going BACKWARDS to go FORWARDS: Learning from Loy. Words by Victoria Spratt.
Until recently British writer and artist Mina Loy (1882-1966) had received most recognition for her poetry, particularly Lunar Baedeker (1923). This title explicitly references the German Baedeker travel guide company. Baedekers were so internationally renowned that the term ‘Baedeker raid’ was used to describe a series of air strikes by the Luftwaffe on Britain in 1942. These raids were said to have targeted buildings and landmarks in Britain which were ‘marked with three stars in Baedeker’s guide-books.’ To an early twentieth century audience the Baedeker name meant reliability and precision, promising to familiarise the unfamiliar. Loy’s title, however, hints that hers is a parodic guidebook. She played on the moon’s excessive use as a poetic symbol, rendering it ironic. ‘Pocked with personification’, it is ‘the fossil virgin of the skies’. Purporting to provide a definitive guide to ‘lunar’ realms, Loy invokes a journey that in 1923 was still inconceivable, casting herself, the author, as a cartographer of that imaginative realm.
It is as a cartographer of the imagination, a guide to creative territories, that Loy appears to us through her polemic and critical writings on modernism, the arts and democracy.
Mina studied art in Munich in 1900 at the height of Jugendstil. Between 1900 and 1907 she became a painter, dressmaker, wife and mother in Paris during the Post-Impressionist period, before becoming an emergent feminist and Futurist critic in the expatriate circles of Florence between 1907 and 1916. From Florence she travelled to New York in 1916, where she dwelt at the heart of Dada. Yet, despite her involvement at the helm of several key modernist movements, particularly Futurism and Dada between 1907 and 1923, which will be considered here, even today Loy continues to refuse the labels ‘Futurist’ or ‘Dadaist’. It is because she never ‘joined the orchestra’ that she cultivated her particular artistic identity. Both her verbal and visual work comments on, and even satirises, that of her contemporaries in relation to her own democratic and constructive aesthetic agenda.
In a century divided by global conflict, exile was a common condition of existence. Exile was enforced: people were sentenced to and sent into exile. It entailed the negation of an individual’s volition and a denial of their (national) identity. It was a destructive and reductive condition, not a creative or constructive one. While Loy’s position as a woman meant that she was to some extent inevitably bound to the periphery, she consciously decided to exile herself from home, casting herself as a modern emissary, crossing national borders, social boundaries and reporting her findings.
In Loy’s early writing there is a dialogue between her own redemptively utilitarian, almost Transcendentalist, vision of art and a dogmatic Futurist vision. By playing the two off against each other dialectically, Loy’s polemics offer a sort of epistemological redemption: a vision of art’s global democratic potential.
At a time when other modernist movements, such as The Futurists, were writing manifestos about how creatives should interact with society at a time of great conflict Loy too decided to write rubrics. Her Aphorisms on Futurism was published in Camera Work 46 (1914).
It begins by imploring ‘you’, the reader, to ‘DIE in the Past/ Live in the Future’.
In her Feminist Manifesto, unpublished but written the same year, Loy once again asks her readers to act and influence the future ahead. She refuses to align herself with contemporary social feminist suffrage movements, saying ‘The Feminist Movement as instituted at present is INADEQUATE’,
There is no half-measure, no scratching on the surface of the rubbish heap of tradition. Nothing short of Absolute Demolition will bring about reform. So cease to place your confidence in economic legislation, vice-crusades and uniform education. You are glossing over REALITY.
Later, Loy would writer a ‘Psycho-Democratic’ agenda for the arts, she wrote the manifesto ‘International Psycho-Democracy’ in Buenos Aires. She invented her own one-woman political party. In the manifesto she is clear that her ‘party is an Invitation, not a control’, it ‘fight[s] the Brains for the substitution of Preference for Prejudice and the obviation of social crises’. Her ‘Democracy of The Spirit’ advocates a ‘government by creative imagination’ achieved ‘by the Excavation of’ ‘individual and group psychology’. The aim is to create a ‘psychological gauge’ that can be ‘applied to all social problems, for the interpretation of political, religious and financial systems.’ The ultimate purpose of this phony political movement is to ‘illuminate the earth with her people’s eyes’ regardless of age or sex. Loy’s allegiance is not with institutions but individuals:
The Tediousness of Human Evolution is owing:
To the tendency of ideas to outlast their origin, i.e., the tendency of human institutions to outlast the psychological conditions from which they arose.
Psycho-Democracy considers social institutions as structural forms in collective consciousness which are subject to the same evolutional transformation as collective consciousness itself, and that our social institutions will cause future generations to roar with laughter.
For Mina Loy, democracy and progress must flow outwards, from individuals into society, flooding the world with their collective power.