The most common form of the vernacular is spoken, straight off the tongue.  Through compression and ellipsis, it fits new words and phrases to needs, and, by naming them , promises, in its own way, access to “new” emotions.  In early modernism, it tended to be born out of rural and folk traditions; in late modernism, out of the city, out of minority and teen subcultures, where its function is exclusive.  It defines groups, and as it moves outside them, must be altered or abandoned.” – Brian O’Doherty American Masters: The Voice and the Myth

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” – Pablo Picasso

One would be hard-pressed to think of a time when philosophy had any critical importance in America.  Taking things as they are is the consumptive mode.  However, late capitalism is begging for a strong manifesto.  The spoils of wealth and ego centrism are full-blown.  “Make America Great Again”  is a little thin.  The art world is wanting too.  How many Balloon Dogs must we suffer?  With so much farce in politics and culture an artist must mine for truth.  “When the primary sense of being has been snatched,” what next?

Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.

Manifesto, (2015) directed by Julian Rosefeldt (b. 1966 Munich) and starring Cate Blanchett is high art as entertainment, playfully esoteric and philosophically rich.  Beautifully shot in HD by cinematographer Christoph Krausse, the North American première of this 13-channel film installation fit perfectly into the cavernous 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.  There is just enough space between screens for singular focus but enough proximity to create a confounding sense of mumbo jumbo, a modernist stew of declarations cancelling each other out.

Rosefeldt has produced highly aesthetic films that build on typologies and contextualization since Detonation Deutschland (1996).   Recent efforts like Deep Gold (2013/1014) and American Night (2009) are dramatically off beat, almost dire, but funny in a witty way.  There are inflections of Lynch’s quirk, Kubrick’s precision, and Jarmusch’s deadpan dialogue.

The auteur met Cate Blanchette at an exhibition in Berlin and they began a process of  “idea ping pong” as Rosefeldt put it.  Within the concept of re-presenting artist manifestos Rosefeldt saw an opportunity to use a single female voice in reflecting the hotbed of male dominated artistic discourse of the last century.  It’s a fresh look, turning the tables on the hierarchies of art history.

The manifestos are wide-ranging, covering the many isms of the 20th century and more general aspects and reflections on film and architecture.  The cinematic experience is formulaic, all the films are 10 minutes and 30 seconds except for the 4 minute prologue.  They all feature gorgeous establishing shots and lengthy overhead tracking before getting into proper dialogue.  The birds-eye-view, which is reminiscent of clinical surveillance video, establishes the story of hand selected parts of manifestos stitched together in a dramatic scenes like in a homeless man talking madly, a choreographer’s frustration, a funeral eulogy, and so on, until we reach the epilogue of an elementary school teacher in a classroom.  Embedded in each segment there is a hypnotic break when Blanchette’s face comes into extreme close up and she dictates a passage in an eerie, robotic cadence.  This moment is purposely synced on all screens, an interesting touch that has a powerful effect on the individual films and the installation as a whole.  The moment immediately reminded me of Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier” from OK Computer.

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In a four-minute prologue we hear Marx and Engels’ famous line from the 1848 Communist Manifesto “All that is solid, melts into the air.”  The line signifies the revolutionary power of capitalism to destroy previous systems such as tribal customs, religious faith, and feudal economies.  Seventy years later, at the tail end of World War I, art was going through a similar Modernist transformation when the modes of representations were overthrown as Rumanian Tristan Tzara pens the Dada Manifesto (1918).  Tzara’s screed is part of the Prologue as well, declaring that everyone “makes his art in his own way, if he knows anything about the joy that rises like an arrow up to the astral strata, or that which descends into the mines strewn with the flowers of corpses and fertile spasms.”  All the while a long fuse is slowly burning on-screen, perhaps a metaphor for something only just begun but not completed.

The first film (if you follow the diagram in the helpful handout) features a homeless man’s monologue on Situationism, an international movement (1957-1972) which sought to bring together the many avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century in order to dismantle advanced capitalism.  To no avail.  It features a poetic moment when a chimpanzee looks down on the confused man from a pile of rubble in the derelict compound, the NSA Field Station Teufelsberg, designed to intercept military secrets during the cold war.  (Coincidentally, it is the same location used in Hito Steyerl’s Factory of the Sun (2015) in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016.)  I keyed into a quote from Draft Manifesto (1932) by the John Reed Club of New York, that looked to propagate proletariat art and sentiment.

The general crisis of capitalism is reflected in its culture.  The economic and political machinery of the bourgeoisie in decay, its philosophy, its literature, and its art are bankrupt . . .

The tumultuous world wars are significant in many of the manifestos in the film installation.   During a time when the Industrial Revolution raged to some degree in every city, many artists were looking to break out of certain machine like systems, i.e. the Symbolists, or conversely adhere themselves to it, like the Futurists.  Futurism is represented brilliantly in the sixth film of the installation, no doubt a number denoted for its devilish connotation.  Blanchette plays a broker as stock charts flash on computer screens and a massive ticker tape.  We hear a part of Marinetti’s The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism (1909): “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.”  It is a disturbing reality, especially when you take into account the commodification of art in the last thirty years by the world’s èlite.

In the following film Blanchette plays a conservative mother at the dinner table, hands clasped, rifling Claes Oldenburg’s I am for art . . . epigrams like prayers.  “I am for art that comes in a can or washes up on the shore.  I am for the art of bar-babble, tooth-picking, beerdrinking, egg-salting, insulting.  I am for the art of falling off a barstool.”  It is a brilliant moment of routine behavior juxtaposed by Pop Art blather.   The children and husband, charmingly Blanchette’s in real life, suffer through the long discourse until finally scissors gouge the roasted turkey completing the scene.

The eighth installment,  SUPREMATISM / CONSTRUCTIVISM, is a space-age Kubrick affair.  Revolution means to be free from the past and even the future.  Naum Gabo’s opening salvo of The Realist Manifesto (1920) proffers a new ontology born among the rubble of world war, “Above the tempest of our weekdays/Across the ashes and cindered homes of the past/Before the gates of the vacant future/We proclaim…”  The new vision is a cleansed modern version of ourselves married to science, forgoing mysticism, the Nietzschean Übermensch as an image of Cro Magnon in “The Thinker” pose.

The most overtly funny segment is the pas de deux between the newsreader and reporter both played by Blanchette.  Starting with, “Ladies and gentlemen, good evening.  All current art is fake . . . All of man is fake.  All of man is false, not only because he lies and cheats with charming ease and hates and kills with determined speed, but also because man’s new cyber form is Man as god”  These words from Elaine Frances Sturtevant, (née Horan; August 23, 1924 – May 7, 2014) one of the few women cited in Manifesto, are as telling as they are comical.  This film on CONCEPTUAL ART / MINIMALISM is a conceptual work in and of itself, taking a poke at all things esoteric including art critics who use a “secret language when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines.”  We all know that to be true.

Artists are always picking up in naïve ways philosophical tenets and warping them in one form or another, telling pretty lies.  The last twenty years has seen a great influence from the post-structuralists Derrida and Deleuze.  This is the most dangerous thing of all,  the pseudo-intellectual art movement based on piecemeal interpretations of serious philosophic thought.  This is our past and present epidemic of ism schism.  Ultimately, they don’t hold water.  As the tattooed punk says in the film STRIDENTISM/CREATIONISM, the “insincerity of the whole world is like an amateur band.”  So, she becomes its leader.

Meanwhile, what was stated in 1932 at the John Reed Club still holds true . . . “Mankind is passing through the most profound crisis in its history. An old world is dying; a new one is being born. Capitalist civilization, which has dominated the economic, political and cultural life of continents, is in the process of decay. It is now breeding new and devastating wars.  At this very moment the Far East seethes with military conflicts and preparations which will have far-reaching consequences for the whole of humanity.”

So what do this manifesto collage tell us in the end?  Certainly, there is an evolutionary bent to placing all these proclamations into what Rosefeldt calls “manifesto of manifestos.”  The struggle for new forms of artistic expression created revolutionary rhetoric, an endless repetition of the “shock of the new” and “razzle dazzle of thinking.”

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The epilogue of the teacher making her rounds, squashing the creativity of children, preaching “nothing is original,” gives us a sense of the failure of education.  The key to a equitable and just society is the middle class, the strength of which relies on its educational system.  When that system is merely interested in capitalist ideals (Trump University) we see a failure of both society and education.  So the question remains, as artists and human beings, “Have we really evolved?” Or have we devolved into cyborg like worker-bees supporting an invisible super structure where the only thing created is more and more garbage.

“We call upon all honest intellectuals, all writers and artists, to abandon decisively the treacherous illusion that art can exist for art’s sake, or that the artist can remain remote from the historic conflicts in which all men must take sides. We call upon them to break with bourgeois ideas which seek to conceal the violence and fraud, the corruption and decay of capitalist society. We urge them to forge a new art that shall be a weapon in the battle for a new and superior world.” -From the John Reed Club of New York 1932

Thanks to Julian Rosefeldt, Cate Blanchette, The Park Avenue Armory and all who had a hand in the production of Manifesto.  It is both refresher course and blueprint, a profound web of associations moving forward.  And remember . . .

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work, and theft, will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.”  – Jim Jarmusch 2004

-JSB