolling the peasantry as the backbone of the Aryan race. As it went, the peasantry was bound to nature -irrevocably characterized as feminine- and here was this movement of radical Italian agitators whose warrior-poet founder listed “contempt for women” as one of the planks in the Futurist platform (unsurprisingly, I haven’t been able to find a single female member of the Futurist movement in their entire chronology of activities, suggesting that maybe this was more than just a splash of acidic humor.) The exclusion of women and the casual misogyny of the Futurists is a point that many progressive artists will still struggle with today when citing them as an influence. Although, to be fair, women composers would be in short supply until well after the smoke had cleared from the two World Wars- the Futurists were hardly the only ‘boys’ club’ in this respect.
At the end of the day, the failed Austrian painter-cum-great dictator was just lazily stamping anything he couldn’t understand as being degenerate- but in the case of the Futurists, he may have secretly feared their prophetic ability to show what his will-to-conquest would result in. Not only were they thumbing their noses at the very institution of historical romanticism, but they were distorting his own dreams of mechanized war into hallucinogenic, lurid colors possibly too intense for him to handle. These outlandish blaring intonarumori, and these concrete sound poems composed of confrontational non-words like TAMTOUMB were just too much to take in at once. Even state sponsor Mussolini –who appointed Marinetti to his ‘Italian Academy’ in 1926- really had no stomach for this stuff, and preferred to relax to Verdi in his free time. The Duce always claimed to know more than he really knew about the arts (he once laughably attempted to prove that Shakespeare was an Italian whose identity was hijacked by Anglo-Saxons), and simply gave up on Futurism at one point in favor of art that bore the purely representative motifs of social realism.
Nowadays virtually anyone can make their own shrieking, rumbling, hissing intonarumori on a home computer, simply by plugging some code into a program like SuperCollider, or by hooking together signal-generating modules in software like Pure Data. A rapidly expanding number of non-academic people are doing exactly that, willfully allowing the human presence in music to be diminished as the sound itself becomes more voluptuous. There is at least a little bit of Futurist poetry in the determined gaze of today’s laptop-assisted noisemakers; their blank faces chilled by the lunar glow of their computer screens. However, their noise seems less accompanied by the wild-eyed destructive urge that the Futurists espoused: in a world as saturated by violence as this one, noise seems to be more of a psychological defense for intellectual outcasts than an offensive weapon. The present world has surpassed even the Futurists’ wildest fever dreams of velocity and warfare, as entire populations go into debt to finance erotically slick stealth bombers and remote-control pilot-less drones. This makes it all the more interesting that the appreciation of pure machine noise is still seen in the West as a deviant act. Who knows- maybe the next ‘great dictator’ will curate an exhibit of the ‘degenerate’ sound artists who are re-appropriating and distorting the sounds of the military-industrial complex, and using them to their own ‘perverse’ ends. Just like entartete Kunst before it, that promises to be one hell of a show.