Icon of the Month: The Manifesto | icon 050 | August 2007

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words Justin McGuirk

The age of the manifesto is over. The grand ideologies are dead. History has ended. Relativism and apathy reign.

It’s funny to think that only a decade ago all of those statements were considered credible enough to be in common currency. The Cold War was over, the American model of commerce had gone global, instead of political conviction we had political correctness. As we shall see, it was not a great time for manifestos. But what about now? These days, the mere mention of globalisation can trigger a flash mob of masked rioters, people use phrases like “clash of civilisations” and, most importantly, every malcontent on the planet can publish his or her rant on the internet. The manifesto is back!

Arguably, the original manifesto was carved by Him upstairs as a list of rules. What manifestos became, though, were political statements of intent – notable examples include the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto of 1848. They were serious and, in the latter case, potentially deadly documents until they were discovered by artists – and then the fun started. Talk of our inalienable rights was replaced by the nihilistic ravings of insomniac bohemians. Artists, you see, can’t be held accountable.

The golden age of the manifesto was during the high point of modernism. It all started with FT Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909, which proclaimed that art needed to reflect the speed and power of the machine age – everything had to be new, new, new. “To admire an old painting is to pour our sensitivity into a funeral urn,” wrote Marinetti. The Italian set the tone for a succession of other proclamatory documents by the Vorticists (1914), Dadaists (1916 and 1918) and Surrealists (1924). From then on, they had to be quasi-nihilistic, contradictory and nonsensical (“in principle I am against manifestos, as I am against principles” wrote Tristan Tzara in 1918). The manifesto was the language of the avant-garde, and, since it had to shock, was peppered with capitalisation and exclamation marks so that words could be incendiary devices – little sound bombs mimicking the senseless destruction of the Great War.

A good manifesto needs to invoke violence because it demands change. At the same time, however, the manifesto writer needs charisma, a sense of humour and, of course, delusion. By the 1960s, the Situationists were predicting that everyone would become an artist, while Yves Klein was claiming the sky as his greatest work. “Birds must be eliminated,” he wrote in 1961, because they were spoiling his blue.

Interestingly, the canonical architecture manifestos were rather pious, humourless documents. Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime (1908) took all the fun – along with the decoration – out of building, while in Towards a New Architecture (1923) and then in the Athens Charter (1933), Le Corbusier preached purity – standardised order over mayhem. Nevertheless, their visions enjoyed plenty of realisation.

In the 1970s, Venturi Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas and Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York (a “retroactive manifesto”) celebrated rampant capitalism’s spontaneous products and accepted contemporaneity. But there was a dip in a form after Prince Charles’ A Vision of Britain (1989), closely followed by the Unabomber’s manifesto (1995) and the Stuckist manifesto (1999), which stated that only painting could be art. By now, it seemed, the manifesto had been appropriated by killers and, even worse, reactionaries. Rearguardists!

In the early 21st century, there are as many potential manifestos as there are people – the internet has seen to that. The web is a hotbed of pamphleteering, whingeing, enthusing and, above all, sharing. In the age of the corporate mission statement, when global conglomerates want you to buy in to their “vision” and use their products, the open-source, creative commons advocates are fighting to keep cyberspace a place where users can express their own vision. However, the internet scribes who most embody the radical spirit of the early manifestoers are the hackers – brimming with pointless rage and as yet unrecognised creative genius.

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