On: Art and The Reign of Cycles

Part One: The Folly of Futurism

At the dawn of the 20th century, Italy, once more to be at the centre of civilisation, faced a conundrum.  The recently unified nation state had come to be seen by many, in particular its own citizens, as a ‘nation of museums’.  A once dominant culture that produced much of the Western cannon had stagnated, relying on what it had done for inspiration – but not what it did do.

Strangely, the same conclusion was reached by both the radical left-wing and many that would, in another age, be labelled traditionalists: to tear the museums down.  Thus, a new art form emerged in the Italian peninsula, one that would embody not the still stone of the statues but the ferocity of the future – futurism.  In his Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti stated:

Let’s go!’  I said.  ‘Friends and away!  Let’s go!  Mythology and the Mystic Ideal are defeated at last.  We’re about to see the Centaur’s birth and, soon after, the first flight of Angels!

The Centaur, the terrifying onslaught of the century to come – soon following the ‘first flight of Angels’ in the form of aircraft – would bring change greater, and lesser, than Marinetti could have hoped. 

Marinetti and his companions were not pacifists or moralists (especially in the modern sense of the word), they were excited by violence and change.  In mindset, they were perhaps more like the old Romans they wished to remove from memory than the conservative order of the day.  Rome was once a feeble state humiliated by its neighbours, it destroyed them and its own past to achieve domination; Medieval Europe inherited Rome, though they inherited a degenerated corpse.  Thus, they burned it on a pyre in order to revivify the flame.

Futurism does not look traditional, and with that you may say that it is not.  It is certainly overly optimistic if you do not take this for an admirable self-assurance.

Misanthropes: Wyndham Lewis and Timon of Athens

Timon of Athens, by Wyndham Lewis, exemplifies this ethic: looking upwards to greatness in a form of an imprecise fast motion that glorifies violence and struggle.

This was not to last, for the end of the Second World War marked the end of this pseudo-imperialistic ideal.  Richard Humphreys, a former curator at Tate Britain, estimated futurism’s finale in an epitaph chalked onto a statue of Dante in war-torn Florence, 1944:

In sul passo dell’ Arno

I Tedeschi hanno lasciato

Il ricordo della loro civiltà


In the crossing of the Arno

The Germans have left

A souvenir of good manners

The imperialist ethic that manifested in Mussolini’s ambitions for a Nova Roma had been a disaster for the generation that envisioned it.  What was once the possibility for a reformation of the Golden Age led Europe further down the path of sedentary decline.  From that point, the revolutionary art style became the subversive one; the triumphant became the oppressed; the assertive reactionary became something that passively reacted.

But are revolutions not the character of a cycle?  One cannot hold the tide with a broom; one must surf it to the new shore.  One does not rebel against the cycle of the Sun – when it begins to disappear into the night, it does not do to drink another coffee.

This is the mistake of the sentiment that has been stirring about modern art, but most recently in the past ten years: that the solution is to simply return to the renaissance.  Let us ignore the underlying issues with the fixation with this period’s art in particular (that it came about precisely as a last gasp of Christendom before the chaos and degeneration that followed it) and for now focus on this superficial understanding of art.

It is understandable why this style would be pursued – it is beautiful, the kind of work that appears a few times each civilisational cycle – though the society that produced this had a fundamentally incompatible view of reality and the order of things that is simply not possible in this day and age.  Art, in the higher sense, should not merely be beautiful, but firstly embody a principle, a struggle, and or a reaction.

Futurism strove for a set of achievable values accomplishable at this stage of a cycle.  It was technically inferior to the renaissance because it was culturally its lesser also.  However, like a great painter amnesiac, we must begin again with the broad-brush strokes.

The fundamental and immediate question is this: what is one meant to do when surrounded by an anti-cultural consumerist society?

Part Two: In Defence of Modern Art and The Pig’s Choice

Pigs are intelligent creatures, and when put in the correct situation they begin to resemble dogs.  However, they are not brought up in these situations, they are brought up in muck.  Therefore, in this age we have The Pig’s Choice: either to run rampantly into the barriers until bloody and dead or to be joyous that in the environment there is as much muck as one could ever hope for.

The latter was the choice of modern art.

Jackson Pollock even took to physically acting like the pig in muck when producing his art, sort of rolling around in it imprecisely to create an unpleasant brown mess. 

There is a self-awareness of time within modern art that it is fleeting, that it won’t be appreciated as a Golden Age simply because it is not the Golden Age.  The skill stoops to the level of the culture in a masochistic statement that embraces the decline and the futility of resistance.

Futurism failed because it was not, fundamentally, traditional art.  It embraced the decline in the belief that it was not a decline, in the belief that bold neon lights, the adventurous expansion into the green belt, the invasive volume of city traffic and densely packed populations, were all leading another Rome.

The inscription left on Dante in 1944 was a grim realisation that a world war cannot be won – where stood around him the ruined Florence, once a symbol of renaissance, now a tattered graveyard of mistaken hope.

Yet what of the pig’s other option?  In the last days of Rome, Constantine XI did not declare that all was well; he is remembered for embracing it – like and unlike Jackson Pollock – and embodying the Sunset.  Byzantium had been whimpering for many years, yet as it was about to go gently into the night it was revived for a moment in the form of a hara-kiri.

There is no obvious hara-kiri­ for the Byzantines of today, and because of this we should not immediately judge the pigs that play in muck.