The Artists’ Manifesto in the Age of Dangerous Managers

charcoal drawing by Ron Amir

Charcoal drawing by Ron Amir.

Artists’ and poets’ manifestos have been decontextualized and uprooted from their subversive power by a culture that likes kitsch and camp and cowardice. But this non-manifesto is also hopeful, insisting how the role of radical poets and artists has to be one of confronting and attacking the values of technocracy and of the scientific business-managed governments.

The manifesto has become a drained genre, a revolutionaries’ leather glove empty of its fist. Void of subversive impact, the manifestoes multiplying throughout the inter-linked terminals of the virtual neat world amount to formal self-parody, by which the authors and authoresses show they are wise and healthy and do not take themselves too seriously, unlike a disciple of sick tormented beasts like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or Melville, and ever unlike a cold but passionate Andre Breton, or a Marinetti or a treasonous Pound who made disastrous unverifiable utterances.

Endlessly reproduced and attempted by academics who are increasingly on the retreat from the dramatic political and economic extremes of the world, the ‘’manifesto’’ of flat avant-gardes is a genre that can resemble a schoolboys’ writing exercise when executed.

The aristocratic, yet rebellious Chilean poet Huidobro was known to say “a good poem doesn’t say it snowed, a good poem snows.”

Whereas the less aristocratic Fidel Castro insisted he liked a good love poem better than a bad political poem—for a good love poem can help the revolution, whereas a flat or dead politicizing poem could alternatively harm the Hajj. Cesar Vallejo, author of the lines ”god was on his sick-day the day I was born” and the book Path towards a Socialist Country (Peruvian socialism) said “the bad (political )poets..they got to be killed off in time” Those were admittedly other times, even in Peru.

A good poem does not say it snows. A good poem snows (even from tropical night)

Manifestoes arise, or up-load, announcing a storm, a revolution. But these are usually not unlike the theoretical revolts of academics, who show disdain for the embodied and material art forms and novels. It were as if the theorists of literature, who seek to replace poets and writers with themselves, in their avoidance of actual literature or of actual material visual arts, were a class of defiant monks and nuns showing abstinence against the naked, physical body of a woman splayed upon a bed in all her sexual glory and splendour of perfumed meats. Instead they praise the cross of Theory: literary/critical Theory and Discourse can be perfect, a diaphanous perfect river, without shit or whores’ panties strangling crocodiles as Argentine gentlemen dive after them, or irrational and inexplicable and un-medicated nightmares flowing through that river that flows encircling the Cidade Doliente. Utopias always seem flawless, as a blueprint—best never to attempt them, and to remain at poorly executed parody, in a library of manifestoes for revolutions and blueprints for utopia, all trembling at the whistling fart of the snow-owl of Minerva who speaks a language of calculus and programming, using words like ‘’monological’’ and ‘normatives’’ or ‘’ostensibly’’ Can a poet who uses the foul word ‘’ostensibly’’ ever have the recklessness, the poetic craft to spew a mouthful of rum onto an electric socket in between the long hours writing, relatively destitute in loneliness absolute loneliness on Rachmaninov’s Island of the Dead Souls?

At best, the often-attempted artist manifesto becomes a document of nostalgia, like an old vintage record player with a metallic horn, an African mask or a picture postcard of the city of Baghdad.

The manifesto, as an article of nostalgia can serve as a reminder, perhaps a reassurance, that the spirit humour and passion of courageous young artists in the 1920s and 1930s is certainly not repeating itself any time soon, a weepy bygone. The socio-economic, cultural, intellectual context of the manifesto has been collapsed and eradicated so that its production becomes the opposite of the original feat. Is it then the same? For that matter, if street-art graffiti is made provisionally, with state subsidies, permits and security-supervision from Sarkozyist French officials is it still graffiti?

Cultural theory replaces art with theories and has seized upon the manifesto as yet another artefact of retro and what Susan Sontag coined “camp.” The era of the Death of the societal role of the Author was brought about by academia’s despotism, by the neoliberal publishing industry and the rise of pragmatist meritocracy. The concert celebrating diversity within meritocracy, as supervised by the Obama-Clinton mainstream of the Democratic Party, needed to claim literature as its field of figuration. But the era of Death of the Author, with a most un-ceremonial burial, has seen the rise of the Cultural Theorist as the preeminent intellectual life-form in the capitalist laboratory.

A need of a young generation to have novelists and poets to turn to has been frustrated. It is like the need of an individual woman for a baby of her own and the need of a man for a concubine: related drives. The young lovers need poets of passion to articulate fire and stars wine, and not cultural theorists who lecture on the crisis in the marriage market, yet they only get plenty of the latter. Cultural theorists have served as an awkward substitute for the disappearance of the societal (and cultural and economic) role of the author. Slavoj Zizek is incomprehensible and buffoonish when speaking about love, human passions or evil. And yet the young audience has few others to turn to, they hunger for an augur who will advise them on shattering and exposing their parents’ middle class fantasies and how will invigorate them to challenge petty bourgeois values. In the absence of a Norman Mailer having been able to arise from obscurity in the time of wars, their shamans have been academic cultural theorists: between the clownish apocalyptic humour of Zizek, and the selfish, careless experiments in misshaping their bodies into hermaphroditic forms, as advised by gender-theory.

The Slovene is more believable than Judith Butler. Butler, hyped and profit-driven stage philosopher with 10.000 underpaid mayor domos, recently stated in an interview with the LA Review of Books that her vision of a radical politics is one that never manifests as a party with defined demands or dogmas. Butler’s politics prefers to be forever faceless, phantasmal and hermaphroditic, so as to flirt with indefinite and unborn perfection, the free mayor-domo of Power. Her primary form of political statement is that of the parody of archaic gender roles: as in childhood, it is made impossible once more to tell a man apart from a woman; the soul, the prison of the body as Foucault maintained, must be cast off like yesteryear’s denim: but in all that din and enthusiasm, what then remains of desire? How, then, to intelligently subvert societal scripts and roles, when all the imprisoning inscriptions that made up the soul are erased or can no longer be read by the trained illiterates? The revival of meritocratic-feminism is a repudiation of desire itself, a thorough cleansing. The pragmatism-and-business-driven society continues to seek new weapons against desire, allowing only the art that has been properly sanitized for the de-sexualization and de-politicization of society. Butler is today’s equivalent of Timothy Leary, Harvard prof who advised young people to take lysergic acid: only Butler is far more cautious, not abusing the pharmaceutical hormones she prescribes, and making sure never to be kicked out of academia unlike Leary, (who got jailed and escaped, admirably un-Socratic hallucinatory jailbird shooed)

Parodies and post-politics in an imagined paradise fit the imperial first world’s cultural trend of absurdist farce as the predominant form of (aesthetic) expression. Manifestoes seem incapable of surpassing such radical ironism and absurdism, as embodied in cultural theorists who seem to be the natural continuations of Marcel Duchamp’s tongue-in-cheek flatulent posturing.

The prototypical attitude, playful defiance and anti-conservatism of the manifesto, prevents a manifesto from calling for an end to the Death of the Author or a return of the societal role of the author. The necessity for the resurrection of precisely that role of societal role of the author, is an urgency that Pakistani-American literary critic and public intellectual Anis Shivani has continued to insist upon in his work.

Today the task of the author is to defy and to unwrite the death of the author. It has almost always been the task of novelists and modern poets to unwrite their own social death, and to come into an existence of societal relevance that is necessary in order to lead any insurrections, whether of the political right or left. That quest of the author—to tear apart the paper walls of his own social death, merely in order to be born—now also implies an intellectual and ideological struggle with more specified institutional opponents other than the faceless Social Death. The author is also forced into the dialectic of needing to undo the theories of academic despotism, brazen antagonism to the cool jargon of Foucault and of Derrida and of technocratic pragmatism in general.

But can the atheist art-form of the Manifesto—once used by the light-headed, the Dadaists at play for example—also be a suitable form for a call to serious spiritual rebellion, a revolution of the archaic waged by artists and poets against such institutional tyranny and against scientific-economy pragmatism?

For literary critic Shivani, in an article prefacing an interview with Salman Rushdie (in Shivani’s book of literary criticism recently published by Blazevox), the feat of Rushdie was to win against the death of the author telemarketing scheme as envisioned by post-structural intellectuals. Named after the Persian homo universalis Ibn Rushd in the era before professionalization, Rushdie did so. His defiance of literary politeness aka Death of the Author continues to enrage disgruntled reviewers— Rushdie’s politics of glib praise of the so-called superiority of Western simple-minded atheism is reactionary and boring at times, though understandable within his personal circumstances. And yet his book Haroun and the Sea Of Stories proves that the work of art is not always a conservative document (as Derrida and the deconstruction-crews have maintained, accruing their finances thusly) Haroun and the Sea of Stories uses the fantastic mythical fable to create an insurgency against the global power of Western management and pragmatism; his heroes, sultans and Oriental stork-birds defy the powerful culture of administrators and technocrats. The stories and art works made by artist can be more radical than the opinions given at press conferences or in newspaper columns, rebelling against the author: to win in a great work of art is to deserve and welcome one’s own death by the creation. That process might recall the Oedipal myth of father-murder to some. Yet the author’s quest to earn his own death it is a more ancient drive, to be found in the myth of Saturn or Chronos eating his child only to be destroyed by the infant Zeus in his stomach; Zeus as a grown god turns his pregnant lover into a fly and eats her, but she births Minerva in his brain, splitting his fore-brain and skull apart in the concert of birth. Such is the process of authorship: the creation can out-radicalize the rational opinions of the author, in aesthetics and in politics, as part of an unconscious revolution.

Most attempts at recreating surrealism ignore the political context of the surrealist movement, the relation of Andre Breton to the communist party and the fact that the young artists had a sufficiently vast amount of knowledge of artistic, intellectual and literary history in order to be defiant. Surrealists were willing to state solidarity with official enemies of the West, as were later art movements and radical artists, from Brecht to Baraka, as well as far less activism-oriented artists: they were able to defend a risky position of supporting Cold War enemies. Today’s avant-garde ism seldom includes any artist or writer who will speak out in favour of official Cold War enemies of the United States, not even in favour of the left-leaning populist governments in Latin America that have only now begun to fall in 2016.

Italian futurist artists lived and made art in the workers’ neighbourhoods and ghettoes outside of Italian factories, evading any employment or professorship, as they observed the ramparts and industry that made Edison’s then still exotic inventions. The glass and metallic constructs, Watts and Volts still possessed the capacity to enchant and amaze the common people like notes in Monteverdi’s populist operas. Such inventions were full of promise, like a song of the epiphany of the christ-infant, decades after their mass-reproduction. Surrealist artists wrote their manifestoes in relative poverty, embattled by circumstances. They did not move to slums in order to plan start-up corporations or software laboratories and their presence would not raise the real estate market value.

The artistic revolutions of the surrealists and futurists were a continuation of romanticism and neo-romantic ideologies. These movements sought to renew a neo-romantic aesthetics, to adapt to the electric era, and to enforce a socio-economic platform in which a new art could take place fulfilling a pagan neo-romantic mission: that of providing the resistance, assault or salvific escape from the forces of alienation and programmatic, scientific-technical-capitalist society.

Eccentric American academic lit-journals have specialized in the art form of manifesto, such as the American literary mag Lana Turner. Lana Turner asks glib questions such as ‘’is the Avant-garde too white?” (see for example the enraged essay by academic Cathy Park Hong, who dismisses Amiri Baraka’s inclusion in the university reading lists as merely ‘’tokenish’’) But the question “is it possible for a so-called Avant garde to exist as an island within academia?’’ is not asked. The oxymoron ‘’academic Avant-garde” (oxymoronic, as it appears to any outsider who does not share the jargon) is never challenged within the more publicized literary discourses, neither in English, nor in Spanish nor in most European languages. The racialized competition between office workers and managers and the dramas within the hermetic folds of the innumerable ‘’Avant-gardes’’ are difficult to distinguish for the outsider. If there is a literary underground publishing online in the United States, then its politics stands neither to the Right, nor to the Left of the Hilary Clinton mainstream of the Democratic Party USA. Guggenheim-hemmed poets like Kazem Ali can stomp and rail from the window of his Mercedes into the all the major literary journals of the United States: he can insist, in a menacing manner that frightens, as to how any conversation about aesthetics will likely conceal ‘’ableism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny and white supremacy’’ When screeching in that manner, he sure does sound “vanguardist”, echoing the figments and associative words of the (often truly) radical movements of the 1960s New left— Yet these radical statements can perfectly co-exist, as they were designed, within the framework of the Democratic Party’s Clinton mainstream, the concert of zoological diversity that consecrates meritocracy and the radical ascendance and restructuring of the middle classes, without for any moment doubting the desire to be middle class (for such self-doubt or reluctance is for ‘’the privileged’’) Very few vanguardist poets ever take a position on politics that will clash with disciplined allegiances: Ezra Pound remains the devil for his act of treason, not for his anti-semitism—TS Eliot among other prominent Anglo-American poets were just as anti-semitic. Today’s vanguardist will never express any solidarity with official cold war enemies. Even the Latino and Latina poetry encouraged by the academy has remained insular and oblivious to the social movements in Latin America, in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador. In his time, Albert Camus had to be brave to be the lonely exception for not outspokenly supporting the West’s cold war enemies as an elite intellectual, but the time of discipline and perfect alignment is upon us now that cold war regenerated.

The avant-garde, or ‘literature as a mirror held up to the Democratic Party USA” can allow a limited engagement with artistic and political movements outside of the United States. It is allowed as long as any solidarity expressed by the first world artist is not solidarity directed at official Cold War enemies (such as the left-leaning governments of Venezuela or Ecuador) A former CIA spy like Snowden, a journalist like Julian Assange, can more freely express a bit of solidarity or romance for the exotic left-demagogue-governed country…but no artist may do so within the academic and sanitized entourage of the establishment.

In response to the overproduction and censorship in literature, the broader reading public has abandoned fiction and poetry and instead turn to reading ‘’narrative nonfiction’’: a term for highly stylized books of journalism, written by reporters who have the courage to criticize Western political economic and military power and who dare to occasionally step out into a war-zone. The American philosopher Frederick Jameson identifies ‘narrative nonfiction’ as a form expressing the cultural logic of late capitalism.

Aesthetic positions that do not have a clearly defined party allegiance are dismissed in a scientific-technical-atheist-capitalist society that wages wars against any society that is not a highly secularized technocracy. The political positions of progressive establishments are made to substitute any ideas, feelings, notions or theories about art that could be shared or not by people of differing political views. A paradox has landed to suck the blood and humour and sex out of young artists: the officially endorsed and imposed art is at once decorative and politicized. An aestheticized politics, or a decorative aesthetics, is used in order to prove the pragmatic worthiness of the artist in the weighing and near-sighted eyes of Homo Oeconomicus. Art can be a dance, a painting, a poem or a concept that proves its worth by the willingness and capacity to have a completely ornamental, secondary existence. Art, the mirror to nature, is allowed to enshadow and celebrate the workings of post-politics.

The only purpose for art envisioned by technocratic elites is that of legitimizing the political gestures of progressive establishments. This is generally referred to as ‘’art that matters’’ or ‘’important art’’ Weak political gestures can sneak into the political realm disguised as art. Weak art can disallow itself from being shot down within the art world, by claiming itself to be an important and moral political activism (it says something about “Cliteracy”/It speaks of the need for gun-control/It defends the cause of hijabbed Iranian women etc) For this reason, most political art being made within the art establishment prefers the least controversial political positions, and asserts these with zeal and wild fervour, like at a rally to promote Hillary Clinton or Kendall. The retro-aesthetic of vanguardism is used to dress political beliefs that are widely accepted and uncontroversial among the educated middle classes.

Within the medieval paintings and Renaissance commissioned of Caravaggio, Bosch or Rubens by the Catholic church or by the rising bourgeois elites, there was still a possibility for subversion. The artists were widely read, and despite not being ‘’conceptualists’’ their art was informed by concepts they read in Ovid, in ancient, medieval and Renaissance poetry and philosophy and religion. The commissioned artist often thumbed his nose at commissioners by enacting dissent within the painting. As Jean Francois Millet said “I paint with my penis” That is not enough to be a manifesto in itself, it contains more passion and erudition than is to be found in the conceptualists with their endless quotes from Foucault or Baudrillard that help them to sound like good and appropriately-mannered prison sociologists, who assist the illiterate wardens of the first world for a hefty promotion, social activism they can put on their CVs.

“Defiance’’ in visual and literary art has become a performance in art academies, workshop and project spaces. The young artist and apprentice, is encouraged by elders to performing ‘’attitude’’ or the repudiation of any romantic or neo-romantic notion—as these notions are ‘’conservative,’’ and to be replaced with affirmative genital explorations, empty rooms, vibrators, irony and silliness, the parody, all rewarded routine responses. “Attitude’’ (mistaken for politics) is a kind of adrenaline, an emotional energy that avoids becoming passion, though capitalist managers might use the word ‘’passion’’ when they mean enthusiasm and dynamism to be exploited. Such playful “attitude” coexists with a logical, scientifically-governed and relativistic business-driven society, in which the most reassuring human expression is either indifference or self-assertion—both forms of aggression that can proudly wear the disguise of a rebellious identity politics, alchemically turning selfishness into altruism. A capacity for dynamism, attitude and insecurity is at the heart of such statements in art-schools and in the wold of business managers: be fired up enough, in order to smash something or someone, to jog hard onto the career and tenure tracks, dance floundering, with drowning motions, to techno in celebration, bag that promotion. Bag that award (and make sure to say all the right buzzwords and jingoisms of the day) Get a colleague fired. Smash a competitor. Buy a new phone for mastercard cupid to do matchmaking. Dispatch the drones. Knock down a rain-eroded statue of Lenin in an East European country already reduced to a businessman’s bordello on the brink of civil war.

Pessimism of the intellect, for Gramsci as for the author of this manifesto, is the preface for the beauty of the will (poets should not so often say optimism, and never ‘ostensibly’, Harvard word for future hedge-fund accountants)

Arturo Desimone (Aruba, 1984) is an Aruban-Argentine writer, poet and visual artist. His articles on politics previously appeared in  CounterPunch, DemocraciaAbiertaBerfrois UKDiem25news and elsewhere. Author of the poetry collection Mare Nostrum/Costa Nostra (Hesterglock 2019) and the bilingual book “La Amada de Túnez” which  appeared in Argentina during the pandemic, he has performed at international poetry festivals in Granada, Nicaragua, Buenos Aires and Havana.