Manifesto Wars

Steven Heller

During the turbulent teens and cantankerous twenties artists’ manifestos were as common as weeds, and just as fast to sprout up from a groundswell of radical activity. Manifestos were statements of purpose, calls to action and weapons of mass obstruction. 

Words were the lethal ammunition. Sometimes they were aimed with pinpoint intelligence, other times they sprayed the battlefield with rampant stupidity. Manifestos came in all degrees of simplicity or complexity. They were long or short depending on the writer’s proclivities. Some survived, others are long forgotten—and the better for it. All tried to make a mark. 

Today manifestos are back. Artists who have decided it is their respective mission to save the world, or even those who have less ambitious goals, routinely turn first to a manifesto—a statement of principles—and then to their art forms to state how, why and where. As they were in the teens and twenties (and thirties and forties and fifties and sixties, etcetera), some manifestos are worth the paper they are written on, while others are not worthy of the trees they destroyed (perhaps a manifesto about manifestos is due). 

Yet even the most worthy often have a hollow ring. No matter how smart the manifesto may be, words are empty without action to support them. 

Therefore, the Ten Commandments—a manifesto by any other name—has some weight (not just as heavy stone tablets) because millions of people have more or less followed and sometimes violently acted out the “thou shalts and thou shalt nots” to the letter. Of course, this divine manifesto was actually created by men, and the Ten Commandments contain all the flaws that men had in those early biblical times. In other words, even a finely composed manifesto born of well–meaning sentiments is not always an exemplary one. Manifestos are by nature built on prejudice for or against something. They are also dictates to do something that someone else thinks important or necessary. Follow me because I am right is the implication of a manifesto—is it not?

But there is a genus of manifesto that is not just a commandment to follow or movement to join. The personal manifesto is not implicitly telling you or me what to do; it is tell you or me what the individual who wrote it believes. And if there is a chance that the ideas contained in the manifesto touch a chord in other individuals, then all the better. A personal manifesto is a declaration of principles, not an order to forge ahead, damn the torpedoes or change the world in a particular image. 

The past ten years—let’s say since the turn of the twenty–first century, because the fin de siecle is always a moment when new things occur—had been a fertile period for personal manifestos, and particularly in art and design circles. Some of those who have issued such declarations call them “to–do–lists,” others are more high–falutin. Manifestos are everywhere in art and design books, spoken at conferences, shouted from the rooftops. The creators are telling anyone who listens: “This is what I am going to do, and perhaps you’d be happier doing it too!” 

Sarcasm aside, a manifesto is a double–edged sword. It can articulate goals and desires in an honest and inspiring way. It can also be perceived as so much babble— pretense of the highest order—and must be ignored. 

Does that mean a manifesto should be written in any “standard” manner to avoid critique and be pure of meaning? No! A true manifesto will make those who do not agree wince. That’s the point. Make a statement and then act upon them that does change something—whatever it may be. The most memorable manifestos have altered the way we think and do. A manifesto should be a declaration of war against complacency. Shit! That almost sounds like a manifesto.

Steven Heller, Design critic