Reviewed by Ben Granger
1. The purpose of politics is to inspire art. The only useful thing it has ever achieved
When Marshall Brennan argued “The Manifesto is remarkable for its imaginative power… It is the first great modernist work of art”, he referred specifically to The Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels. While the Diggers and Levellers before them had already captured for the people the format of dramatic declamation previously used only by noblemen and clergy, it was Karl and Friedrich who were to craft it into something resembling literature, with its “opiates of the people” and “icy waters of egotistical calculation”. These were cadences which spoke on as aesthetic as well as an instructional level, more scripture than stricture. But if Germans were the forefathers of bringing an artistic sensibility to the manifesto, it was an Italian who was to take it to the next level, to make the manifesto a work of art in itself. Fillipo Marinetti was a man whose life’s work was dedicated to hammer at the block of his own bombast in the hope it was battered into something resembling genius. His diabolically dynamic screed ‘The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism’ was published on the front page of leading national newspaper La Figaro in 1909, and was to set the tone for many of the hundred manifestos Alex Danchev has compiled in this fascinating collection: it takes pride of place as the chronological first. Taking in his own Futurists, through their British counterparts and bitter rivals the Vorticists, to their bastard offspring and political foes the Surrealists and Dadaists, it was his supercharged oppositionalism which set the template.
2. Substance is for abusers. Style is king, subjects are mere subjects
Futurism’s bad reputation proceeds it, but should not supersede it. With its adolescent worship of speed and war, cars and explosions, and with the knowledge of its noxious later association with fascism, one returns to Marinetti’s original manifesto expecting a risible gaucheness at best, (a kind of Top Gear for intellectuals), or a repellent mania at worst. And yet its evil beauty can and does still thrill today. From the orgasmic opening scene of his car crashing off the side of the road (“Oh mother of a ditch! … How I relished your strength-giving sludge that reminded me so much of the saintly black breast of my Sudanese nurse…”) the narrative itself roars off into the distance, crashing repeatedly through its audience’s senses and sensibilities. Later comes the firecracker destruction of all established art and history:
“We want our country free from the endless number of museums which cover here like countless graveyards… admiring an old painting is just like pouring our purest feelings into a funerary urn, instead of projecting them far and wide, in violent outbursts of creation and action”.
Then the zealously phrased, totemic proclamations: “There is no longer any beauty but the struggle. Any work of art that lacks aggression will never be a masterpiece”.
This is the word as weapon, where the pen is power (or penis power given Futurism’s obsessive virility: penis mightier than the sword). It is absurd, illogical and immoral, but it is as much a manically brilliant, endlessly fascinating creation in itself, as it is a tyrannical statement of intent for the magnificent paintings which were to follow.
Other manifestos from Futurist followers follow in the collection, including Boccioni and Carlo Carra (perhaps the greatest Futurist painter, railing against “the cube, the pyramid and all other static shapes” and hailing “Red, rrrrrrreds, the rrreddest rrrrrrrrreds that shouuuuuuuut”), but it was Marinetti who remained poet provocateur in chief. Yet while this was a movement founded by a priapic misogynist, it took two women followers – Valentine de Saint Pointe and Mina Loy – to make manifestos which contained enough jagged aphoristic gems to match those of those of the Futurist founder (“Misery is the disintegration of joy. Intellect, of intuition. Acceptance, of inspiration”). They bring a lightness of wit lacking in Marinetti, which reminds us that another forbear of the manifesto tradition is perhaps the un-credited Wilde, whose paradoxical ‘Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young’ (“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art”) can also be traced here. A greater wit than Marinetti could also be found in his great rival Wyndham Lewis over in Britain, whose Blast manifesto contained all the acidic bombast of Futurism with a greater realisation of its own contradiction and absurdity.
While this is a form rooted in politics it can graduate into a purer aesthetics of the soul and mind, and it is perfectly possible to wander its waywardly beautiful walkways without being corralled down the shady political alleys many of its practitioners ended up skulking. With the deliberately self contradictory rhetoric of Blast, this is positively invited, political rhetoric is a mere tool for internal implosions of the mind and senses (despite Wyndham Lewis’ own later rightist dalliance). The Russian Constructivists, and later the multinational Dadaists and Surrealists, were undoubtedly inspired by Marinetti’s manifesto, but were to take sides at the opposite ends of the political spectrum, some Communist, some Trotskyite, (not many anarchists despite what you might expect) though their own thought experiments clearly inspired many way beyond this ideological milieu. All were to understand the importance of rhythm and cadence in channelling the grand chaos of their ideas. They also understood the importance of having an enemy to kick out at, a hate figure at which to throw their artful darts. Whether their politics ended up on the far-left or the far-right, the tone of absolute rebellion, the stance of heroic David in creative revolt against a moribund art establishment Goliath is often markedly similar in spirit, though not necessarily in execution. The Dadaists after all were to cast the Futurists themselves as just such a rigid, fusty old relic, despite Marinetti’s crew arriving not five years before them. And despite, or perhaps rather because of, the clear inspiration they gleaned from them.
3. We never saw an opposite that didn’t attract. All hail MC Skat Katt!
As early as 1923 we see reactive statements against political ‘control’ of art in Theo Van Doesburg’s ‘Manifesto Prole Art’, which explicitly renounces the existence of a “proletarian” art in an of itself – “Every proletarian work of art is nothing more than a poster for the bourgeoisie”. While the contemporaneous ‘Manifesto of the Union of Mexican Workers, Technicians, Painters and Sculptors’ of the Mexican David Alfaro Siquieros shows the stale, nullifying uniformity which came to dominate the degenerate art in the “actually existing socialism” which became known as “Communism” to the world. “Exploiters of the people in concubinage with traitors who sell the blood of soldiers who fought for the revolution” etc etc. By contrast, Breton, Riviera and Trotsky’s later ‘Towards a Revolutionary Free Art’ from 1938, (one of the few manifestos here with input from a “real” politician), displays a beautifully stated commitment to absolute freedom of expression “No authority, no dictation, not the least trace of orders from above!” It’s perhaps surprising to read the one time brutal overseer of the Red Army and butcher of Kronstadt sounding positively anarchistic. And yet earlier manifestos here from artist supporters such as Mayakovsky and Rodchenko show in its earliest days the Soviet Union was both a wellspring and a haven for artistic rhetoric of the most rapturously absolute intellectual freedom, though this very quickly curdled into the gruel of “socialist realism”, little of which is worth reproducing today.
If Futurists were in revolt against tradition, Dadaists were in fuller revolt against established thought: anti-sense. This made their output more knockabout, pranksters as much as revolutionaries. Pranks are always hit and miss, and this approach can often grate to modern eyes as often as it delights. (“Honour is bought and sold like ass. Ass, ass represents life like fried potatoes” says Francis Picabia’s 1920 ‘Dada Canibalistic Manifesto’, and on it goes). Of course the Dadaists would argue this was the very intent, storming the bourgeois boundaries of our sensibilities, twanging the elastic until it snaps. The later Surrealist manifestos here are comparatively stately in their assaults on political, spiritual and mental establishment, take the sublime statements of the movement leader, Andre Breton: “This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes a little impression on me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere”. Far more, and greater works of art emerged from this more elegant swipe at the accepted.
4. Those who can, paint, those who can’t, write manifestos
Though they may have dabbled, neither Marinetti nor Breton, the movement maestros, were painters nor sculptors, their manifestos were their art. This leads us to the half truth above. At least in many cases there does seem to be a kind of inverse relationship between the artistic success of the author and the brilliance of the manifesto. There are no manifestos from Picasso, Miro, Magritte, nor later from Pollock or Francis Bacon. Carlo Carra and Wyndham Lewis were relative exceptions in excelling at both the written and pictorial form. Certainly Dali’s ‘Yellow Manifesto’ from 1928 is rather flimsy and derivative thing in comparison with its Dadaist forbears, with little of the flair at work in his painted phantasmagoria , while the sculptures of Picabia are wonderful grotesques which do not begin to translate into the language of his writing. Art is absolutely subjective – fly forward to the book’s more recent manifestos, and Gilbert and George’s words are dry recitations of the banal (in contrast with what – to me – are the dizzy delights of their images), while the Stuckist Manifesto written by Billy Childish in 1999 – a declaration of war on conceptual art of the Young British Artists, Hirst, Emin et al is a fabulously angry and witty slice of excoriation, expertly honed (and far more interesting – to me – than anything he has ever drawn). Kandinsky meanwhile, perhaps the greatest painter writing here, has a manifesto written with Franz Marc which is not a striking piece of art in itself, and does not aim to be, but is instead an expertly clear and ordered explanation of what the new non figurative art aims to be. Sometimes the manifesto is simply a piece of meticulously crafted description or statement rather than an exhibit in itself.
There are other quieter, thoughtful manifestos here, such as Takamura Kotaro’s ‘Green Sun’ from 1910, grasping the joins between traditional Japanese art and the new Western abstract style. There are wry pieces like Michael Bettancourt’s ‘The —————– Manifesto’ from 1969 (i.e., fill in the —————- yourself), and there are inroads to far more all encompassing and revolutionary philosophies such as Guy Debord’s ‘Situationist Manifesto’ from 1960. Danchev’s selections in this to-and-fro across the century are eclectic yet exhaustive, and his introductions to each piece are highly informative, managing a fine balance between an impassioned interest in the subject and the aim not to overwhelm with his own point of view. As always in art, true objectivity is impossible, and he cannot – for instance – disguise his contempt for Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, but then a little of the combative spirit redolent in so much of the material here is quite welcome.
5. There is no one true path to the sublime. The road may be painted in ink as well as oils.
100 Artists’ Manifestos is both an intriguing history of art in the 20th century, and an art exhibition itself, artists using words not canvas. And this is art, not literature. It seems to me it is possible to signify a separation between the two, the teleology and order of the former, and the amorphous, weightlessness of the latter. In one of the quieter pieces here, Apollinaire claims the new (in 1912) non-figurative art is “purer” as, like music, it reaches parts of the soul beyond description. In the best these manifestos, the melange of aphorism and idea, of barbed incongruity and graceful lyricism, can entice and sooth the nameless contours of the soul just as much as Miro’s ‘Ciphers and Constellations’ or Kandinsky’s ‘Composition VIII’. There is a genius at work in these words-as-art which cannot easily be imitated, as my own piss-weak pastiches here no doubt amply display. The manifesto is an insistent form, one that makes demands. Read the selection here, and see where the orders take you.