So you want to write a manifesto? (Part 1 of 2)
Notes toward a critical background to a genre
The word ‘manifesto’ is from the Latin manifestus, from manus (‘hand’), and a conjectural adjective –festus, from root –fenděre (cf. Latin of-fenděre or de-fenděre), meaning ‘taken by hand’ or ‘palpable’; to make ‘manifest’; later – in more rebellious versions – considered to be derived from manus and, speculatively, from the adjective –fectus – meaning ‘hostile hand’, such that a manifesto becomes a form of truth-telling, but of unwanted truths that need to be forced upon the listener.
From the 12th century, ‘manifestation’ in French was a theological principle of divine revelation, in which Christ disrupts and breaks through the natural order to be made manifest in the world.
By the 15th century, royal manifestoes were a declaration of the will of the sovereign. It was a communication, addressed to all cultivated (literate) readers in a kingdom (which, relayed from the pulpits would have been disseminated to all the non-literate members of the kingdom, too), composed by those in authority, to let their subjects know their sovereign intentions and laws. As a monarch’s words were backed by the power of the state (military, church, etc), it was as if the words themselves could change reality, to make manifest a new reality.
From the 16th through to the mid-19th century the manifesto genre took on another form, shifting from an authoritative text to a text that challenged that authority, perhaps to manifest an alternative reality to that otherwise being imposed from above.
In religion, this shift occurred in the 16th century with Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” – a manifesto, of sorts – which challenged the authority of the Catholic Church; this began the Protestant revolution.
In politics, this shift occurred in the 17th century with the Levellers and the Diggers. Their writings not only attempted to disrupt the political order, but they did so through disrupting the discursive order. Their manifestoes attempted a new genre that didn’t fit into the accepted patterns of public discourse in the 17th century. What they wrote was not a petition, which is subservient request, from the people to the parliament or sovereign; nor was it an edict, which is handed down from the parliament to the people; nor was it a traditional manifesto (as previously understood, as a sovereign declaration of a new reality). Rather it was a variation of all three, but redirected so that it was a declaration of rights handed to the parliament (not from the parliament), and speaking with the authority of an (aspiring) sovereignty. The Levellers spoke, not as outsiders, but as potential participants who wanted to be heard, to have a place in the political discussion; they modulated their discourse between deference and obedience, but as rhetorically active rather than passive subjects. The Diggers were more radical, in that they aimed to remove hierarchy altogether. In both cases, the new political manifesto genre was addressed to ones equals, or to those above them as if they were equals; it was an equalising (levelling) discourse.
The Levellers and The Diggers argued from a religious position, however, similar to that of Martin Luther; the Protestant revolution disrupted the religious order, which had consequences for the political order that it was built upon it. Significantly, in both instances – both religious and political manifestoes – challenges to the dominant authority were based upon deploying a higher or more fundamentally pre-existing – but hidden or lost – authority, which the claimants argued that the dominant orders had somehow corrupted or distorted or simply lost their way from. The purpose of the new manifesto, then, was to re-found a new religious or political order on a firmer (older) footing, which the manifesto sets out to retrieve, to set things right – to make manifest.
As Luca Somigli states: ‘The purpose of the manifesto, in other words, is to oppose a certain dominant discourse with a counter-discourse designed to replace it, and to shift the power to define the subject to the subject himself.’
The high point for political manifestoes was the mid-19th century, with The Communist Manifesto. It had, however, replaced the earlier religious underpinnings with a more secular, rational and historical authority, one which was said to be greater than the (bourgeois) authority that was currently – and, as argued by Marx and Engels, temporarily – dominant. Like previous manifestoes , however, the modern version was still concerned with replacing the current political order with a new political order; with the manifesto ushering in or introducing this moment of change or rupture.
There is an interesting (and largely ignored) common background behind two of the most famous texts – Martin Luther’s ‘95 Theses’ and Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto – and that is the extent to which they both used the printing press to amplify their position.
For Luther in the 16th century – soon after the invention of the printing press – the usual story is that he nailed his hand-written 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle – and that event supposedly sparked the Protestant revolution. Not so. That was a symbolic gesture. Meanwhile, in every province in the land, in the days leading up to that symbolic moment, all the available printing presses were co-opted to print copies of the “95 Theses”, which were then distributed in a co-ordinated and systematic way throughout the country. By the time Luther himself nailed his parchment to the church door, everybody in the land was already aware of his provocation – and that is what sparked the Protestant revolution. The symbolic gesture of nailing the theses to the door was, however, good marketing.
For Marx and Engels, the first edition of The Communist Manifesto was published anonymously, and in translation in several main European countries at approximately the same time, once more using the resources of the printing press and the (by then) international book market. The effect created was that the manifesto did not appear to come from any single place (Germany) or from any individual or individuals (Marx and Engels), but that it came from all places, at the same time, as the voice of a collective entity (literally, the spectre of communism making itself manifest).
The irony is that neither Luther nor Marx was entirely successful. Protestantism became more established, and competes with Catholicism, but didn’t ultimately replace or destroy it. And the mid-19th century revolutions that Marx and Engels supported failed to eventuate in their lifetime. The Communist Manifesto quickly became an historical document, and lost its manifesto edge. Later editions lost the anonymity, and bore the names of the authors (Marx and Engels), and subsequent editions kept the original text, but added new prefaces in an attempt to keep the document relevant (and in print), but as an historical rather than a revolutionary text – a nod to the success of bourgeois individualism (which underpins individual authorship) and the growing international book market (which is underpinned by global capitalism).
During the centuries in which these religious and political developments were occurring, a parallel shift in the role and understanding of art developed as well.
Before the 16th century, the dominant view was of art as sacred; it was a cult object that functioned within a ritual context; art was collectively produced, collectively received, and fully integrated into other social institutions.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the dominant view of art shifted from a religious context to a courtly context. Art became more representational (e.g. portraits of royal personages), and although it was still collectively received, it was individually produced. Associated with this new focus on the individual creator was a division of labour between material and intellectual aspects of art practice, with the material aspect being suppressed (or ignored or kept out of sight, literally) to favour instead the intellectual aspect. In this, art was becoming increasingly less sacred and more secular, but still bound by the authority of a political order that was itself founded on religious principles.
But Protestantism and broader political upheavals (e.g. English Civil War) were bringing into question those very sources of authority. During the 18th and 19th centuries, this intellectual aspect achieved its apotheosis in the Enlightenment privileging of Reason; in particular, in the work of Immanuel Kant and the burgeoning field of Aesthetics, as a sub-branch of philosophy, which argued that art was autonomous. Crucially, for Kant, it is not the work of art itself that is autonomous, but the judgement of the work of art. In his broader philosophy, judgement mediates between theoretical (reason) and practical (moral) knowledge. This subjective judgement may be autonomous, but the objective artwork is still part of material reality and the social world. So the Renaissance division of labour – between intellectual and material aspects of creation – still holds. But as a corollary to the production of art being focused more on the individual, for the first time the reception of art also became more individual (and less collective, as in previous centuries). Art became less integrated into other social institutions – except for one: the market, with the art object increasingly becoming seen as a commodity.
Since the early 19th century, the Romantics produced a number of texts – technically not manifestoes – that attempted to explain how their works – and works of art generally – ought to be received and understood publicly. Many of these were in some way based on the ideas of Kant and the autonomy of aesthetic judgement. Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), Schlegel’s Athenaeum Fragments (1798), Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1802), Shelley’s “A Defence of Poetry” (written 1821, published 1840), for example, were all concerned with redefining the relationship between art and society – increasingly concerned with the separation of art from society.
The limit-point for this development occurred in the late 19th century with the rise of various schools of art – such as Aestheticism or the Decadents – that were concerned with Art for Art’s Sake. Kant’s initial position of the autonomy of the subjective judgement of art (from the perspective of the viewer), had shifted to the autonomy of the art object itself (regardless of the perspective of the viewer), and then to the autonomy of the artist, separate from or outside of society.
This position ultimately proved untenable for a number of reasons:
First, in the absence of any shared social recognition to distinguish between what was art and what was not, the commodification of art became a defining point around which a number of positions proliferated (e.g. the market decides what is art and what is not by what sells and what doesn’t; or rather, pure art is that which doesn’t sell and which cannot be reduced to a commodity; and so on).
Second, society and culture was rapidly changing – due to advances in technology and industry, and capitalism; and an increased print production – invention of the rotary printing press, shift from cloth paper to pulp paper – which led to greater levels of literacy and education, as well as cheaper books, magazines, and newspapers, and the general ‘massification’ of society, in which the gatekeeper roles of critics and editors are largely bypassed – while art tried to remain autonomous, promulgating universal or eternal values. So the illusion of the division of labour between intellectual and material aspects of artistic creation could not be maintained; the rapidly changing material conditions and methods of production were affecting the intellectual aspects of artistic creation and could not be continually ignored.
Finally, the failure of political revolutions of the 1840s and after led to a general exhaustion of the political imagination.
These realities needed to be faced directly, which led to the basic dilemma of modernity: how to renegotiate the gap between the aesthetic and the social without renouncing completely either the autonomy of art or allowing art to be reduced to a commodity.
This dilemma was probably first hinted at in an 1865 prose poem by Charles Baudelaire, called “Lost Halo”, in which the narrator meets a figure in a ‘den of iniquity’, a figure whom he normally would not expect to find mingling with the types of people one would expect to find in such a place. The figure explains that they are seeking a safe refuge from the bustling street, the masses of people, the horses and carriages, and the general speed of the growing city. The figure explains that as he tried to cross the street, his ‘halo’ slipped from his head and fell in the mud, but it was so busy, and he was so frightened of being trampled, that he couldn’t bend to pick it up, and so just left it there in the mud. He was worried that without his halo he would not be recognised and he was surprised that the narrator even remembered who he was.
As an analogy for the role of the artist in modernity, the lost halo signifies the disappearance of the privileged position of art and the artist in modern society; the artist is no longer entitled to their position, and they must henceforth justify themselves to their audience, to the public generally, but also to themselves, and to each other. This becomes the motivating factor behind modern art movements of the late 19th century and into the early to mid-20th century. How artists renegotiated and re-legitimised their role in an ever changing cultural landscape.
This provided the context for the appropriation of the manifesto genre.
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin looked back over this period and concluded that the ‘aura’ surrounding an art work (his iteration of Baudelaire’s ‘halo’ surrounding the artist) is proportionate to the art objects distance from being a commodity object; and that technological advances in general production, within which art operates as a sub-set – what he calls ‘mechanical reproduction’ – collapsed this distance between art and commodity, thus diminishing, and in many cases, extinguishing, this ‘aura’.
The ‘aura’ of art, Benjamin argued, is created by the ‘here and now’ experience of an artwork before the viewer. A mechanical reproduction – photograph in magazine or newspaper, film, or poster – removes the work from its context. Mechanical reproduction can also bring out aspects of the original not available to the human eye (such as a close up, etc). A mechanical reproduction therefore meets the recipient half-way. As Benjamin states: aura decays because of ‘the desire of the present-day masses to “get closer” to things, and their equally passionate concern for overcoming each thing’s uniqueness by assimilating it as reproduction.’
Although the term ‘avant-garde’ had been used to describe schools of art in the late 19th century – interchangeable with the term ‘vanguard’, both of which were used by political revolutionary movements, adopted from military metaphors – it was not until these schools adopted the manifesto form in the early 20th century that the ‘Avant-Garde’, as we now know it, was born.
The first moment – and so the first official art manifesto – was Marinetti’s “Manifesto of Futurism” in 1909. The Avant-Garde generally was opposed to the previous autonomy of art, and attempted to re-incorporate art into the praxis of everyday life. This meant accepting the loss of the previous ‘aura’ of art and ‘halo’ of artist, by embracing the machinery of reproduction – and modernity generally – that otherwise undermined that aura and halo. This loss of aura and halo was dealt with in different ways by different Avant-Garde movements; for example, treated nostalgically, dealt with as a trauma to be overcome, or else not mourned at all and embraced as a defining feature of modernity to be celebrated in new forms of art.
The manifesto genre embraced new technologies of production – newspapers and magazines – which allowed artists to enter into the mass market on their own terms, to renegotiate and re-legitimise their relationship with the general public and the market.
The manifesto genre was also a way to differentiate schools and movements from each other, to keep re-founding art on a new footing, to break ties of influence, to assert originality (all of which is important in the modern commodity market). So – via various manifesto publications – symbolism breaks with naturalism; futurism breaks with symbolism; vorticism breaks with futurism; Dadaism also breaks with futurism (but differentiates itself from vorticism); surrealism breaks from Dadaism; situationism breaks with surrealism, and so on, throughout the early and mid-20th century.
Taking seriously the military origins of its defining metaphor, the Avant-Garde was a movement of attack, and the manifesto was its defining weapon for attack. Each movement didn’t simply assert its own originality and legitimacy, but it used the manifesto form to attack other movements’ originality, to undermine their claims of legitimacy. Each attempted to create the illusion of flight by clipping the wings of those around them.
In sum, the manifesto becomes the ground for an internal struggle for recognition (within the art world), as well as external recognition (in the social world), both mediated by the market; a way to assert a doctrine or art theory, with that doctrine or art theory creating the new context within which art and artist are now to be judged; with this new doctrine or art theory being an artificial ‘halo’ that manufactures the modern ‘aura’ surrounding the work of art. The purpose of this is to invest, as Galia Yanoshevsky argues, ‘the group’s works and texts with both aesthetic and economic value.’
In this, one of the underlying by-products of the manifesto genre is a broader push toward the professionalisation of art and artist; to promote and market their work, to overcome marginalisation of modern industrial society and economy. This marks a shift from the Romantic notion of art as a calling or vocation, to art being a profession – and the artist being a professional – and for both to be taken seriously in both social and economic terms.
In this attempt to be taken seriously, and to re-incorporate art and artists into the praxis of everyday life, one of the main obstacles faced was the dominance of already existing and entrenched institutions of art – museums and galleries, libraries and universities – which the Avant-Garde therefore set out to either destroy or bypass.
In part, this was because such institutions were concerned with preserving and conserving the past – and the Avant-Garde was concerned with the present moment and the future, and it saw such a past as weighing down its efforts – but also because the rational structures which were used to organise such institutions of art were based on the intellectual notions of the ‘autonomy’ of art which the Avant-Garde was also trying to overcome and replace.
In the Avant-Garde’s antagonistic relationship with the already established institutions of art, we come to the point where this story comes into contact with the story already told previously in “A brief history of (not) touching art”.
In that earlier discussion, we saw how, in the mid- to late-20th century, even when the dominant paradigm of visuality and rationality within established museums was contested, in both theory and practice, it tended to perpetuate, rather than replace, the division and hierarchy between the senses; to bring into sharper relief the role of discursive theory over the experience of things; and so has ultimately reinforced the old paradigm of sight and rationality, rather than subverted it.
In the current discussion, we can see some of this pre-history to that playing out, with this dominant paradigm of the established institutions of art being initially contested – not from within the establishment, as we’ve seen in the mid- to late-20th century – but prior to this, in the early 20th century, with the Avant-Garde’s attacks from outside the establishment.
These attacks ultimately failed, and that failure was predicated upon the establishment’s capacity to co-opt and incorporate such transgressions and attacks into the established paradigms of art (visuality and rationality); perhaps ironically, this cooptation was achieved initially through the absorption of their theories and discursive practices into the mainstream, with the art objects following soon after. This resulted in Avant-Garde artworks being collected and exhibited with museums and galleries, being included in books and art histories, and being included in fields of academic study, as part of art school education, art degrees, and art courses. In other words, by becoming part of the establishment.
As Peter Bürger states, regarding the consequences of this failure of the Avant-Garde:
‘If an artist today signs a stove pipe and exhibits it, that artist certainly does not denounce the art market but adapts to it. Such adaptation does not eradicate the idea of individual creativity, it affirms it, and the reason is the failure of the avant-garde intent to sublate art. Since now the protest of the historical avant-garde against art as institution is accepted as art, the gesture of protest of the neo-avant-garde becomes inauthentic.’
In other words, transgression or protest has been co-opted by the institution and absorbed by it; as such, it has been denuded of impact.
This negation includes the weakening of the value of shock. Again, Bürger: ‘Nothing loses its effectiveness more quickly than shock; by its very nature, it is a unique experience. As a result of repetition, it changes fundamentally: there is no such thing as expected shock… Such a neatly institutionalised shock probably has a minimal effect on the way the recipients run their lives. The shock is “consumed”.’
Such techniques – shock, transgression, protest – especially against the art world, are no longer shocking, transgressive, or rebellious, but are merely part of the tried and true practices that are required to gain entry and secure a position within the establishment.
This has an impact also on the effectiveness of contemporary manifestoes, from the 1960s – especially in the waning of Surrealism and the rise of Situationism – but also, with the further advancement of printing technology (from rotary press to off-set printing, which allowed for more visual and coloured content, but also cheaper and easier dissemination), a greater proliferation of art manifestoes being produced; the cumulative effect being a loss of potency in the genre, and diminished returns. Their initial purpose was to generate broad discussion, but with so many of them being produced, those discussions became increasingly muted or else performed by ever smaller, segmented, isolated groups of people.
This problem was only exacerbated in the 1990s and beyond, with the rise of the internet, which practically removes all barriers to the production and distribution of manifestoes (and, indeed, all other types of publications), but without increasing the dissemination, circulation, or impact, of any single manifesto in particular. The competition between each diminishes the traction of all.
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin warned that the uniqueness and permanence of individual works of art (and their associated ‘aura’) would be displaced by their reproduction, their repeatability and transitoriness. He argued that mechanical reproduction meant the artwork would meet the viewer ‘half-way’, but now with the internet, works of art meet us all the way. Benjamin worried that art would become a distraction, a form of entertainment; that instead of the viewer being absorbed by a work of art, the work of art would become absorbed into the viewer. The internet has only exacerbated this process of absorption, and loss of aura or halo, which has been replaced by the artificial glow of the screen, the verified blue tick, the accumulation of little digital thumb-ups.
In pre-modern times the halo and aura of artist and artwork issued from its context of (religious) ritual. In early modern times this halo and aura were undermined through secularism and the rise of mass industrial and technological society; individual experience replaced the shared experience of the group. In order to reclaim this halo and aura in the early 20th century, art movements – via the manifesto genre – attempted to reground artists and their art in a new (secular) ritual (shared) practice – that of politics.
This subsumption of politics to various art movements – of politics itself being reconfigured as an art form – began in the late 19th century, in the wake of the failure of actual revolutionary political movements (such as communism) to affect any substantive change in the political and social order.
Although, it should be noted, this combination of politics and art was neither immediate nor inevitable. The terms ‘vanguard’ and ‘avant-garde’ were adopted by art movements in the late 19th century in an ironic imitation of previous and contemporary political movements; which, in turn, adopted the terms from military rhetoric. ‘Avant-garde’, for example, is originally a military term, to denote the advance corps of an army; it was then appropriated by early socialists to indicate a small group of individuals who considered themselves advanced and ahead of the rest of society, setting the standard for the rest of society to follow. The ironic adoption of these terms by the various late 19th century Art for Art’s Sake movements was to suggest that, initially, in the failure of political change, one should retreat into the aesthetic realm of stable universal value, far from the madding crowd.
Charles Baudelaire, in the 1860s – during the same period in which he diagnosed the “Lost Halo” of the artist – dismissed the use of these political and military terms, writing: ‘To be added to military metaphors: poets of combat / Writers of the avant-garde. / These habits of creating military metaphors bespeak not a military imagination but one made for discipline and this means conformity, an imagination born of servitude, of Belgian character, that cannot think but in terms of collectivity.’
The Avant-Garde, as we now know it, however, came into being in the early 20th century, beginning in Italy with Marinetti’s Futurism, through the un-ironic adoption of these military terms, and in opposition to the Art for Art’s Sake movements, as well as against the established institutions of art. This was done through an attempt at re-grounding art in the rhetoric and practices of politics.
To this end, the manifesto genre was re-deployed; itself being a form of discourse co-opted from earlier political antecedents.
By adopting military and political postures and rhetoric, art manifestoes of the early 20th century were explicitly partisan discourses.
Manifestoes were antagonistic instruments. They required an enemy, implicitly or explicitly; and their purpose was to win other partisans to their cause (against this common enemy) in order to create a new political and artistic order. This common enemy included not simply the established institutions of art, as well as other competing at movements, but also (bourgeois) society itself.
In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin saw this clearly as a process of subordinating art to partisan politics. As he concluded his essay on the role of art in the age of mechanical reproduction: ‘The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticisation of political life.’ And its corollary: ‘Communism replies by politicising art.’
Marinetti (Italy), Pound (England), Lewis (England), for example, were pro-fascist; and Breton (France) and later Debord (France) were pro-communist. And so on.
In deploying military and partisan discourse – of both fascist and communist hues – the various Avant-Garde (manifesto) movements of the early to mid-20th century also praised the use of violence as a necessary means toward achieving their artistic-political ends.
This praise of violence was deployed symbolically and rhetorically, but also at times physically. Although for some the praise of physical violence lessened after the First World War – when the reality of actual violence hit home – for others this rhetoric was maintained throughout the inter-war years and beyond. Symbolic and rhetorical violence was, however, deployed throughout.
Interestingly, the type of violence shifted according to political partisanship. Fascists praised the violence of war. Communists praised the violence of revolution. Each also deployed a casuistry of violence, in which they used the violence of the other side (either potential or real) to justify their own violence: revolutionary violence to establish an international order to overcome the violence of war between nations; or the war between nations to undermine the violence of international revolution; and so on.
Marinetti, for example, as pro-fascist, argued that war was ‘hygienic’, used to cleanse nations, cultures and civilisations. Breton, on the other hand, being pro-communist, praised revolutionary violence. Breton also infamously stated: ‘The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.’
Although opposed to established institutions of art and the (decadence) of bourgeois society, Avant-Garde (manifesto) movements were also opposed to ordinary people, the masses. As such, they were anti-democratic (which is consistent with their political partisanship, which is also inherently anti-democratic). They were as suspicious of ‘the uneducated people’ – the vulgar working-class – as they were of the bourgeoisie.
Variations of a strategic elision between ‘the people’ (a positive term) and ‘the masses’ (a negative term) occurred in manifesto writing, in which ‘the people’ were an idealised political entity lifted out of ‘the masses’ of everybody else, which must therefore be excluded. For fascists, ‘the people’ was equal to the ‘nation’ (as opposed to the ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’ influence within the ‘nation’); for communists, it was ‘the working class’ (not workers per se, who were only a group of individuals in-itself, who needed to become a group for-itself, to develop a working class consciousness; only then could they be admitted in the struggle against their capitalist masters).
As Janet Lyon states, in writing about this history: ‘The paradoxes of the manifesto form – its conflicts between participation and political marginalization, anger and restraint, threat and argument, mythic time and urgent agenda – can easily be projected onto the subjects who use the manifesto form. Magnified by the fish-eye lens of universalist normativity, such tensions may be read as symptoms of an inherent irrationality that threatens the stability of democratic ideals.’
As an example of these anti-democratic sentiments in early manifestoes :
Eugene Jolas, in transition: “THE PLAIN READER BE DAMNED”.
Ezra Pound, in The Egoist: “Damn the man in the street once and for all… damn the man in the street who is only in the street because he hasn’t intelligence enough to be let in anywhere else…”
Ezra Pound, again: ‘The artist is not dependent upon the multitude of his listeners. Humanity is the rich effluvium, it is the waste and the manure and the soil, and from it grows the trees of the arts.’
Marinetti: ‘Museums, cemeteries!’
Breton (in the sentence directly following his sentence, already cited above, about going into the street and randomly shooting people being a Surrealist act): ‘Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinisation in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.’ (i.e. also deserves to be shot)
The threat of the masses derives, in part, from increases in literacy; in England, especially, following the 1870 Education Act, for example. The rise of the reading public bypassed traditional ‘gatekeepers’ of literary merit. The rise of printing led to mass production of cheap books, which was seen, in the general ‘massification’ of culture (which includes also newspapers, telegraph, radio, and later cinema and then television), as a debasement of stable, high culture.
This is the historical context in which, as stated previously, figures such as Baudelaire, and later Benjamin, witnessed the loss of the halo of the artist and the aura of the artwork; a situation which the Avant-Garde were responding to in their manifesto writing and in their art. Marinetti, for example, argued in his early Futurist manifesto: ‘We will destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism, feminism, and all utilitarian cowardice.’
Although the use of manifestoes lessened during the 1940s and 1950s (although significant exceptions, such as Breton and Surrealism carried their form into the 1960s, where it was taken over by the Situationsists), they did take off again in the 1960s, for remarkably similar cultural reasons as the initial phase of manifestoes in the early part of the century: the new developments of printing technology (offset printing now replaced rotary printing, which allowed for even cheaper printing, more control over the printing, more colour, more images, more design elements); but also there was the development of new political movements (such as the New Left, as well as feminism, Black nationalism, and later, gay liberation, as well as the many and various combinations of each of these and others).
Significantly, these were once more expressed within the historical context of war (Vietnam) and apparent revolution (May ‘68), which provided the same rhetoric of violence as a method against the violence of others, which undergirded the partisanship of earlier manifesto movements.
Such a moment saw the greater proliferation of manifestoes. But as such art movements and political movements were performed within a framework of an already accepted and approved Avant-Garde (itself now subsumed and co-opted into the established institutions of art), the transgressive and ‘shock’ value of these later imitations were therefore limited, as were their effectiveness to enact actual social change. As Peter Bürger puts it: ‘To formulate more pointedly: the neo-avant-garde institutionalises the avant-garde as art and thus negates genuinely avant-garde intentions.’
Take, for example, Valerie Salonas’s SCUM Manifesto of 1967, and her subsequent shooting of Any Warhol. The violence and form of earlier manifestoes is repeated; even when their content may have attempted radical difference. Marinetti’s early militant anti-feminism met with Solanas’s militant feminism. The binary remains untouched, and the violence continues, even when the actors shift places. And the status quo is assured.
By this stage also Avant-Garde art techniques had also been more fully incorporated into the consumerist economic culture, the very bourgeois culture that the original Avant-Garde was initially opposed to. From its inception, the Avant-Garde adopted techniques from burgeoning fields of advertising and marketing; e.g. the use of posters, advertisements, and so on. And very quickly, advertising and marketing adopted art techniques first developed by the avant-garde. This symbiotic relationship led to the co-option of the Avant-Garde into the consumer market; just as their artworks were co-opted by the art market attached to the very institutions of art they tried to work outside of, and in opposition to.
‘While the manifesto is a genre infused with the desire for revolutionary action, advertising thrives on the circulation of images and words and on their total exchangeability,’ states Martin Puchner. ‘Nevertheless, advertising, too, is meant to instigate action, to motivate an act: the purchase.’
Marx had called the (political) manifesto the poetry of the revolution; as such, advertising is the poetry of capitalism; so avant-garde (art) manifestoes became the advertisements for the revolution (or war), absorbed into the very market it initially attempted to abolish.
By the 1960s, this interchange between art and advertising and the market generally – both art market and general consumer market – became more normalised. This became the basis of the diagnoses of Guy Debord and Situationists, which ostensibly broke with Breton and Surrealism, while re-grounding the art manifesto within a similar Marxist analysis; but lacking any utopian vision. Society of the Spectacle (1967) described the mediatisation of Western capitalism, through television, advertising and commodity fetishisation. Instead of interrupting the spectacle, Debord argues, art had become incorporated into the spectacle, comfortably placed in art auctions, museums, and universities, as well as on billboards, newspapers, magazines, televisions, radios, and cinema screens. Art techniques had been incorporated into advertising and marketing, all vying for individual attention, to have one’s individual personality reflected back.
It could be argued that the fundamental flaw of the Avant-Garde’s initial attempt to elide the difference between art and life – and to do so through politics – through either aestheticising politics (fascism) or politicising aesthetics (communism) – was, in reality, a further retreat from everyday life; with (antagonistic) partisan politics being itself a retreat from the reality of (agonistic) democracy and the challenge of a politics that afforded ‘the masses’ their rights as citizens.
This withdrawal from reality is actually baked into the rhetoric of early art manifestoes , itself drawing on a feature of earlier political manifestoes (which had a religious background, and so are otherworldly). In this, manifestoes cannot be comfortably ‘ontologically grounded’ (Puchner) in what already exists – an existing activity or event or reality – rather they want to make manifest what doesn’t already exist, to replace what already exists – be that a society grounded in Christ – as in earlier Protestant revolutions – or whether that is the founding of a fascist or a communist political order.
This withdrawal from reality is behind Maurice Blanchot’s interpretation of manifestoes as being based on a sense of ‘impatience’: ‘first of all impatience with itself, with the fact that it cannot be more than a call, a cry, a demand, an impatience with the fact that no matter how impassioned and effective, the manifesto will always remain a split second removed from the actual revolution.’ Again, Blanchot: ‘Throughout its subsequent history, the manifesto will be defined by this impatience, by the attempt to undo the distinction between speech and action, between words and the revolution.’
This impatience, it could be argued, is the motivating factor behind the manifestoes characteristic rhetoric of violence as a means to bring about the radical change desired. And to make it happen now.
Another fundamental flaw of the Avant-Garde was their misinterpretation of the established institutions of art as being inherently a-political, separated from life. Because they’re not. As already argued previously (in “A brief history of (not) touching art”) from their inception in the early 19th century, public museums and art galleries were not a-political at all, but were very much oriented toward pacifying and controlling ‘the masses’, and instilling a politics of national, racial, and religious chauvinism, which allowed subjects (not citizens) to understand their place (but not their rights) within a line of civilisational (evolutionary) progress.
Ironically, such established institutions of art and the Avant-Garde shared this common distrust of ‘the masses’ (and democracy); it could be argued that it was, in part, on this shared basis, that such institutions of art were able to co-opt and subsume the Avant-Garde into the establishment during the course of the 20th century.
Interestingly, these failures and flaws are once more foreshadowed in Benjamin’s 1930s examination of the role of art in an age of mechanical reproduction among his contemporaries. As Benjamin argued: ‘It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses – but on no account granting them their rights.’ By aestheticizing politics (as in fascism), and politicising aesthetics (as in communism), the rights of ‘the masses’ as citizens are undermined, or bypassed, and their dissatisfaction and frustration is channelled – and domesticated – through being given the freedom to simply express themselves.
Peter Bürger traces this back to its origin in bourgeois individualism of the late 19th century, whereby: ‘Art allows at least an imagined satisfaction of individual needs that are repressed in daily praxis. Through the enjoyment of art, the atrophied bourgeois individual can experience the self as personality.’
In the late 19th century Art for Art’s Sake movements, when art was held aloft from everyday life, such expression of a personality remained without tangible social effect. The Avant-Garde movement of the early 20th century, born of the failure of political movements, and in opposition to this Art for Art’s Sake separation of art from life, attempted to give such expressions of an (artistic) personality some tangible effect on social life. They did so, in a sense, but only by making the personality a commodity to be self-promoted, self-advertised. The apotheosis of which by the 1960s was described by Debord in the idea of society as spectacle. And just as in the 19th century the museum or gallery became reduced to a visual space, without touching, subordinate to some form of rationality, by the 20th century this spatial orientation had been expanded to encompass all of society, itself now a visual space, with no touching, subordinate to the rationality of commodification.
The end-point of this is in the contemporary experience of the ‘microtopia’. As we stated previously:
The resultant collapse of the barrier between institutional and social space – under the auspices of a marketable space – created ‘microtopias’ (Bishop). The achievement of microtopia has replaced the aspiration for utopia. Instead of confronting the complexity of long-term, real-world problems, in the service of some future ‘utopia’ (as an ideal only, which it is understood may never be achieved, but must be striven for), such complexity is eschewed for immediate, short-term, personal satisfaction, and withdrawal into a ‘microtopia’; in which participants lose themselves in some curated collective activity, under the shared illusion that it is somehow inclusive and an inversion of the dominant power structures in the larger society (spoiler: it’s not). The ‘rhetoric of democracy’ in this case is, in reality, a withdrawal from the possibility of democracy.
In the context of the current discussion, it could be argued that such ‘microtopias’ had temporarily absorbed the problem of the rhetoric of utopian violence. The impatience that accompanied the earlier manifesto’s discomfort with being ‘ontologically grounded’ (Puchner) in everyday reality had been channelled and satiated by the market for such ‘microtopia’ experiences (art as tourism, art as entertainment, art as advertising – and politics, by becoming art, becoming a form of all three).
It could also be argued that in more recent times this compromise solution has been shown to have been provisional only, with the emergence once more of political violence, both rhetorically and physically; and increased hyper-partisanship, with, at the extremes, a re-emergence of fascists and socialist rhetoric. The manifesto genre – stripped of all style – thus informs and structures almost all contemporary political journalism and commentary.
Such experiences – from microtopias in museums and galleries, enhanced by online visual tools and social media, through to online transgression and the emergence of what could be called ‘micro-dystopias’, which have since spilled back into the real world of politics – have coincided with, and been facilitated by, the rise of the internet. (Playing out in real time the logic of McLuhan’s laws of media, in particular that of the law of reversal, in which the promise of greater connectivity has flipped into its opposite and created only increased disconnection.)
As manifestoes , too, migrated online, the cumulative effect has been a loss of potency in the genre, which had already begun to ebb in the 1960s. The initial purpose of manifestoes was to generate broad discussion, precipitating social change; but with so many of them being produced – with practically all barriers removed to production and distribution – those discussions became increasingly muted or else performed by ever smaller, segmented, isolated groups of people, first (in 1970s-80s) offline, and then (from 1990s-present) online, often competing with one another, for attention (which had itself become a commodity to be bought and sold).
This suggests two limitations to the revival of the manifesto genre in the present moment – as a specific genre, against its generalised ubiquity – both suggested by the techno-sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci.
This first limitation is concerned with a new form of censorship that operates in the internet age:
‘The aim of twenty-first century powers is to break the causal chain linking information dissemination to the generation of individual will and agency, individual will and agency to protests, and protests to social movement action. Rather than attempt to break the first link, information dissemination, censorship through information glut focuses on the second link, weakening the agency that might be generated by information.’
‘In the past, there was too little information, and there were too few means to broadcast it to the masses, which meant that it could be censored via blocking. In the networked public sphere [of today], there is too much information, and people lack effective means to quickly and efficiently verify it, which means that information can be effectively suppressed by creating an ever-bigger glut of mashed-up truth and falsehood to foment confusion and distraction.’
In terms of manifestoes , they’re original purpose was precisely to generate ‘individual will and agency’ as a spur to social action. But the information glut of the internet age, and the inability to distinguish between what is true and what is false in what is being presented in that information glut, has led to weakening the links between information and the generation of individual will and agency, on the one hand, and the link with between that will and agency as a spur to action, on the other hand. (This is also consistent with McLuhan’s laws of media, particularly his law of retrieval, in which previously obsolesced ideas – in this case fascism or autocracy and communism or socialism – are being retrieved, in the wake of the inability to develop and disseminate new political ideas).
The second limitation addressed by Tufekci is to do with her analysis of ‘signal’ and ‘capacity’. Any public action – whether it is online or in the streets – is attempting to signal one’s capacity to follow through with one’s stated aims. In the 15th century, it was as if the Monarch’s words themselves – the signal – could change reality, to make manifest a new reality, but only because they were backed by the power of the state – its military and clerical capacity. Likewise, Luther’s act of nailing the “95 Theses” was the signal only; the co-ordinated printing and distribution of the document across the land – and the effort required to do so – was the capacity. The problem with the internet is that its ability to remove barriers to greater production and broader dissemination of ideas has increased one’s ability to signal, but only disproportionate to one’s capacity to follow through with one’s stated aims. The internet has increased speed and networking capabilities – large groups of people can be rallied together very quickly, online and offline – but that group once rallied lacks the capacity to actually do anything, to affect any substantive or long-term change.
In terms of the manifesto genre becoming the ur-genre for most internet political discourse, such associated activism – political or artistic – has become mere signal without capacity, and the original intention and promise of the manifesto genre has flipped into its opposite.
Next week – as a sidebar for paid subscribers – we will attempt to outline a template for future manifestoes , based upon this critical background.
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Walter Benjamin (1936), “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (2008)
Peter Bürger (1974), Theory of the Avant-Garde
Guy Debord (1967), The Society of the Spectacle
Elizabeth L. Eisenstein (1980), The Printing Press as an Agent of Change
Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan (1988), Laws of Media: The New Science
Janet Lyon (1999), Manifestoes: Provocations of the Modern
Marjorie Perloff (1986), The Futurist Moment: Avant-garde, avant guerre, and the language of rupture
Martin Puchner (2006), Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestoes , and the Avant-Garde
Luca Somigli (2003), Legitimizing the Artist: Manifesto Writing and European Modernism, 1885-1915
Zeynep Tufekci (2017), Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests.
Johanna Vondeling (2000), “The Manifest Professional: Manifestoes and Modernist Legitimation”, College Literature, 27:2
Galia Yanoshevsky (2009), “Three Decades of Writing on Manifesto: The Making of a Genre”, Poetics Today 30:2
Galia Yanoshevsky (2009), “The Literary Manifesto and Related Notions: A Selected Annotated Bibliography”, Poetics Today 30:2