What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence
On quietude and the fallacy of manifestos.
What’s the use of a manifesto, anyway?
Art manifestos often propose themselves as solutions to aesthetic problems—aping philosophical or religious tracts, mathematical proofs. But the resulting language is typically merely fatuous and should be set as far aside from art as possible, relevant only for the purpose of scholarship. Take for example Lucio Fontana’s Manifesto Blanco (1946): “We ask all of the world’s scientists … to direct part of their investigations toward the discovery of [art’s] luminous malleable substance and toward the creation of instruments capable of producing sounds that will permit the development of four-dimensional art.” Jiro Yoshihara’s 1956 Gutai Manifesto proclaims that through its “experiments,” “Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the material reach out their hands to each other.” Hermann Nitsch’s The Lamb Manifesto of 1964: “Art moves closer to its central purpose, it becomes the center of all glorification of life,” which should probably be critically compared with F. T. Marinetti’s 1909 Manifesto of Futurism, that “We will glorify war—the only true hygiene of the world—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchist, the beautiful ideas which kill, and the scorn of woman … ” etc. These are, admittedly, cherrypicked. Maybe it’s disingenuous. But the documents keep going like this.
My point is that the artist’s manifesto is frequently vague, confused bluster, ritual palavering. (There are important exceptions, such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s declarations.) We might ask how the word manifest ought to be read: noun or verb? Is this a record or an instantiation?
Both? Despite their tendency toward impotent hisses, welts, and groans, in the best circumstances manifestos are standards to which we can hold labors. There’s an inherent tension between words as benchmarks and their shortcomings in practice. It’s found in other similar documents, platforms, declarations, as we’ve long been reminded; “All men are created equal” aspires to an egalitarianism never yet practiced. And repeated failures by standard bearers (artistic, social, political, corporate, etc.) to sufficiently maintain these ideals can inspire cynicism and disaffection, the belief that all such claims are only bullshitting. Perhaps this is particularly acrid right now when so much of public life feels strangled by performative rhetorical posturing and its consequences and failures in politics and cultural discourse, such as social media slacktivism or cynical, cinematic gestures by politicians and corporations.
The Occupy movement was criticized for never producing a totalizing set of principles and demands, but this is an underappreciated strategy. Perhaps it’s better to elude the difficulty of lame language and its praxis as much as possible. The late David Graeber, who helped foster the inchoate Occupy, described the efficacy of Malagasy people, whom he studied for his anthropological dissertation, in evading participation in their own colonization by withdrawing from and ignoring the French who tried to subjugate them. Slavoj iek has made a similar argument, pointing to Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and Bartleby’s assertive refusal to participate in the small and large abridgments of his autonomy implied by public life and its norms, repeating only the simple statement, “I would prefer not to.”
There are, I think, few declarations in the arts more honest or realistic and successful than those that preach obstinate quietude. Bas Jan Ader’s installation Thoughts unsaid, then forgotten (1973) is a beautiful example here, though maybe not strictly speaking a written manifesto, and perhaps even still too ornate with its dramatic lighting and cut flowers. But it also points to the impotence of words to address problems of the day, which will be reduced to silt eventually. Adrian Piper silent on the bus. More perfect, Lee Lozano’s Dropout Piece (n.d.) is propaganda by deed, consisting of a few private notes:
APRIL 5, 70 IT WAS INEVITABLE, SINCE I WORK IN SETS OF COURSE, THAT I DO THE DROPOUT (NOTE PUN) PIECE. IT HAS BEEN CHURNING FOR A LONG TIME BUT I THINK IT’S ABT TO BLOW
DROPOUT PIECE IS THE HARDEST WORK I HAVE EVER DONE.
THE REASON DROPOUT […] IS THE HARDEST WORK I’VE EVER DONE IS THAT IT INVOLVES DESTRUCTION OF (OR AT LEAST COMPLETE UNDERSTANDING OF) POWERFUL EMOTIONAL HABITS.
KEY → EMOTIONS ARE ALSO HABITS, LIKE ANY OTHER REPETITIVE BEHAVIOR.
I WANT TO GET OVER MY HABIT OF EMOTIONAL DEPENDENCE ON LOVE.
I WANT TO START TRUSTING MYSELF & OTHERS MORE.
I WANT TO REALLY BELIEVE THAT I HAVE POWER & COMPLETE MY OWN FATE.
This, as with Lozano’s General Strike Piece (1969), developed her abstinence from the regular art world, and the ablution of boundaries between art and life in practice. She would stop making art, stop participating in art, and just live, as art. And though it wasn’t overnight, she enacted her words, turned, and departed. She didn’t make absurd metaphysical claims about paint or performance, but said plainly and privately what was a risky and clear goal, all the more profound for its simplicity. It requires that the work, which is invisible and interior, be appreciated solely, and not by a loud and flimsy textual frame, which, as above, should be discarded.
Is there contradiction, hypocrisy, betrayal in an art critic arguing for silence? Is this making the argument too strongly? Quietude is a strategy I use often, publicly and personally—especially when talking things over is difficult or painful—despite its repeated failures. Moreover, what should you or I make of someone writing insistently for muteness? About the ability to hold artists to their word? About the usurpation of the rhetorical place of the critic by other workers in the arts? About the indefinite distinction between talk and action? I don’t know. I can’t imagine. I’m exhausted and mournful. I remember at the start of the pandemic how golden quiet the world was for a time as people readjusted and hadn’t yet really begun to fight over it. The birds singing outside each morning were so fulsome.