Who doesn’t love a good manifesto? The New York Times thoughtfully provides pdfs of the Splasher Manifesto, distributed mysteriously a week or so ago by a group that apparently hates street art—they went around splashing paint on works by people like Banksy, who had suddenly became trendy with lifestyle magazines. This epistle has everything that makes manifestos great—Situationist-style mischievousness; heightened, pretentiously militaristic diction; paranoid megalomania tending toward nihilism; petty grievances about the art world elevated to cosmic significance; enough ambiguity and implicit irony to make it impossible to tell how seriously the authors take themselves. It’s as if they only just noticed that artists make commercial objects that are traded in markets that manufacture value out of thin air—value that is ultimately backed by workers’ sweat equity at some point in the economic chain. (This is most memorably stated on the page with the slogan “Capital sucks from the teats of idols”—“Your compromises with capital are not some side deal you make to support your art; it is essential to it, capital is woven into your production.”) Of course this makes artists’ poses ludicrous. But it almost gives artists too much credit and dignity to be appalled at how they fail to transcend capitalism; they never had a chance, especially the ones who practice art as if it were a shortcut to an understanding of sociology or political science. The movement that the splashers are trying to halt is the one that will expose once and for all that artists and advertisers (“creatives”) are essentially synonymous at this point. A new word needs to be coined for the creative practice the splashers want to champion, though it may just be the self-actualization promised by consumerism realized by different means.
There are some provocative points in the manifesto—namely that the avant-garde and the Left should not in any way be considered synonymous; avant-garde movements are not any more progressive than fashion cycles are. Also, that commercial street art turns public space into desiccated gallery space. It makes people walking the street feel vaguely like trespassers. It’s one of the reasons I personally hate the monstrous sculptures corporations plop in semi-public spaces near office buildings—the demoralization that occurs in the typical hierarchical and bureaucratized office is extended into the world at large.
But I would have enjoyed the manifesto for its audacious rhetoric alone. A few highlights:
“We began these series of actions as a critique of rationality…. To further exemplify the disrespect we felt for the work and its creator, we arrogantly mixed the wheat paste with shards of glass.”
The use of the adverb “arrogantly” in that statement perfectly exemplifies manifesto style, which is mainly about ludicrous adverb placement and unnecessary jargon.
“Any dialogue with power is violence, whether passively suffered or actively provoked.”
A good example of the tendency of manifestos to generate a multiplicity of near-meaningless aphorisms. The heightened rhetoric of manifestos proceeds toward an ideal in which every single utterance is an aphorism, a pithy expression of some contingent insight that is reframed as a universal axiom.
“We are comprised of both men and women”
Obviously there are no copy editors among them.
“If we did have to speculate on what would encompass a successful outcome, we would have to rejoice over those who are now autonomously destroying pieces on their own volition in cities across the globe.”
The global reach they imagine has to be tongue-in-cheek. But this is typical of manifestos, where a radical group’s efforts set such powerful examples that like-minded followers emerge spontaneously and forward the cause independent of their ever having being a coherent explanation of what the cause is. Manifestos imagine the power of organizations without the overhead costs they necessitate; the magic discourse of the manifesto calls into being groups that can achieve public goods without the friction of interpersonal squabbles.
“We do not want a world where the guarantee of not dying of hunger is paid for by the certainty of dying of boredom.”
Sublime hyperbole, almost Baudrillardian in its scope. The idea that physical starvation is preferable to consumerist anomie is like the Spartanism I sometimes romanticize taken to the nth extreme: Material deprivation is preferable to meaningless choice among consumer goods. And remember, they are justifying nothing more extreme than vandalizing street art—they are willing to starve rather than be affronted by some well-meaning, gentrifying mural.
“Art collectors and admirers are the most insufferable lot of all. Endowed with nothing but time and money, they consistently hemorrhage both meaningless adulation and cash on their preferred jesters.”
“Nothing but time and money”—these are not bad things to have a surplus of. I guess the implication is that they lack talent, but the impression I get from the rest of the manifesto is that talent itself is a bourgeois mystification. I also get the sense that the manifesto verges on becoming the kind of hipster ego art that it professes to denounce; that is part of its frisson, perhaps.
“Art: the excrement of action”
The syntax here mimics that of the granddaddy of manifesto writers, Marinetti, the futurist who wrote “War: The World’s only hygiene,” a document which contains the immortal declaration “The red holidays of genius have begun.” “Art: the excrement of action” has some similarly bombastic declarations, about the centrality of action and destruction as creativity and so forth; apparently this group doesn’t subscribe to the notion that capitalism is the original harbinger of creative destruction—maybe they should read Schumpeter; they might appreciate his tone if nothing else.
“Destroy the museums, in the streets and everywhere.”
It’s impossible to tell if this is meant literally, but I take this to mean that the complacent, reverant attitude, flush with social capital, that we take to museums makes it impossible for us to appreciate art as it should be appreciated; it robs it of its appropriate context—apparently that of class struggle: “destroying the bourgeoisie”. This seems a tall order for most art, but if it can make us feel ashamed of the museum-going mentality, the passive faux-transcendent pose of chin-scratching judgment and connoiseurship, it’s moving in the right direction.