25. Manifesto in the Arts

For instance:

You see the announcement for a “contemporary dance performance.” You decide to go and watch it. 

On the day and hour of the performance you arrive, buy your ticket at the door, enter the performance space which has a stage and rows of seats, you find your seat, sit down and wait.

When the time comes the audience lights darken and the stage lights come on and ten people in worker outfits, carrying carpentry tools and wood in various sizes, enter the stage. One of them unfolds a sheet of paper, puts it somewhere on the side and they begin to measure, cut, nail and screw the wood, occassionally walking to the piece of paper and looking at it. They don’t say anything to the audience, they just work intensely.

After a while you slowly begin to realize that the workers are building a table and two chairs. When they finish, they place the table and the chairs in the middle of the stage, pick up their tools and exit. The stage lights go off and the audience lights go on.

If you say “I had come here to watch a dance performance, what was that?”, those who have planned and produced the work may reply, “What you watched was a dance performance, was there something lacking?”

If you say that the performers were not dancers but carpenters building a table and two chairs, they may tell you that those were dancers performing the movements of carpenters. They may even ask, “Are there rules that dictate that workers’ bodily movements cannot be considered dance?”

If you say that it was not a ballet performance, you would be right, because the ballet has a lexicon of positions and movements, but this performance was announced as a “contemporary dance” piece. If crawling on the floor, climbing a wall, walking up and down the stage, tossing each other around can be accepted as dance moves, then wood-cutting and hammering can also be seen as dance.

If you say that you didn’t see a planned and rehearsed choreography, they can tell you that there is no such obligation but there indeed was a choreography arranged around the production of a table and two chairs, as was written on the piece of paper they were looking at.

If you say “I came here to watch the moves of trained and flexible bodies, moves that ordinary people can’t do,” they can tell you that there is no such rule either and that you should go watch belly dancers, acrobats, gymnasts instead.

If you say “there was no music,” they can tell you that there is no rule that dictates that there can be no dance without music and, yet, they may say that the performance you watched had music, consisting of carpentry sounds.

If you say there was no story line to help you follow the performance through expectations and curiosity, they can tell you that dance is not obliged to narrate anything. Yet, they can assert that the performance indeed had an introduction-body-conclusion format: “For a long time you were curious about the objects being built, you felt relieved when you recognized them and then you watched the completion of the project.”

This “dance of the carpenters,” which I made up, is not a really far out example: there have been numerous declarative and argumentative works presented particularly in the past one hundred years which I call “manifestos” or “statements.”

The Fountain, Marcel Duchamp (1917)

The most famed manifesto work has been The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp, which was a trashed urinal he had displayed at an exhibition in 1917 as a work of art (it was chosen to be the most influential visual art piece in the twentieth century in a poll of five hundred art experts in 2004). The White Painting by Robert Rauschenberg (1951), consisting of three panels painted in white, was another significant manifesto. The 1952 musical composition, 4’33”, by John Cage, which asks the pianist to sit at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without touching the keys (to allow the environmental sounds to be heard and listened to) is considered to be the most influential musical work of the past century. Almost all of the works produced at the Judson Dance Theater in New York between 1962-64 were aimed at testing the limits of dance. The 24-hour movie by Christian Marclay, The Clock, released in 2010, has become a new, effective and “broad-spectrum” meta work.

White Painting [three panel], Robert Rauschenberg (1951) — SFMOMA

As I have repeatedly indicated in the previous sections, a thing is defined by things that it is not. In that respect, every work of art “contains” the information indicating that it is the result of certain choices out of a vast number of options. In other words, every work of art is about its own reality and displays its meta information to a certain extent. In some works the directness and dominance of the meta level can turn them into manifestos: works that radically question their reality, definition, rendition and the matrix they belong to.

Art history often groups the artistic activities into movements in chronological order and develops a cause-effect-based narrative where each period seems to stem from oppositions to the previous ones. To use a simile, it is like each newcomer disliking the road taken by the previous dwellers and building himself/herself a brand new one. I find this approach, which inserts the concept of competition into the arts (as adopted from non-artistic fields in life), misleading.

The “new” in the arts (at least ideally) does not strive for the replacement of the road but for the widening of it – to enable more unrestricted and comfortable travel. Artistic activities that can be qualified as manifestos can be seen as “road-expansion” works, employing more direct, unconventional and radical methods. The purpose is almost always to question the status quo, to open up the obstructions and to propose new concepts and material for use.

The manifesto works do not say “Let us do it this way from now on.” Instead, they basically ask “Can’t it be done this way as well?” or “What would happen if it were done this way?” In that respect, the worst thing that can happen to manifesto works is getting defined, framed, repeated and institutionalized.

If I go back to the “carpenters” example above, the purpose of such a performance is to provoke thought and question the idea of contemporary or modern dance and its range and limits. Of course, to be able to attain this, the performance needs to be “socially contextualized.” That is, it needs to be announced as “contemporary dance” and presented in the established manner, at the accustomed venue. If the performance is presented, for instance, at a carpenter’s workshop, that would soften its estrangement aspect and, thus, the effectiveness of the manifesto.

Now let’s assume that some people admire the logic, radical boldness and puzzling effect of the performance so much that they decide to continue with furniture manufacturing on stage under the label “contemporary dance.”

If spectators attend those performances, the probability of the intention to observe the subject-matter (making of tables and chairs) would be close to zero. If they go, the reason would be almost entirely contextual: to observe an unusual audacity, to be associated with the nonconformism of the performers and the spectators, to take a stand, to be entertained, etc. Naturally, the unpredictability and the manifesto quality of the work would diminish rapidly with each repetition of the performance.

To sum it up, there can be two types of approaches to manifesto works:

In the first type, the proposed idea gets contemplated and discussed and it may or may not give way to new directions (similar to a piano concert in the 1950s where the pianist plucks the strings as opposed to playing the keyboard, which constituted a contribution to experiments with the use of non-standard tones in music).

In the second type, the manifesto activity gets repeated and becomes institutionalized. What is maintained here is no longer the idea behind the subject-matter, it is the form, the attitude and the “social frame” that has formed around the activity (similar to a piano concert in the twenty-first century where the pianist plucks the strings as opposed to playing the keyboard).