there's an italian futurist blockbuster at the guggenheim, and everyone's reviewing. "There is not a single painting in the Guggenheim exhibition that I find entirely satisfying", jed perl wites in the new republic. peter schjeldahl in the new yorker (march 3) describes it as "the most neglected canonical movement in modern art - because it is also the most embarrassing", and he describes umberto boccioni as "its one great artist". fascism is the big problem. but as these critics and others also acknowledge, futurism is central to the history of avant-garde modernism: typical, really, except for the rightwing instead of leftwing lean (the comparable contemporary nyc avant-gardists were emma-goldman anarchists, for example).
but i disagree with the negative assessments, and i think they still reflect the politics of the critics. i'll just pick out giacomo balla as one of the first abstractionists and one of the very best. here's an example ("street light", 1909(!)).
i say that compares very favorably, both as to radicalness and as to formal interest, to what the fauvists or soon the cubists were producing.
and here is a sculpture from 1914.
the politics surely have lost their sting, receded into history as an interesting background fact rather than a dispositive aesthetic refutation. futurism is an almost desperate attempt to affirm modernity, affirm the machine, affirm motion (well, and war). but for precisely that reason it is a symptom and index of the alienation it tries to erase or overcome: or in other words, a paradigmatic response to its moment which reveals that moment from many angles at once. the beauty does emerge from the affirmation, and it contrasts with the ugliness and stasis of cubism, for example, even when it looks pretty similar. then if you're revealing the beauty of technology and even war: well, that is extremely problematic. but it is extremely absorbing: a really rich context of interpretation. also it is a real, or the real, avant-garde: radical, forward-looking, way way early for how it looks, extremely influential even on all the artists who repudiated it and pretended not to have been absorbed by it. in some ways the dadaists and surrealists with their manifestos etc were imitators.
so look i'm an anarchist and all, and in some ways, say arthur dove or marsden hartley are doing similar work. but it has not held up as well visually i think, not even close (only o'keeffe). i like caravaggio. how worried am i about his positive attitude to the counter-reformation? oh not very; definitely not making me not like the paintings. all those dudes who painted for monster-kings: holbein, say. or all them commies throughout modernism; i don't think that's better than messing with mussolini in 1912.