If you want to find an artistic manifesto to suit you, you don't have far to look. At one time or another every ism in the book has had a User's Handbook drawn up for it by the sort of schoolboyish bureaucrat who relishes these things. At one level a kind of playground tribalism is at work in these declarations of intent. At another level it's about bringing a bit of collegiate rigour to what is otherwise a notoriously solitary enterprise.
Manifestoes allow the artist to feel that they're enlisting in a cause with a company of like-minded souls - and even that their limitations can be redefined as a strength. Thus the painter who can't draw a face to save his life will announce that Figuration has no place in truly contemporary painting and define all those who can draw faces as the enemy.
Naturally, manifestos rarely present themselves as quite so self-seeking. They come bristling with exclamation marks, like a mob armed with pikes, and fuelled by a powerful self-righteousness. All manifestos are Protestant at heart. The invocation to the Dogme 95 "Vow of Chastity", a self-denying creed for film directors, deplores the decay of cinematic morals and states "discipline is the answer... we must put our films into uniform". The manifesto for the New Puritanism - a new Eng-Lit branch of moral re-armament - offers a similar blend of aesthetic dictat and implied contempt.
They are, fortunately, all doomed to failure, since most artists like to jump fences much more than they like maintaining them. Besides, if they really want to change the culture, it's arguable that they are starting at entirely the wrong end. A culture is always a collaboration - not between all the artists working at any one time but between those artists and their audiences. What we need instead of yet more manifestos for artists is something new - a manifesto for the reformation of the audience - a clarion call for readers and viewers, playgoers and exhibition visitors, to throw off their corrupt ways and be reborn.
My own first draft would look something like the following:
1. The audience will always put up a fight. Nothing is quite so harmful to a culture as an unthinking surrender to works of art. Friction is at the heart of the aesthetic experience and undifferentiated respect for art is a dangerous kind of lubricant, since it diminishes contact between the artist's sensibility and that of the audience. Besides, a war in which you have won a few battles is more honourable for both sides than one in which capitulation takes place before a shot is fired. Resistance is fertile, not futile!
2. Never look at everything. The visual art equivalent of this rule is "Don't get stuck in the first room". This is peculiarly appropriate for the Royal Academy's Apocalypse show, which begins with a claustrophobic reconstruction of a suburban torture-cellar, but actually aims at that deformation of the artistic impulse that confuses quality with quantity and results in herds of dutiful gazers "doing" the blockbuster shows, picture by picture. The true art lover knows how to walk by on the other side of the road. Remember, when tempted by completism, that indifference to one work will purchase more respectful attention to another. The last thing we will applaud is our own endurance!
3. Forget what you paid for the ticket. Money spent will never be recovered through the simulation of pleasure. If the play looks irredeemable at the interval, leave - your time can be refunded even if your money can't. Remember, too, that a price almost never matches a value exactly.
4. Cherish your disappointments. Only a corrupted audience expects satisfaction on all occasions, since discrimination is impossible without invidious comparison. As the French poet Paul ValÃ©ry wrote once, "Taste is composed of a thousand distastes". The response to bad art should be forensic - a crash investigation which adds another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of our understanding of excellence. Good art can best be defined by all the things it is not.
5. Never read the small print. Extraneous text accretes round art like limescale in kettles. Ignore it, whether it is the anthology of high-minded quotations about justice which pad out the Measure for Measure programme or the razor-wire prose by which art is kept safely fenced off from the grasp of the general public. Labels almost never help, they merely offer tram-lines in which your wheels can get stuck. Let the work get to you first. Listen to explanations afterwards.
6. Remember that art is just as disreputable as any other human enterprise. Art has taken over some of the functions of religion in a secular society and is as riddled with hypocrisy as its predecessor. Artists can be venal, stupid, greedy and vindictive, and this should always be remembered. There are bad apples in every barrel. What's more, your virtue in looking may vastly exceed theirs in making - this does not necessarily render the experience pointless but should always be kept in mind. Some great art is accidental, because the audience ultimately proves more worthy than the artist.
7. Abandon solidarity. With some rare exceptions the experience of art is not a team activity. Never laugh only because others do so; never be moved solely because the crowd is. Never, ever, laugh at the comic element of a ballet, since this is the very apogee of obedient mob reaction - bleating at its most naked. Your response is your own responsibility alone.Reuse content