Jun 7th 2016

Words and Pictures

by David Galenson

David W. Galenson is Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Academic Director of the Center for Creativity Economics at Universidad del CEMA, Buenos Aires; and a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His publications include Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Princeton University Press, 2006) and Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press and NBER, 2009).

“I mean, all us lot, we fucking caned the fucking art world. Absolutely totally phenomenal. We caned the art world as fucking kids.” Thus spoke Damien Hirst in 1999, in one of a series of interviews that were to be published as a book. “All us lot” referred to the Young British Artists (YBAs), of whom Hirst was the universally recognized leader, and who had taken the advanced art world by storm in the 1990s. Hirst spelled this out later in the same interviews: “The center of the fucking art world’s in England. You know that, don’t you?”

Hirst’s declarations were taken by many casual observers as the arrogant, obnoxious, and probably drunken rantings of an uneducated and boorish punk. And they were deliberately intended to make this impression. In fact, however, Hirst’s rhetoric was a sophisticated and calculated contribution to one of the most vital traditions of advanced modern art, that had been initiated 90 years before, by the equally brash and iconoclastic young leader of an earlier artistic movement.

F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944) was not a painter, but an Italian symbolist poet who liked to describe himself as “the caffeine of Europe.” He was a thoroughly modern intellectual, who enthusiastically embraced all the most recent developments in technology, culture, and communications, and had an intuitive understanding of how to use them for his own benefit. Long before scholars had begun to analyze opinion polls and study popular attitude formation, Marinetti understood that whatever the message, its form would be as important as its substance: in a world of what would later be named sound-bites, how you said something was as important as what you said. He also understood that in modern society culture would no longer be restricted to the select few: he was a pioneer of the goal of reaching a mass audience with personal art, rather than that of the church or state. He approached the marketing of culture as if it were a political campaign, advertising with posters, newspapers, and leaflets, aimed above all at producing excitement and controversy. As in politics, he realized that it was important not only to praise his own work and that of his allies, but also to denounce his predecessors, and abuse his opponents. Above all, he recognized that the most important thing was to get attention, whether favorable or unfavorable.

Having mastered the existing forms of publicity for art, Marinetti created a new one, that was to reverberate throughout modern art. In 1909, he published The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism, in full, on the first page of the French newspaper Le Figaro. Marinetti’s vigorous attack on Italy’s failure to move beyond its decaying artistic past into the excitement and vitality of the future gained greatly in impact from its prominent placement in the most respected newspaper in the cultural capital of Europe. The Manifesto of Futurism became a model for the development of Futurism as a movement, and an important precedent for many later artistic movements.

The literary scholar Marjorie Perloff observed that Marinetti was mediocre as a poet and unoriginal as a thinker, “but as what we now call a conceptual artist, Marinetti was incomparable, the strategy of his manifestos, performances, recitations, and fictions being to transform politics into a kind of lyric theater.” Drawing on many earlier precedents, including the mixture of political and poetic rhetoric in the Communist Manifesto (“A specter is haunting Europe…”), Marinetti transformed the manifesto from a vehicle for political statements into an artistic instrument. He instructed his Futurist followers that the new literary genre required violence and precision—“the precise accusation, the well-defined insult.” His own manifestos used a variety of literary devices to increase their impact, including narrative, satire, theatricality, and abstraction. Titles—critical for attracting attention—were to be concrete and provocative. And Marinetti’s manifestos were theoretical: in his highly abstract intellectual world, theory not only preceded practice, but to a great extent became practice.

The Futurist movement became closely associated with manifestos. Futurism had begun as a literary movement, but when Marinetti expanded it by incorporating five young Italian painters in 1910, the first thing these artists did was to publish two leaflets—Manifesto of the Futurist Painters and Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painters—declaring their distaste for earlier art (“our deep disgust, our haughty contempt, our joyful rebellion against the vulgarity, the mediocrity, and the fanatical and snobbish cult of the past which are suffocating art in our country”) and their love of the modern (“we must now draw our inspiration from the tangible miracles of contemporary life”). How they would express this on canvas was less clear, and in fact Futurist painting never developed a specific style to capture pictorially the dynamism of the modern city and its technology. Indeed, the manifestos of the Futurist painters became more influential than their art. So for example in 1912, the German Expressionist Franz Marc wrote to his friend Wassily Kandinsky that “I cannot free myself from the strange contradiction that I find their ideas, at least for the main part, brilliant, but am in no doubt whatsoever as to the mediocrity of their works.”

Dozens of Futurist manifestos, on subjects ranging from painting and sculpture to architecture and clothing, spread across Europe in leaflets, newspapers, and magazines. Many other ambitious young artists soon appropriated the new genre for their own purposes.  (These young artists were conscientious students of Marinetti, and they demonstrated their mastery of his lessons by following his example.  Prime among his commandments was to denounce one’s predecessors.  Since Marinetti was the spiritual father of the next generation of manifesto authors, he and his Futurist movement took a considerable verbal beating from artists all over Europe.) In London in 1914, the painter Wyndham Lewis issued a manifesto extolling the advantages of Vorticism—“England is just now the most favorable country for the appearance of a great art”—over earlier styles (“The artist of the modern movement is a savage—in no sense an ‘advanced’, perfected, democratic, Futurist individual of Mr. Marinetti’s limited imagination”). In Moscow in 1916, the painter Kazimir Malevich published the Suprematist Manifesto, announcing “The first step of pure creation in art,” and again rejecting its ancestors: “Yesterday we, our heads proudly raised, defended Futurism—Now with pride we spit on it.” In Zurich in 1918, the poet Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto declared that “We have enough Cubist and Futurist academies: laboratories for formal ideas,” and “so Dada was born of the need for independence.” Each of these movements produced a cluster of manifestos, as did Surrealism in Paris after the end of World War I, beginning with the poet André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924.

Surveying the history of this flood of manifestos, the philosopher and critic Arthur Danto remarked that “manifestos were among the chief artistic products of first half of the twentieth century,” and in recognition of this, christened this period the Age of Manifestos. Danto observed that all these manifestos shared the characteristics of defining a particular movement, or style, and proclaiming that this was the only kind of art that mattered. Manifestos were thus intended to establish a particular movement’s claim to be the one true and valid approach, that would become the point of departure for all future art. Ironically, however, Danto noted that in all cases these programs failed: “The manifestoed movements of the twentieth century had lifetimes of a few years or even just a few months, as in the case of fauvism.”

Danto’s description of the role of these manifestos is correct, but it fails to account for the key historical question: why did art manifestos appear when they did, and why did their use spread so widely in this period? Danto’s inability to explain the relevant causation can be traced to a failure to consider the economic history of art, specifically the market conditions underlying this episode.

Manifestos were one consequence of the radical changes in advanced art that were caused by a transformation of the structure of the market for advanced art that began in the late nineteenth century. For centuries, from the time of the Renaissance, there were stylistic variations in advanced art, but these were relatively subtle, for artists were tightly constrained by the need to satisfy powerful patrons—the church, the state, or the agents of the state, as in the case of the French Salon in the nineteenth century. The rise of a competitive market for art, that began with the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and ‘80s, and culminated with Picasso’s shrewd manipulation of Paris’ leading private dealers in the first decade of the twentieth century, for the first time allowed advanced artists an unprecedented degree of freedom. The result was a proliferation of radical new styles, most prominently created by young, conceptual innovators. Early in this new regime, F.T. Marinetti perceived that sophisticated advertising could be a valuable adjunct to the production of radically innovative art, and a new artistic genre was born.

Manifestos were chiefly associated with conceptual artistic movements, for several reasons. One of these was apparent to one of the pioneering conceptual innovators early in the modern era. In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, “One of these days I shall write you a letter; I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary. You might keep that letter then, so that in case you should meet somebody who might be induced to buy some of my studies, you could tell that man my own thoughts and intentions exactly. My thought in this being especially: one of my drawings taken separately will never give complete satisfaction in the long run, but a number of studies, however different in detail they may be, will nevertheless complement each other.” Van Gogh was a prototypical example of a kind of artist who would become common later in the modern era, a conceptual innovator who created a personal symbolic  language that held meanings for him that would not be apparent to anyone looking at one or two works. Hence Vincent’s suggestion that he could write a statement explaining his works to potential collectors. This would be one central role of the manifestos of the next generation of conceptual artists.

In addition to explanation, Marinetti recognized that written texts could powerfully complement the intellectual appeal of conceptual paintings or sculptures, because of their shared basis in ideas. The controversy created by the Futurist manifestos created an aura of exhilaration around the paintings they accompanied, or often preceded, and thus added an extra dimension of intellectual enjoyment to the experience of viewing the canvases. Malevich’s novel painting of a black square on a white ground must have gained considerably in power when accompanied by his oracular text that proclaimed that “The square is a living, regal infant,” and declared that “Our world of art has become new, non-objective, pure.” With the new sophistication of artistic manifestos, a succession of articulate conceptual innovators demonstrated Perloff’s observation that “To talk about art becomes equivalent to making it.” And, we might add, to read about art became equivalent to seeing it. Thus in the highly competitive market for advanced art of the early twentieth century, a powerful and appealing new form of advertising emerged, to educate and intrigue collectors, in the form of the manifesto. Its rapid diffusion and widespread adoption provide strong evidence of its value to the many artists who made it a trademark of the era.

Although there are notable exceptions, manifestos have rarely been produced by experimental artists. In part this is a function of the visual goals of experimentalists: they are likely to say that if they could explain verbally what they wanted to achieve, they wouldn’t have to paint. Experimental artists also typically lack the confidence and certainty that Marinetti and his conceptual heirs all displayed in abundance. Thus for example Robert Motherwell observed that it was difficult to find a true Abstract Expressionist manifesto, because “the very nature of a manifesto is to affirm forcefully and unambiguously, and not to express the existential doubt and the anxiety that we all felt.”

Formal artists’ manifestos dwindled in importance in the second half of the twentieth century (in 1989, the painter R. B. Kitaj introduced his First Diasporist Manifesto by noting that “I just read in an art column that the time for manifestos has passed. So I thought I’d write one.”) There appear to be a number of reasons for this. Ironically, one may be the rise of a mass audience for art. With an increasing public appetite, newspapers and magazines have devoted more attention to contemporary artists and their movements, and this may have reduced the need for artists effectively to write their own advertisements. Such general interest magazines as Time and Life wrote about the Abstract Expressionists in the late 1940s and the ‘50s, and Pop Art further expanded public curiosity about advanced art in the early ‘60s. Artists’ interviews became more prominent in the ‘60s, and Andy Warhol provided a prime example of how artists could dramatically increase their fame by speaking to journalists rather than writing themselves.  (During the 1970s, Warhol extended his fame beyond the boundaries of the art world by publishing a monthly magazine he named Interview, which featured interviews of celebrities by celebrities, including Warhol himself.)

Some important contemporary artists have continued to take advantage of the manifesto. In 1961 Claes Oldenburg, one of the original Pop artists, wrote I Am for an Art to affirm his belief in popular art (“I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top”), at the same time that he endorsed a model of the artist quite different from that of Warhol (“I am for an artist who vanishes, turning up in a white cap painting signs or hallways”). In 1970 Gilbert and George, who had earlier declared themselves to be living sculptures, in What Our Art Means produced a manifesto that not only promoted their own art (“We want Our Art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life”), but also denounced their predecessors (“The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood”). In 2000, Takashi Murakami wrote The Super Flat Manifesto to define his new form of art, asserting that “’Super flatness’ is the stage to the future.’”

For the most part, however, contemporary artists do not write manifestos, preferring to have others record and publish their words. Yet this should not be taken to mean that the traditions of the manifesto have disappeared, for tones of F.T. Marinetti and his many descendants can still be heard to echo in the words of prominent contemporary artists. Damien Hirst, for example, has consistently used interviews to promote his art and that of his YBA followers over the competition: “With the exception of my own generation of artists, who are friends, there’s not a living artist that I know that I respect.” He doesn’t hesitate to identify the competition: “these Americans have had it all their own way for far too long.” He openly embraces attention: “I think all publicity helps everything.” He takes credit when he believes it is due: “Art’s popular. That’s my generation. It wasn’t before.” And he freely expresses his vast ambition: “I want to live for ever. And the best way to live for ever is to be better than everyone else.” It’s difficult to believe that F.T. Marinetti would not be proud.



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More Essays

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Jan 18th 2023
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Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "With hindsight, 2022 will be seen as the year when artificial intelligence gained street credibility. The release of ChatGPT by the San Francisco-based research laboratory OpenAI garnered great attention and raised even greater questions.  In just its first week, ChatGPT attracted more than a million users and was used to write computer programs, compose music, play games, and take the bar exam. Students discovered that it could write serviceable essays worthy of a B grade – as did teachers, albeit more slowly and to their considerable dismay."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The thought of her, as always, gave me a jolt of hope, and a burst of energy. And a stab of sorrow."
Jan 14th 2023
EXTRACT: ".....if academic discourse and campus debate are shut down every time a person feels offended, how can universities possibly examine controversial topics? Without intellectual freedom – one of the great achievements of American civilization – they can’t."
Jan 5th 2023
EXTRACTS: "London's Tate Britain and Paris' Petit Palais have collaborated to produce a wonderful retrospective exhibition of the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942).  The show is both beautiful and fascinating. ----- Virginia Woolf loved Sickert's art, and it is not difficult to see why, because his painting, like her writing, was always about intimate views of incidents, or casual portraits in which individual sitters momentarily revealed their personalities.  ------ Sickert's art never gained the status of that of Whistler or Degas, perhaps because it was too derivative of those masters.  But he was an important link between those great experimental painters and the art of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, ...."
Dec 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the great paradoxes of human endeavour is why so much time and effort is spent on creating things and indulging in behaviour with no obvious survival value – behaviour otherwise known as art. Attempting to shed light on this issue is problematic because first we must define precisely what art is. We can start by looking at how art, or the arts, were practised by early humans during the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, and immediately thereafter."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "As a portrait artist, I am an amateur at this compared to the technology gurus and psychologists who study facial recognition seriously. Their aplications range from law enforcement to immigration control to ethnic groupings to the search through a crowd to find someone we know. ---- In my amateur artistic way, I prefer to count on intuition to find facial clues to a subject’s personality before sitting down at the drawing board. I never use the latest software to grapple with this dizzying variety.
Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."