The word has the sound of an incantation. Presto, changeo, manifesto.
I should admit that I don’t believe manifestos constitute a particularly fine literary genre. They are not, by and large, beautifully written. Their rhetoric is tautological and syllogistic. What prosody they have tends toward the declarative and parallel. The few lines I’ve memorized—“To put out a manifesto you must want: A.B.C. / to fulminate against 1, 2, 3”—don’t sing. They didn’t grow out of poetry; they grew out of polemic. The most recent manifesto I read was written by a gunman.
But as much as they are declarations of ethics and morality, manifestos have the power to call forward new realities. Perhaps it’s best not to judge a manifesto by the caliber of its prose but by the contours of the world it proposes. I think of them as phenomenological spells first and yardsticks only thereafter.
Manifestos have a unique form of political power. They’re not platforms or apologias, and they certainly don’t reflect legislative compromise. So what is their potential? What do they make possible? I just finished reading Haytham El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep (2020), a manifesto of sorts, in which, referencing Walter Benjamin, he describes waking from sleep, merging the memory of dreams with a reality that gradually comes into focus. El Wardany writes, “The group—the masses—gradually reclaims its self-awareness through political action and becomes capable of reformulating reality.”
Any linguistic attempt to point the reality of what is toward the dream of what could be … I would call that a “manifesto.”
Though the word manifesto shares its root with manifest and both go back to the Latin manus for “hand” and infestus for “hostile,” they have different histories. Chaucer brought manifest to Middle English around 1380 from Old French, where it meant, at different times, “visible” or “proven.” When it entered the King James Bible in 1611, it retained that connotation: “That the workes [sic] of God should be made manifest in him.” Manifesto, meanwhile, was borrowed from the mid-17th century Italian manifestare in an English translation of Paolo Sarpi’s 1619 History of the Council of Trent. There it took on the Italian meaning, “to make public,” suggesting an openness absent in the French.
This tangled etymology establishes the genre’s elusiveness from its start. How can the word encompass such disparate meanings? How can the form function at once as a benchmark, a critique, and an appeal?
Manifestos gained traction in the arts beginning in the mid-19th century. Gustave Courbet’s 1855 open letter, “Realism,” may not be the earliest art manifesto—Sir Joshua Reynolds’s published speeches at the Royal Academy between 1769–90 were certainly influential enough to qualify—but it’s the first I know of to be attached to a single, identifiable movement. Published only seven years after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Communist Manifesto (which languished in obscurity for decades), Courbet’s manifesto was the first to identify a rupture in the historical narrative of art and effectively predefine the kind of images that came after. Courbet was no milksop when it came to pomp and grandiosity. “I hold the artists of one century basically incapable … of painting the past or the future,” he wrote in what seems to me a historic failure of imagination.
When the grand spirit of boldness and challenge constitutes symbolic change, those openings can be generous—even when the texts themselves are constricting. And when so much of daily life is dominated by performative posturing in public spheres, it’s important to remind ourselves that symbolic change is real change.
Through manifestos, art reasserts its political and social dimensions. They are a recourse to aesthetic solipsism—yes, even those, like Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman’s 1943 “A Brief Manifesto,” that advocate cloistering. When cultural debates turn inward, manifestos push up like gnarled roots through pavement, reminding us how and in what ways art is a form of materialism. Few manifestos remain in the public consciousness for long. Fewer still have defined entire eras of art, and all of those were eventually challenged by later treatises. This cycle is one way to understand the history of art.
How many of those manifestos published on cheap newsprint in dailies like Le Figaro and Le Monde were used, the next morning, to cover the floors after painters woke from their dreams and set to work picturing a new world?
How many more lined litter boxes and bird cages?
How many manifestos were unmade by later proclamations?
And what to make of the aesthetics of manifestos themselves? Mostly, they derive their look from mass media—from the first treatises that ran through Gutenberg’s printing press and modern type on fragile newsprint to Constructivist agitprop and protest posters that the genre inherited during its surge in the 1960s. By the time manifestos like Seth Price’s “Dispersion” (1998) began to publish online, the bold sans-serif typography, stenciled knockouts, and straight lines had defined the form. Depending on one’s point of view, this self-consciously polemic look is either a form of woke-washing or a collective representation of counterculture. If the medium is the message, does the manifesto’s mass-produced style suggest that ideology is cheap? Or does it reinforce the genre’s most central trait and etymology: that they’re designed to be shared, disseminated, circulated? Julia Schäfer’s winsome design for this section’s print edition riffs on the visual language of newspapers, like the Rail, that informed manifesto’s studied seriousness, as well as the cacophonous and ebullient spirit that guides them.
Still, none of this quite satisfies the central question: If manifestos should be judged only by the images and actions they inspire, why consider them directly at all? Perhaps they seem beside the point when so much of culture today feels deadlocked. “I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” a representative of a terrorist cell tells a hapless novelist in Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991). “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.”
It may be time for us to reclaim that territory.
* * *
I’m grateful for and honored by the generosity of the essays in this section. The criteria I gave were broad, yet I didn’t expect such a wide array of responses. I asked that nobody write about the Surrealist or Dada manifestos because we already know what it’s like to live in their world. Otherwise, I allowed each writer to approach their manifesto however they wished provided their analysis be more than merely historical.
I had no idea they’d sit down to write during an armed insurrection against US democracy and its symbolic order, or that they would undertake their edits during an inauguration when the government armed itself against its citizens. Nevertheless, the essays here span continents and centuries, proving the form’s continued relevance. From texts like Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto” (Brazil) and Uche Okeke’s “Natural Synthesis” (Nigeria), we see proposals for young nations to establish postcolonial identities. From projects by Agnes Denes and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, we see the promises and pitfalls of mid-century US protest art.
Several contributors wrote to me to express hesitancy, saying manifestos didn’t seem an appropriate subject for this moment because they too easily lapse into the rapturous language and praise of noble purity that informs white supremacy and other violent ideologies—to which I replied that that’s what makes them worthy of critical attention. Answers are often found in origins, and manifestos have much to teach us about the fungibility of belief.
But yes, a manifesto is almost as difficult a thing to write about as it is to write. To inscribe a singular symbolic vision into shared language is both a fool’s errand and a beautiful expression of idealism. Who would write such stringent declarations today? You’d have to be brave or totally naïve. Yet amid the turmoil of 2020, a number of thoughtful manifestos were published, including El Wardany’s The Book of Sleep and Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism. And so despite our jadedness, exhaustion, and presumption of inutility for all the old ways of effecting political change, the form, with its quixotic spirit seemingly unsuited to this age, carries on. I wish more writers would be so brave, would be so naïve.