I was in no hurry to catch the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern. Futurism is my least favourite school of 20th century art. Hardly ever in the field of human endeavour has objectionable ideology been so lavishly matched with execrable painting.
To give you a flavour of the former, here are some of the better known statements from Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909: “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A roaring motor-car which seems to run on machine-gun fire is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace ... We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism ... the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.”
This manages to sound both silly and sinister at the same time – rather like PG Wodehouse’s black-shorts-wearing parody of Oswald Mosley, Roderick Spode. And not coincidentally, Marinetti’s Futurism segued seamlessly into Mussolini’s absurd and sinister version of Fascism – a point timidly glossed over in the Tate show.
Most of the art is just as bad. The Futurists were among the most inept colourists ever to wield paintbrushes, and strangely similar in their effects to some of the worst practitioners of Bolognese Baroque religious painting: lurid, turgid, meaninglessly swirling. Just occasionally you catch a Futurist painting that reminds you in a positive way that these were young men responding to the dynamism of early 20th-century street life: I loved the “Girl Running on a Balcony”, with 20 legs rather than two, by Balla.
The most awful thing about Futurism is that so many of its predictions have come true. We have had an overdose of war and the ideas that kill, and contempt for woman is alive and strong among the Taliban and elsewhere. And “the man at the wheel” sung by Marinetti as the hero of the future has found his impatient and impotent incarnation in the form of the man revving his red Porsche in a motorway jam.
We obviously need a different kind of vision of the future. But even to speak of the future now seems strangely anachronistic. For a while, thinkers and theorists have suggested that we have lost faith in the future. Artists since Warhol have craved 15 minutes of fame rather than the admiration of future generations. The suggestion is that we don’t know how many of those future generations will be born, and perhaps don’t much care either.
All this makes Jem Finer’s Longplayer project, a musical score designed to play or be played for a thousand years, seem quite an eccentric proposition. Longplayer has been edging into my field of view, or hearing, for some years now. It seemed a good moment to catch Finer, best known as the banjo player of the Pogues, rehearsing Longplayer for its first live performance at his hide-out in the far reaches of London’s Docklands (the performance is this weekend at the Roundhouse).
Finer’s idea came out of the shallow celebrations surrounding the turn of the third millennium. “People seemed to be concentrating on three or four days either side of the millennium, not on the span of a thousand years. How do you make sense of a thousand years? I thought I could make a piece of music that would last precisely a thousand years.”
This thought led Finer in interesting directions, many but not all mathematical. The score of Longplayer consists of six melodies played simultaneously on Tibetan singing bowls. Minutely calibrated changes in sequence mean that a full cycle is completed only once in a thousand years. From its inception just after midnight on December 31 1999, Longplayer has been playing in synthesised form. But part of the canniness of Finer’s design is that it incorporates thinking about technological and cultural change.
You could call this thinking both pessimistic and optimistic. Finer does not have any trust that computers and the infrastructure needed to support them will survive for the next thousand years. “I realised what was needed was simple durable elements; human beings playing instruments obeying instructions.” And not just any old instruments; wood and gut decay, strings go out of tune. Tibetan singing bowls, even if not Tibetan but made in a factory in Calcutta, have a better chance of staying the course.
Finer may be quite gloomy about the future – things look much darker than they did 10 years ago – but at the same time he is making a wager that there will be a future. In that sense Longplayer is one of the most heartening projects I have encountered in years. What makes it heartening is not a silly, naive faith in the future, but an ingenious and wisely modest kind of long-term thinking. At a time when, like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, we have summoned inhuman powers we cannot control, Longplayer is staking its own future on those treacherous, murderous, tender, all-shaping appendages, human hands.