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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Mar 20th 2021
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