I have been a fan of manifestos for a long time. I had one here for a long time, and I have one over at eight cuts gallery. The past year I have been thinking and writing more and more about the importance of being clear what you stand for as a writer, and last week emphasised the importance of being able to express that in a single sentence, a crie de coeur. That is not a manifesto, nor is a longer, more thought out and controlled piece of prose such as a mission statement.
I was brought back to the importance of manifestos specifically by Vanessa Kisuule’s recent and excellent Malleable Personal Manifesto. As well as being excellent reading in itself, the title perfectly illustrates what is special about manifestos. They are not for everyone – though unlike a mission statement which tends to be wholly personal, they can define movements, umbrellas, common aims and means – and they can change over time. The same way your sentence to create by captures a horizon, a fixed path by which to walk, manifestos capture moments, urgencies, lacks, desires, failings in the cultural fabric and voices gasping for air.
All of which makes the presentation of a manifesto problematic. Whilst a mission statement is a fully syntactic explication of a position, and a crie de coeur a declarative, what for should a manifesto take? Should there be space for both of these styles? Does that leave the manifesto as a strange hybrid rather than a thing in itself? Does it, more to the point, miss the malleability and personality Vanessa alludes to? An alternative is the pledge, whereby a series of declaratives is given syntactic fullness through the prefix “I shall”/”I aspire to”… whilst at the same time eliding into the declarative to give you a fulls ense of purpose. The expanded pledge would then explicate the declarations, the pledges, explaining why each is important, and how it is to be enacted. That makes the conveyance of an underlying philosophy clearer. At the same time, clarifying the underlying philosophy may not be the purpose of a manifesto, whose ad hoc, even ad hominem, status may require it simply to hold together as a woven fabric that finds its rationale in its coherence and its being acted out, whilst the philosophy remains implicit, feeding itself through action into the actor’s consciousness. Or again, it may simply be the environmentally specific outworking of the crie de coeur, and the evolvomg manifestos a guide therefore to the changing conditions in whch an artist finds themselves over time, though this must be used in turn to question the artist’s own susceptibility to change, so that artist and manifesto-history become a pair of hermeneutic mirrors held each to the other?
The hive mind of Facebook offered some interesting insights. What came through clearest was the idea of exaggeration, the notion that a manifesto should be overreaching, whereas a mission statement should be realistic. I am a great believer in the importance of aspiring to the impossible, so this is an appealing distinction. On the other hand the whiff of Nietzsche, of the overweening ego and the forceful injection of the artist into discourse through posturing rather than their work makes me nervous. The manifesto as brand, mask, costume, whatever is a notion at once resonant of the times and deeply unattractive. Vanessa, with whom we began, iterates her discomfort with prescription at every turn, preferring to speak of reflactions and ponderings, and that is a manifesto, as oit were, for the making of manifestos, with which I am much more comfortable. Identity is a concept that is less of the zeitgeist in art than brand, but one that is more organic and which allows the manifesto to contribute its part to an organic whole whose deep structure is provided always by the work.
It feels like these musings are full of questions, and very few answers. Maybe that’s how it should be. Manifestos are yours to make, and make them I would encourage you to do. A certain amount of introspection about your work is a good thing, but not too much. For me a manifesto should look outward too. It should be an invitation, a leaving of the door open and a statement to the world that you will not join it on its terms but will define your own, and that you cordially invite others to join you as fellow travellers whilst you recognise that their association is loose and voluntary and not an arrogation of their own autonomy.
Tomorrow, the results of all these musings. In the meanwhile, tell me your manifesto, or your favourite manifestos, or why you think they are simply abstract posturing.