Friday 28 October 2011

Passports to modernity

Interview: Alex Danchev on art manifestos

Alex Danchev is a Professor in International Relations at Nottingham University. He currently lectures on a diverse range of subjects - global politics, power and international order, biographies, Anglo-American relations and art and war. He has had a number of books published, including his collection of essays, ‘On Art and War and Terror’. Alex will be presenting some of the ideas provoked whilst he was compiling his book ‘100 Artist’s Manifestos: from the Futurists to the Stuckists’ at the November East Midlands Salon. Jo Herlihy interviewed him to get a flavour of some of the ground he will cover at the Salon.

JH: You’re a professor in International Relations; why a book on art manifestos?

AD: It’s become apparent to me during my academic life that an understanding of international relations can be greatly enhanced with a cross-disciplinary approach. Art is one such discipline and much more can be learnt from it than may traditionally have been conceived. So, for example, I incorporate books such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians in my courses that study power and international order. So when Penguin approached me with the idea of a book on manifestos, I suggested I look specifically at the art manifesto…and they let me run with this…hence the book!

JH: ...and have you found a good way to define what a manifesto is?

AD: The sheer variety of the artists’ manifestos is why they are so interesting. But despite this variety, they do generally share some common features. I think they are, in part, a proclamation. They are written by people who believe they have a message they want to communicate. These people want to change you. The language of the manifesto aims to grab you and shake you up. And the manifesto usually contains a programme that would bring the change artists want to see. A helpful way of thinking about the role of the manifesto is the conception contained in Robert Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives. He captures the notion of where artists like the Futurists wanted to go - the manifesto becomes a passport to modernity.

JH: Why 100 manifestos and why 100 years?

AD: There were more than the hundred I selected. The Futurists alone wrote hundreds. However, the book intends to show the range of content and of debate rather than providing a comprehensive compendium of all art manifestos. And it was simply a happy accident that I was researching the book 100 years after publication of the first of the artists’ manifestos written by the Futurists in 1909.

JH: 100 manifestos is a lot of manifesto! And as you’ve said, there’s a huge variety in both style and content. What observations have you made that help make sense of these manifestos?

AD: First, any reader of the book will probably notice that the majority of the manifestos are written pre-Second World War. That simple fact is worth some reflection. Second, we can observe that many artists who wrote manifestos, although not all, considered the work they created as a radical break from the past and saw their work being a new movement in art. To be a movement, a manifesto was essential; you absolutely needed to have one. The art and the manifesto went together and shaped each other. Today’s equivalent would probably be a website – to be taken seriously usually means that you have to have one.

Then, of course, there is what you had to say, the content. The early part of the 20th century was a time of incredible social upheaval and the artist manifesto borrowed heavily from political ones, most importantly from the communist manifesto of 1848. Mostly the artist manifesto stated what you were against – typically everything that went before! It was a bold statement to your artistic competitors. And this set the tone for ongoing debate that has continued up to the present day. And I think the power of all these manifestos brought together in one place is that they reveal to us the energy of the time – and some of this was big stuff! People didn’t just want change, they wanted revolution, overthrow. There was a lot at stake.

JH: How much notice did people take of these – what was their impact?

AD: The early Futurist, Dada and Surrealist manifestos were widely distributed and read. The Futurist manifesto got front page of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. It was translated in to every European language, thrown off the top of buildings and performed in theatres. And there were attempts to ban their production. Everyone who considered themselves an intellectual had to have an opinion about each of the manifestos and the ensuing public discussions often led to heated debates and brawls.

JH: The first Futurist manifesto (1909) is a bold rebellious statement, declaring an intention to shake off the deadening influence of the old conservative order. How do you think this manifesto compares with more recent ones?

AD: I’ve spoken at quite a number of talks now since the publication of this book and what I think people really love when they first read the manifestos is they see that they aren’t technical, dry documents. What people realise is that they are living and breathing social documents that talk of human beings speaking to other human beings. The language and mode of expression is radical, bold and strident. And I think it relates to what we’ve already discussed…that artists saw themselves as part of a much bigger change that some sections of society were attempting to bring about.

JH: But if things are so different today, aren’t the manifestos merely historical curiosities?

AD: Whether or not the manifestos were seen as part of a new art movement or the notions of an individual artist, they are a device that allows an ongoing discussion about art, what it is and what it represents, to take place in concise and clear ways. They provide a way for people to debate with those from the past – a self-conscious way to reflect on artistic creation. André Breton’s surrealist manifestos of 1924 and 1929 encapsulate everything we know about surrealism. They are the vehicle through which our understanding of surrealism becomes a pervasive way of looking at art and life – and I think are probably the most impressive of modernist documents. I think there is much in these documents that will resonate with today’s readers.

JH: The Dada manifestos make explicit what many other manifestos only hint at – modern society’s unease at living in a Godless world. Dada, instead, celebrates doubt. Do more recent manifestos suggest we have come to terms with living in a godless world?

AD: No, I don’t think so. I think that the issue of doubt about the world and our place in it continues today. I think that is an enduring problematic within art.

JH: You include manifestos from around the world. Early manifestos emphasise the importance of the localism, some being stridently nationalist where others seek universal meaning in art. Where do you think the balance is today?

AD: From those manifestos I’ve compiled, I definitely think the balance is that they were attempts to propose universalistic movements. And I do think this is the strain that continues today.

JH: Given that the production of manifestos declined post Second World War, and, it seems, the phenomena of big movements has passed, does this mean the days of the manifesto are numbered?

AD: No, I don’t think so. Yes, I think that the conditions today are incredibly different from when the first manifestos were written and the days of the big ‘isms’. But I can see a few places where we might still find individuals striving to grapple with artistic creation and its meaning. You certainly continue to see a strong strand of this within architecture – generally manifestos in this field have been written by individuals that haven’t been part of movements. Then there are those quirky individuals who have a novel take on the world and find new and interesting ways to express this – take Kitaj or Herzog. Look at how Herzog aims for a poetic, ecstatic truth versus the truth of accountants!

And finally, there are probably manifestos already penned that just haven’t surfaced yet. Look at the tentative thoughts written by art student Derek Jarman at the tender age of just 22 years old – you can see how the form of the manifesto helped someone crystallise their thinking. Maybe there are other art students of today who have written the contemporary manifesto and these are just waiting to be published or found.

JH: ...and which is your personal favourite?

AD: Manifesto 90 by Lebbeus Woods from 1993

‘I declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful fears. I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength then ‘melt into air’. I am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky. I cannot know you name. Nor can you know mine. Tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.’

Just brilliant!!

Alex Danchev is speaking at the East Midlands Salon, the Studio, Broadway, Nottingham on Tuesday 15 November at 7pm. £5 / £3 for Salon members/concessions. Come and join the discussion.

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