The lost art of the manifesto

Conor McGlynn

Deputy Comment Editor

“We stand on the last promontory of the centuries! […] Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.” These are the words of the Italian poet Marinetti, written in 1909 as part of the Futurist manifesto. Futurism was the defining Italian art movement of the early 20th century, and it glorified in painting, sculpture and architecture the seemingly boundless possibilities offered by modern technology. While the legacy and influence of Futurism is undisputed, as a movement it fizzled out in the 1940s. It has since had a mixed response, mainly due to its support of fascism, and its identification with propaganda for Mussolini. One of its biggest contributions, however, was that it introduced the manifesto into the world of modern art.

Manifesto writing was one of the hallmarks of avant-garde modernist art movements in the 20th century from the Futurists working in the 1910s and 20s, right on through to the experimental Dogme 95 film-making movement of the 1990s. Usually these manifestos declared the arrival of a new approach to art or a new motive for practicing it. The more ambitious would declare that their movement offered the hope for political freedom, emancipation, or even world peace. The underlying theme, however, was always the same: out with the old and in with the new.

The first manifesto for Dada, the influential avant-garde art movement born out of the horrors of the First World War, was written and delivered by Hugo Ball in 1916. This manifesto reacted to the darker side of the mechanisation and technology espoused by the Futurists by embracing absurdity and mischief. A nonsense word, ‘Dada’ meant yes-yes in Russian and was French for hobbyhorse; it perfectly expressed the irreverence of the movement: “Dada m’dada. Dada mhm dada da.” Dada was to influence another great art movement of the early 20th century: surrealism. The surrealists distributed two manifestos, one in 1924 and one in 1929, both written by the French poet André Breton. Like Dadaism, surrealism adopted absurdity and alienation as a political position. It further aimed to capture and to represent the actual workings of thought and thought-process, unmediated by imposed strictures of rationality. Characteristic of modernist movements the manifesto emphasised non-conformity and contrarianism for their own sake, and declared the movement exempt from moral and aesthetic standards.

Later movements followed along similar lines, releasing manifestos which railed against that which had gone before (including some aimed at artistic movements which had previously produced manifestos railing at what had come before). The counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s saw a blossoming of art movements, and consequently of manifestos. Feminist art movements such as SCUM (Society for Cutting up Men) and WAR (Women Artists in Revolution) produced some of the most incendiary and alternative manifestos, attacking both the current practice of art and art appreciation: “Absorbing ‘culture’ is a desperate, frantic attempt to groove in an ungroovy world, to escape the horror of a sterile, mindless, existence. `Culture’ provides a sop to the egos of the incompetent, a means of rationalizing passive spectating”.

Cyber-punk and transhumanist manifestos became common in the 1980s, reflecting a broader cultural shift. Donna Haraway’s ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ embraces modern science as a way of overcoming societal problems such as gender inequality, and eerily echoes the Futurist manifesto 75 years before in its exuberant celebration of the human benefits of technological advancement. The last decade of the 20th century saw a manifesto advocating a return to traditional forms of film-making by the Dogme 95 film movement, co-written by Danish director Lars von Trier. The stated aim of the manifesto is to purify film-making by returning it to the basics of story, acting, and theme, and eschewing the use of elaborate special effects or editing.

In many ways the goals and aims articulated by these different movements are extremely similar. They all express the same idea that they have a better, more honest, or simply a different way of making art. They strongly believed their art to be revolutionary, to be new, original, and able to effect change both in the world of art and society at large. This belief is recognisable in the polemic and impassioned wording of their manifestos, in the energy of the prose and the content. While it is questionable whether these movements had any impact outside of the art academies, the fervour and commitment of their proponents is not in doubt.

Some new art movements do still release manifestos, using the internet as an easy means of dissemination, but in truth manifesto writing is a 20th century phenomenon. Relativism and tolerance are difficult notions to align with the unrestrained belief that only your approach is right, and that it is inherently better than what came before. The postmodern refusal to commit is an uneasy bedfellow to the modernist tendency towards grand statements and passionate self-belief. This tension is reflected in the ironic, detached tone of many more recent art manifestos. The OK Art manifesto from 2001 opens with: ““OK art” is an OK idea, –not great, but not bad either.” The Manifesto of Virtual Art of 2010 closes on a similarly noncommittal note: “Contemporary art will be virtual, or it will not be.”

As it was practiced in the 20th century, as a genuine expression without irony of an artist’s or a group of artists’ aspirations, manifesto writing is probably dead. A group who, like the Futurists, wrote zealously about the beauty of the internal combustion engine and who sought to glorify war and revolution would appear to us as plainly silly. Even the Dadaists, whose only goal was absurdity, would seem naïve in their belief that they could break completely with the past. Contemporary art implicitly acknowledges the impossibility of genuine novelty and originality. It produces “new” artworks with the ironic recognition of how much they are just a reworking of past ideas. Perhaps this is a good thing – the single-mindedness of the Futurists resulted in their support of fascism in the run up to World War Two. With its acceptance of different viewpoints and it rejection of ideology, perhaps the postmodern position is the best, the most human position we can take. However, reading the Futurist manifesto you can’t help but feel that something has been lost as well. The energy and purpose of the writing is absent from discourse today. Without this single-minded political or artistic belief, 21st Century manifestos are soulless and dull.