The Retro Sensualist Manifesto

Earlier, I asked what an artistic manifesto is, what it can do, how it can relate to a person’s, or a movement’s, art. And I promised that today I would offer my own manifesto. Not, of course, my first – here, for example, is the manifesto for Year Zero Writers. And here is the eight cuts gallery manifesto. This is both more personal – because I speak only for myself – and more broad – because, both by being titled and by not speaking for specific individuals, it acts as an invitation to all, offers the possibility of a movement.

As for the title Retro Sensualist/Retro Sensualism. Well, first there’s the rather lovely fact that both these phrases are currently googlewhacks, which is both nice in itself and means they tread on nobody’s toes. Second it embraces the feel of The New Libertines (indeed, I’ve transported phrases from the New Libertine battle cry) whilst being more descriptive of the aesthetics than the phrase New Libertinism which recalls certain settings and behaviours in a way that’s appropriate for a touring show but not for a movement.

As for “Retro” – I am not in any way, shape or form nostalgic or conservative but whilst Libertinism is too rooted in a particular time and place, I like the resonances and feint echoes of times that were more open to the sensual, and very much want to steer away from the notion of progress, of the phallic thrusting grand march forward. Sensuality is a delicate dance of past and future and an eternally elusive present, and we need to be taken back as much as we need to be taken forward in the search for that equilibrium. In order to create and to live the complex nexus of the present we need to balance the creative impulse forward with a rootedness in the infinite points of light and dark that constitute the uniqueness of each of our individual pasts.

ParisRueCharlot(the photography of Veronika von Volkova captures everything I would like to say in a manifesto so much better than I could put it in words)

The Retro Sensualist Manifesto

The message

Life is best experienced immediately – sensually, perceptively, intuitively. As writers we should do everything we can to enable people to live immediately, and not by the palettes and nomenclatures given to them by others – or ourselves. And where language is one of the barriers to that, we should question language itself as our medium. So:

  • Stand for lived experience in its glorious, messy, complex entirety, and stand against everything that is blank, bleak, and brutal, one dimensional or slick in contemporary culture, especially current literary culture.
  • We need writing that serves up the whole of life, in the smallest microcosms maybe, single truths told in single voices, but told in the full – the ugly and the beautiful; the hopeful and the despairing; the angry and the aspiring; that wrings art, words, life itself until they offer up every last secret, every hidden pain, every unexpected and delightful pleasure; that gives life in the full. Free from judgement. Free from taboo. Free from pretence. Celebrate light in dark corners, desire in the face of boredom, despair hidden beneath the underskirts of affluence – everything it means to be human.
  • The literary industry – agents, editors, media arbiters of taste, publishers – forms a chain of filters that takes raw fiction, cuts it, sells it on, cuts it again until the street product peddled to readers is weak, toxic, and addictive. Literature needs to be mainlined straight to the reader, and even then it is painfully mediated.
  • Life is not binary. Very little is even a point on a spectrum. Everything in life is built from layers, nodes, matrices, combinations, accumulations and accretions. It is multidimensional. Literature should strive to be that also. Even – possibly especially – though it may be destined to fail.

The axioms

Art can, and should try to, change the world. So:

  • Stand for something. Something that matters deeply. Distil that something into a single sentence a crie de coeur. Print it, write it on parchment in beautiful inks, tattoo it on your forearm, or have it made into a skin for your iPhone but whatever you do make it physical and pin it where you will see it every day. And make it your pole star.
  • Where there are barriers to understanding and access, do everything you can bring them down.

It is better to try to be extraordinary and fail than to try to be ordinary and succeed. So:

  • Never be afraid of the impossible.
  • Do something you find painful every day.
  • Write about the subjects you feel you couldn’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t possibly write about.

The most important questions are the ones no one else will ask, and the voices that matter most are those that are never heard.

The method

Learn to be an outsider. Don’t dream of being “let in” but stay where you are and create the world you want to be part of. So:

  • Go everywhere. Travel culturally and philosophically and, if you can, physically, without boundaries or preconceptions, and as you do so be willing and prepared to learn and to be changed, but travel always as a stranger. Love, and expect to be loved back, but never seek integration or assimilation, because the notion that there is a “thing” into which we can become integrated or assimilated is an illusion. Such “things” are just constructs that serve to make life simple at the expense of life’s glorious complexity, that homogenise at the expense of life’s glorious diversity, that substitutes surface and smoothness for life’s simultaneous solitude and infinite interconnectivity, that substitutes mediation, concept and category for the glorious rawness of immediacy, intuition and sensation.
  • Leave your traces everywhere you go – in space, in cyberspace, in the interstices and in your own innerspace – invitations and open doors to others to learn from you as you learn from them.
  • Never take yes for an answer. Remain true to the reason you make art, no matter what the temptation to take another path.

Foster an economy of altruism. Your value as an artist lies in what you give not what you get, but do realise that the greatest contribution you can give is often your art so don’t be afraid to protect your creative space and energy. And don’t be afraid to ask others to give back in whatever way they can. but embed that request in your outpouring and generosity and their response to it and not in your own acquisitiveness. The two paths may share some of the same surfaces but few of the same depths. So:

  • Make your work free in as many ways as you can.
  • Make available as many ways as possible for people to give back to you, and never be afraid to ask them to give, but never judge those who do not.

Just as the whole of life is your subject, use the whole of life as your page. So:

  • Do not be afraid to use any and every technology. But always realise that technology is a medium and not the message. Of course, it can communicate what you can communicate in no other way, but never substitute gimmickry or newness of delivery with depth and complexity of what is delivered.
  • Do not draw fixed boundaries around literature and the means of creating it.
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