We stayed up all night, my friends and I ...
So begins the preamble to that ur-manifesto of the avant-garde, F. T. Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909). The manifesto appeared as a paid advertisement on the front page of Le Figaro; the next morning it was birdcage liner for most of its readers. Yet it has become more familiar than any single work of art the Futurists produced in the decades of activity that followed. More manifestos followed, too: hundreds of them, on subjects ranging from painting and sculpture to cinema and photography, from clothing and feminism to cooking and lust. Futurist manifestos were ephemeral, hurled off balconies and out of speeding automobiles, but they have since been carefully archived, translated, anthologized, and reproduced in textbooks of art history, literature, political science, and rhetoric.
While they were once the serious business of warmongering princes, party politicos and revolutionaries, over the last hundred years manifestos have become the elastic and unpredictable material of artists and writers. Part of the attraction of the manifesto is that it remains a surprisingly complex and often paradoxical genre: flippant and sincere, prickly and smooth, logical and absurd, material and immaterial, shallow and profound.
So what makes a good manifesto?
1. Manifestos usually include a list of numbered tenets.
The format has been de rigeur since at least as far back as The Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). It conveys a sense of urgency and straight talk. This is also why manifestos feel so contemporary: their close resemblance to click-bait top 10 lists.
2. Manifestos exist to challenge and provoke.
Any manifesto worth reading demands the impossible. Surely the best first line since Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto (1848) is the breathless opener to Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto (1967), which reads: “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” It is dangerous and unpredictable, like the “thrill-seeking females” it imagines as its foot soldiers, and is nothing if not ambitious.
3. Manifestos are advertisements.
The Futurist Marinetti made this especially true, embracing and pioneering new techniques for advertising (one of Benjamin’s “shocks” of modernity) to promote his international movement. Since Futurism, the manifesto has come into its own as something that advertises mainly itself. But it also, in most cases at least, advertises an “ism.”
Marinetti’s favorite lesson from advertising was the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad press.” He wrote about “The Pleasure of Being Booed” and picked fights with audiences across Europe. Soon other isms followed his lead, using shock and outrage as their chief mode. The Vorticist Wyndham Lewis described it as a game played by artists with the press and public before the rude intrusion of the First World War. It has been a popular technique ever since: the film director Lars von Trier, for example, who contributed to the genre with his "Dogme 95" manifesto, has in recent years elevated bad press to an art form.
4. Manifestos come in many forms.
During the “second-wave” avant-garde of the 1960s, the manifesto experienced a major rebirth, becoming again part of the general atmosphere as it was in Europe before and after the First World War. One anthology, BAMN (By Any Means Necessary): Outlaw Manifestos and Ephemera, 1965-70 (1971), described some of the situations in which the manifesto might have appeared and the forms it might have taken:
perhaps it caught your eye as a flyposter, nailed to a tree, published in a “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” magazine or news-sheet. It could have been incanted at a wedding service, passed round as trading cards, posted as a chain letter, read on a menu. It may even have whizzed past your head while wrapped round a brick.
The BAMN anthology provides some good examples from the heady late-'60s, including the “Outlaws of Amerika” trading card series. Created for the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the cards depict various members of the Black Panthers and “200,000 pot smokers” (a figure that sounds charmingly conservative today). Also from 1968 is a manifesto reportedly written by Salvador Dali and found “behind the barricades in Paris” —perhaps even wrapped around a brick and ready to be tossed at The Establishment.
Today the manifesto is experiencing a rebirth of a very different kind. With the proliferation of the Internet in the past decade, the manifesto has expanded into every corner of the arts (and crafts), as well as academia (e.g. “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”). But the most startling change is that the manifesto, which has long borrowed from advertising, has itself been coopted as a business-friendly genre. It has of late become tame, even cute: an untroubling, unironic, fully digested meme for the attention deficient.
The new wave of “inspirational” self-help manifestos—as if the vast majority of manifestos weren’t inspirational—demonstrates the malleability of the form. The recent boom shows no sign of ending. As one new guru of positivity and self-promotion, Alexandra Franzen, recently proclaimed: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a stay-at-home mama, a rising entrepreneur, an aspiring author, a CEO, or a preschool teacher—everyone needs a blow-your-mind manifesto. It’s just . . . necessary. And sexy.”
5. Manifestos are better very short than very long.
The longer a manifesto is, the exponentially crazier and duller it seems to get. If a manifesto is a type of advertisement, then ask yourself: Who would write a 35,000-word advertisement? The Unabomber, for one. Ted Kaczynski’s "Industrial Society and Its Future" (1995) is a classic of the extreme end of the genre. A too-long manifesto is, at the very least, something akin to an eight-hour speech by Fidel Castro. It is a marathon performance intended to impress by sheer excess. If you still need convincing, take a look at the endless cut-and-paste drivel of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik’s "2083: A European Declaration of Independence" (2011) or, indeed, Adolf Hitler’s 700-page Mein Kampf (1925). These are not the examples most of us want to follow.