30 March 2011

Slates, Slags, Etc.

There's nothing so quaint as a manifesto. Artists don't write them like they used to.

And for good reason, because the idea of the manifesto is so very nineteenth-century. All polemics and oppositional decrees, tied inextricably to the notion of an artistic avant-garde. In those days, vanguardist movements usually had pretty comprehensive goals, usually intending to launch some enterprise that would -- in the name of cultural transformation -- encompass a number of disciples, media, or realms of creative activity (art, literature, music, theater, interior design, etc. etc.).

But the practice of issuing manifestos started to taper off about the early-mid twentieth century. Sure, certain groups like the Lettrists and CoBrA and the S.I. went the direction of publishing their own collaborative bulletins or journals. But increasingly, the tradition atomised into individual artist's statement and writings; like those of Ad Reinhardt, or the various explanatory texts produced by artists of the Minimalist or Conceptualist stripe. (With that latter one being it's own separate modus, actually.) Perhaps this unraveling traces back to Bataille and the big schism among the Surrealists; with Bataille dissenting from Breton's self-appointed leadership, and going off on his own to crank out volumes of theoretical writings that left his former colleagues in the dust.

One reason that manifestos fell by the wayside was the inherent theoretic glitch: that they tended to subordinate the arts to some a prior discursive component, if not to an overarching meta-narrative. All of which was to varying degrees rendered obsolete (e.g. quaint) as art developed throughout the twentieth century, as it pursued increasingly fragmented modes of discourse, practice, interrogation -- opting for methods that were less combative, more speculative, tangential and circumscriptive.

At any rate, I bring it up because of this; Terry Eagleton sounding off on the topic in the conext of reviewing the new volume 100 Artists’ Manifestos for the Times online. As a general gloss of the topic, it has its highlights...

"In this cultural revolution, two broad currents can be distinguished. The more positive strain of avant-gardism sought to transform human perceptions in order to adapt them to the new technological age. Avant-gardes tend to take root in societies still in the first flush of modernization, when the oppressive aspects of the new technologies are less obvious than the exhilarating ones. History is now skidding by so fast that the only image of the present is the future. Nothing is more typical of these activists than a mindless celebration of novelty – a brash conviction that an absolutely new epoch is breaking around them, that twentieth-century humanity is on the brink of greater, more rapid change than at any time in the past (they were to be proved right about that), and that everything that happened up to ten minutes ago is ancient history. How one would set about identifying absolute novelty is a logical problem that did not detain them."

...Although there's a lot else that could be said on the matter, but the bit about the "macho" element of it all was a welcome acknowledge. But the whole matter of its machismo ultimately points back to the initial notion of an avant-garde, which was militaristic in origin.

And there's also the argument to be made that the manifesto (in the artistic context, at least) was never much more than a PR release. Which is probably why after a certain point on manifestoes were mostly written for the sake of satirizing the act of writing a manifesto -- mocking the rhetoric and bombast of the whole conceit. As Eagleton points out, this is where the Dadaists enter the picture. Of that lot, I'm a bit partisan to the Berlin division. More specifically, I'm pretty fond of Raoul Hausmann, whose "Return to Objectivity in Art" (ca. 1920-ish) ranks as one of my favorite faux-polemics ever...

"Art is a question of nations. Nationality is the difference between polenta, bouillabaisse, povidla, roast beef, pirogi and dumpling soup. Thus it is important to lend art a national character, in order to exploit these gastronomic subtleties, which could establish a better art than Expressionism, for example, from an international standpoint. Objectively, it is impossible to eat minestrone or bouillabaisse while dabbling in mysticism, or to confuse pirogi with clarity -- all this is a question of the gastronomic climate and therefore the brain, which functions differently in Russia than it does in Italy. [...] A nation like Italy, with its veal, its polenta and its red wine, must always tend towards clarity in worldly situations, whereas the German, by contrast, with his soups and buttered bread and beer, has achieved only that repulsive darkening of things called Expressionism. The first Expressionist, a person who discovered 'inner freedom,' was the gluttonous and drunken Saxon, Martin Luther. It was he, regrettably, who made the German turn toward an inexplicable 'subjectivity,' mendacity, a juggling with imaginary torments, abysses of the 'soul' and its power, as well as a base servility in the face of magical authority. He is the father of Kant, Schopenhauer and the current artistic nonsense that stares through the world and in doing so considers it subdued. His clearest expression, after all, is frankfurters, which only arose, by the way, as a protest against the Jewish view of reality, just as anything German exhibiting the the slightest degree of clarity is manipulated out of protest and not out of any grasp of reality, or of the human condition. [...] Goethe's clouds reappear in an expressionist art of enigma, of gastric disorders. One may counter these abstract airs with Courbet's dictum: 'Paint angels? -- Yes, if you've seen angels,' and rejoice in the prospect of naturalness, of moderation in food and drink that here reveals itself, even though Courbet liked a beer from time to time."

It goes on like that at length. And of course is best understood in the context of Germany after the first World War, with all its escalating nationalism and jingoism, as well as in in the context of Die Neue Sachlichkeit -- with Hausmann taking the piss out of the former while making a case for the latter.

No comments:

  © Blogger template 'Solitude' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP