The Folly of La Folla
December 12, 1913. Spectators crowd into the Teatro Verdi in Florence, Italy, to witness an unprecedented event: a Futurist serata, or “evening.” The audience is restless. They’ve been anticipating the event, whipped into excitement by a storm of publicity spread around the city via posters, fliers, and newspapers by Giovanni Papini, the self-proclaimed “ugliest man in Italy,” and F. T. Marinetti, possibly the loudest. Marinetti’s thunderous “Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” had blasted the Italian public in 1909, violently rejecting tradition, calling for the destruction of libraries and museums, glorifying war, and exalting speed and mechanization.
Marinetti ascends the stage and launches a barrage of insults at the audience. They erupt, hurling slurs, cheers, howls, and rotten vegetables. Deftly catching an egg as it vaults toward his head, Marinetti shouts, “Your frenzied behavior gives me pleasure. The only argument the passatisti have is a horde of dirty vegetables.”
Papini appears and attacks the city of Florence for being “marked by the past as by a disease” and requiring “the fresh air of futurism” to rid it of the “disgusting passé-ists who make their home here” (qtd by Burke 156). The audience roars. Somewhere in its midst, a tall, striking woman “with grey-blue eyes,” “waved black hair,” and “strange, long earrings” sits smiling, lips closed and eyes wide open (qtd by Burke 173).
Three days later, the Futurist newspaper, Lacerba, declares the event a triumph, claiming victory over a crowd of 5,000 spectators, whose “overwhelming vulgarity, personal hates, posthumous resentments, drunken frenzy of being many against few, [and] raging stupidity” they had transformed into “a magnificent spectacle” (qtd by Burke 156).
Mina Loy—the striking woman with the strange earrings—shares their sense of accomplishment, feeling as cleansed and exhilarated by the event “as if she had benefited by a fortnight at the seashore” (qtd by Burke 156). But she is not convinced that the Futurists control the crowd. She teases Marinetti, telling him he has no identity apart from the crowd: “Even there you are a spurious entity, drawing ‘something’ out of an audience to give back to them in your superb pretentiousness as yourself” (qtd by Burke 156). Far from having mastered the audience, he is utterly dependent upon it. Her taunt strikes a nerve, and he counters by forbidding her from attending any more seratas.
This anecdote is emblematic of Mina Loy’s perennial exile from the Futurist movement. As she confided to Carl Van Vechten, her friend and literary agent in the mid-teens, “I am in no way considered a Futurist by Futurists.” Despite exhibiting three portraits at the First Free Futurist International Exhibition in Rome and publishing “Aphorisms on Futurism,” the first Futurist manifesto written in English, Loy remains marginal or absent in most histories and anthologies of the movement, even when dedicated to the role of women. 1
The anecdote also complicates the story of Loy’s artistic and erotic involvement with the Italian Futurists, which has become a touchstone of Loy studies, essential to the mythology of her avant-garde exceptionalism. Loy was powerfully attracted to the Futurists (so the story goes); she was awakened by their electric influence, but ultimately repelled by their corrosive misogyny—the infamous “contempt for woman” declaimed in their founding manifesto (Burke 178-9, Arnold 84, Augustine 92, Schmid 1).
Loy became entangled in triangulated affairs with Marinetti and Papini between 1913 and 1916, while living in Florence, estranged from her husband, English artist Stephen Haweis. When her affairs with the Futurists fizzled, she left her children with their Italian nursemaid and moved to New York for a two-year residency, shifting affiliation to a proto-Dada set that included platonic cohorts, Marcel Duchamp, Pierre Roche, Louise Norton, and Beatrice Wood, and the love of her life, boxer-poet Arthur Cravan.
Although scholars routinely attribute Loy’s disaffection from the Futurists to their misogyny, her critique of the movement was complex and multi-faceted. 2 It wasn’t just about sexism, though that was certainly part of it. She also resisted their attitudes toward audience.
We futurists teach contempt for the audience.
– F. T. Marinetti “The Pleasure of Being Booed” (1911)
According to Christina Poggi, Futurist discourse represents the audience in the figure of la folla, or the crowd—a phantasm of fear and fascination (711). The Futurists wanted to exploit the unruly energy of the crowd, yet remain superior, autonomous, and in control. They “understood the crowd to be ‘feminine’ in its malleability, its incapacity to reason, its susceptibility to flattery and hysteria, and its secret desire to be seduced and dominated” (Poggi 712).
In his 1916 “Dynamic and Synoptic Declamation,” Marinetti boasts of his “experience of the femininity of crowds and weakness of their collective virginity in the course of forcing futurist free verse upon them” (220). He characterizes his approach as an erotic seduction:
I have amused myself with seducing and moving them better and more reliably than all the other declaimers of Europe, insinuating into their obtuse brains the most astonishing images, caressing them with the most refined vocal sensations, with velvety softnesses and brutalities until, mastered by my look or entranced by my smile, they feel a feminine need to applaud something they neither understand nor love. (220)
Marinetti contrasts his masculine supremacy and autonomy with the feminine pliability and dependency of the crowd. Fatuous female audiences receive a new and disturbing form of stimulation that “they neither understand nor love.” The male Futurist is utterly in control, superior in knowledge, and free from any bonds of affection.
Not surprisingly, this approach to audience did not satisfy Loy, not just because of its sexism. She saw the folly in the Futurist fascination with la folla. Instead of imagining the crowd as a mindless mass susceptible to artistic mastery, she recognized the artist’s dependence on an audience. She understood the relationship between performer and audience to be a reciprocal, co-dependent, mutually sustaining one—an interpersonal exchange that plays out in both private and public life, on both intimate and grand scales.
To scrutinize the relationship between performers and audiences, Loy turned to the theater, writing four plays between 1914 and 1920. “Collision” and “Cittàbapini” are parodies of Futurist performance, poking fun at how Futurist men see themselves; The Sacred Prostitute is a burlesque of love and sex, ridiculing how men see women; and The Pamperers is satire of the avant-garde, investigating how the public views the artist. Loy adopts a variety of traditions and techniques to cajole, amuse, and involve the audience in the action. Rather than orchestrating the audiences from above to produce a “magnificent spectacle,” she scripts plays in which spectators join artist-cum-celebrities in staging performances that seduce and absorb them all.
I would like to thank Nancy Selleck for reading Loy’s plays, drawing attention to her use of allegory, and helping me think about direction and staging. Her agile mind, original ideas, and generous spirit inform much of my own scholarship. Grateful appreciation also goes to Vivien Dietz, Suzanne Guasco, Annie Merrill, and Anne Wills for their insightful comments on an early draft of this essay, and to Gabriel Ford, Ann Fox, Randy Ingram, and Ben Mangrum for their comments on its initial online incarnation.
Courting an Audience: Loy's Plays
- See Burke for information about Loy’s contributions to the Futurist Exhibition (166). Katz’s 1989 article compiling the biographies of eight “serious, professional women artists” who contributed to Futurism includes only European artists and writers. The more comprehensive Futurism: An Anthology, edited by Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), does not include any work by Loy. ↩
- In “Loy, Inc.,” Jessica Burstein argues that Loy’s concept of “the new,” “versions of originality” and habits of affiliation also distinguished her from the Futurists (155-6). Burstein’s argument is sharp, persuasive, and fun to read. Find it in Cold Modernism. ↩