Somewhere in Cairo, an artist is writing a manifesto.
Artists’ manifestos are often more political than political manifestos. They are also more entertaining. Artists’ manifestos outstrip art to embrace life.
As I argue in my recent book, 100 Artists’ Manifestos, artists are revolutionaries. In 1919 Raoul Hausmann and Johannes Baader ‘founded’ a Dada Republic by manifesto, in which they instructed the Mayor of Berlin to hand over the keys to the treasury and commanded the city’s employees to obey only the orders of the two authors. Sadly, the Dada Republic was stillborn. The quest continued. In 1938 André Breton and Leon Trotsky concluded their manifesto, ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’, with a ringing declaration:
The independence of art – for the revolution.
The revolution – for the complete liberation of art!
Artists’ manifestos are outlandish, outrageous and frequently offensive. The model for all that followed was the founding ‘Manifesto of Futurism’, written by the irrepressible F. T. Marinetti, the Lenin of the Futurist Revolution yet unachieved. The Futurist Manifesto was splashed across the front page of Le Figaro on 20 February 1909. The text was turned into a leaflet and all Europe leafleted. The tone was established in the notorious paragraph 9, with its gratuitous concluding flourish: ‘We wish to glorify war – the sole cleanser of the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive act of the libertarian, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for women.’
The Futurist Manifesto began a new craze, effectively a new genre, an adventure in creative expression, and an extension of politics by other means. It triggered an avalanche of artists’ manifestos – fifty more from the Futurists alone. Over the next twenty years, the art wars of the avant-garde produced the canonic manifestos of the classic movements – the Futurists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and their brothers and sisters and splinters. Some of them can be seen and heard here.
Everyone had their manifesto – the Purists, the Vorticists, the Cerebrists, the Everythingists, the Instantanists, the Rayonists, the Concretists, the Situationists, the Dimensionists, the Suprematists, the Constructivists, the Destructivists, the Inventionists, the Diasporists, the Stridentists and the Stuckists. There was a Cannibalistic Manifesto, a Pandemonic Manifesto, a Superflat Manifesto, a Fluxus Manifesto, a Short Manifesto, a Static Manifesto, a Gentle Manifesto, and even a ———— Manifesto. The artists’ manifesto attends to the basic needs: the Futurist Manifesto of Lust is complemented by the Manifesto of Futurist Cuisine. (Not only were the Futurists against the past – they were against pasta.)
Artists’ movements were nothing if not sectarian. Beyond the catfights, however, their manifestos tap into a larger vision, well caught in Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary novel, The Savage Detectives: ‘You’re a Stridentist, body and soul. You’ll help us build Stridentopolis, Cesárea, I said. And then she smiled, as if I were telling her a good joke but one she already knew, … and that anyway she’d always been a Visceral Realist, not a Stridentist. And so am I, I said or shouted, … but what does it matter? Stridentism and Visceral Realism are just two masks to get us where we really want to go. And where is that? she said. To modernity, Cesárea, I said, to goddamned modernity.’
The artists’ manifesto is a passport to modernity. To goddamned modernity.
And then to postmodernity. To poor, put-upon postmodernity.