Book Review: 100 Artists' Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists
100 ARTISTS' MANIFESTOS: FROM THE FUTURISTS TO THE STUCKISTS Selected by Alex Danchev Penguin Modern Classics, £12.99
'WE INTEND to glorify aggressive action, a restive wakefulness, life at the double, the slap and the punching fist": so hymned FT Marinetti in The Foundation And Manifesto Of Futurism in 1909, instituting a century of cultural polemics and aesthetic controversies.
This ingenious anthology collects many of the most significant and influential such documents, offering a primer in the key concepts of 20th century art and a (slightly skewed) historical overview of the major movements. From the Futurists it unfurls forward into Dadaism, Surrealism, the Soviet Supremacists, the Situationist International and Fluxus, always with an eye to the "revolutionary", experimental and avant-garde inflections.
These are works that witnessed how "cultured" Europe had torn itself apart in war, and attempted to renegotiate what culture might mean. Each is accompanied by lightly erudite biographical and contextual notes, and Danchev is unafraid to be sceptical about some of the contributions - he is, for example, distinctly unimpressed by Lars von Trier's Dogme 95 Manifesto.
The inclusion of Dogme highlights one of the problematic editorial decisions about this volume. Although it is entitled "Artists' Manifestos", that definition is engagingly, and necessarily, loose: it includes film-makers (such as Dziga Vertov's ground-breaking WE, Derek Jarman's art-school notes and Werner Herzog's Minnesota Declaration), architects (from the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier to the more baroque and extravagant Charles Jencks, Rem Koolhaas, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Lebbeus Woods) and various conceptual artists.
The last field offers some of the strongest and most unusual pieces: I was very taken by Mierle Ukeles' Maintenance Art Manifesto, in which she justifies work that might otherwise be taken for simply "cleaning" museums. The reason it isn't just janitorial labour is that there was a manifesto to outline its political engagement. Likewise, there are striking pieces by early female Futurists, such as Minna Loy and the outrageous, fascinating Valentine de Saint-Point, author of the Futurist Manifesto Of Lust.
Even though many of the movements heralded in these pages had a literary dimension - not least Futurism itself - there is an absence of literary manifestos. Obviously, for the book not to be twice the size, some omissions are to be expected, but manifestos by the OuLiPo, the McOndo and Stewart Home's Neoism would have reflected and balanced the major themes of the "artistic" manifestos. It might also - if it had concluded with the Manifesto Of The International Necronautical Society by Tom McCarthy and Simon Critchley - have provided Danchev with an ending in keeping with his primary interest in the avant-garde. (McCarthy's Booker shortlisted novel, C, is a homage to Marinetti among other things).
As it is, Danchev has to end with the wearisome Stuckists, the group opposed to the Young British Art of Emin, Hirst and others in the Saatchi collection. I could understand having one of their pronouncements (the Founding, Manifesto And Rules Of The Other Muswell Hill Stuckists is the wittiest, denouncing "YBA" as "You'll Believe Anything" and features the most succinct definition of their position; "to be unconventional is to conform" - which always reminds me of a student when I was at college who ran for the student union under the slogan "be a rebel, wear a blazer"), but three?
It means the book peters out, rather than affirming the ongoing relevance of artistic rebellion. Another odd absence is Jean Dubuffet's manifesto for Art Brut, usually translated as "Outsider Art", which has many of the common features of radical manifestos, especially the sense that "art" has become etiolated in the hands of professional artists. Dubuffet referred to those "unscathed by artistic culture". The clarion call throughout this book is "Art is Dead, Long Live Art".
The book deals well with the irony that major artistic movements - such as Pop Art, the "land art" of Richard Long, to an extent Abstract Expressionism, and certainly the oeuvre of Picasso - did very well without manifestos; and that many manifestos failed to deliver an artistic product equal to the ambition of their rhetoric. Often their aspirations, to be fair, were far greater than creating art: Futurism, Dada, Surrealism and the Situationists were all convinced they were revolutionising reality, taking their cue from Marx's dictum that philosophers had only described, not changed, the world. As Barnett Newman said: "Instead of creating a magical world, the surrealists succeeded only in illustrating it". Often the manifesto was the work of art, a paradox that might give some comfort to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.
Nevertheless, caveats aside, this is an inspiring book, and often much funnier than one might expect (Marinetti, for example, banned pasta for the greater good of Italian life and art). The key word is Marinetti's passatista, which might be translated pass-ism, the overbearing and stifling adherence to the past and past models. In an age of perpetual fashion recycling, three-second fads and timid epigones, we need more attacks on passatista. Danchev's book might just inspire a new wave of rebels.
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on January 16, 2011
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