The poet Frank O’Hara gives us the best example of the manifesto as a fleeting, momentary impulse. O’Hara wrote Personism: A Manifesto (1959) in less than an hour, at the request of his editor Donald Allen (who was already on his way across town to pick it up). It is a humorous mock-manifesto that is nonetheless, like so many others, still a manifesto proper:
Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself)…It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents.
The manifesto embodies O’Hara’s casual spoken style as well as his serious convictions, lightly worn, about art and poetry—all perfectly captured in the rapid throwaway method of its composition. The Free City movement of the 1960s in San Francisco encouraged its followers to reuse its newspaper, which contained a number of manifestos, in creative ways: “Use this paper to start a fire or for toilet paper; tear it up for confetti and celebrate the free city; use it to start a revolution. Wad it up and throw it at your lover.” If manifestos can survive the immediate moment of their dissemination, they often end up caught in the tension between their status as throwaway statements and their use as historical documents. Futurist manifestos were ephemeral, hurled off balconies and out of speeding automobiles, but like many similar documents they have since been carefully archived, translated, anthologized and reproduced in textbooks of art history, literature, politics, architecture and rhetoric.
People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a “common purpose.” Because pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3am.
– George Carlin
A little violence
The artist Jenny Holzer is best known for two serial works which show a debt to the manifesto: Truisms (1977-79) and Inflammatory Essays (1979-82). Both have appeared across numerous media over the past few decades, including marquees in New York’s Times Square, but they are most striking in their original context: as simple posters, pasted up and peeling off walls around the city, their often shocking messages available to be seen and read by anyone passing by. In an interview from 1989 Holzer says that she felt drawn to the genre because it was “uneasy and hot” and she “wanted things to really flame.” She describes two sides of manifesto writing, both of which relate to its use as a means of provocation. On one hand there is “the scary side where it’s an inflamed rant”—the side captured in a “truism” like: “VIOLENCE IS PERMISSIBLE EVEN DESIRABLE OCCASIONALLY.” Then there is “the positive side, when it’s the most deeply felt description of how the world should be,” like: “REVOLUTION BEGINS WITH CHANGES IN THE INDIVIDUAL.” But Holzer’s works are more ambiguous than her statements suggest. Everything is placed side by side, without comment or context. What is ironic and what is sincere? I would argue that a text like Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto clearly covers both sides—simultaneously “scary” and “deeply felt.” There are many lines that blur and overlap, which is the reason manifestos make such compelling yet uncomfortable reading. Even stripped of their particular contexts, Holzer’s inflammatory texts retain their power as manifestos, because they retain their passion and (mad) dedication. Manifestos have to mean it. This is also what gets them into trouble—when they mean it so much that, frustrated by the limitations of polite language, they reach beyond measured words to make their target feel their point—to make it hurt. Solanas certainly knew this. The Futurist F. T. Marinetti, who lectured passionately on “The Necessity and Beauty of Violence” before the First World War, knew it too. As the narrator in Joanna Walsh’s digital age novel Break.up (2018) says: “Love and writing are so close: both involve a little violence.”
Julian Hanna lives on the island of Madeira, where he is currently sweating through a new book called Island Fever. The Manifesto Handbook: 95 Theses on an Incendiary Form will be published by Zero Books in January 2020. Twitter: @julianisland