Marin Amis writing an essay on American politics states: “‘All the “isms” are “wasms”, said Tony Blair, quite a while ago, affirming the end of the age of ideology.” But in the world of art there is still some ideology left, and mostly it is of the Left. One cannot imagine a visual artist voting for right wing or religious parties. Often creative personalities tend to shy away from politics, but several subscribe to their ideologies, may those relate to social condition or the situation of their art. Usually in their works, their political and ideological leaning is reflected, even though they do not directly propagate or project it.
Many individuals and groups of artists have composed their ideas – the first stage of ideology – in the form of their manifestos. One needs to research the beginning of this ‘genre’, but the twentieth century witnessed a large number of manifestos, including of Futurists, Surrealists, Constructivist, etc. A comment on the history of manifestos in art reads like this “It is easy to share the delusion in the West that art manifesto has long been outlived its finest hour……. So ingrained is this idea that it is characteristic to imagine that the art manifesto simultaneously began and ended – tabula rasa in 1909, when F. T. Marinetti published his desire to abandon the past and embrace the future on the front page of Le Figaro.”
From a recently published book: Why Are We ‘Artists’? 100 World Art Manifestos, selected by Jessica Lack and published by Penguin Books (2017). It includes 100 manifestos, but the interesting and relevant aspect of this volume is its non-Eurocentric approach. Or even away from the conventional centres of mainstream art. Thus you read The First Pseudo Manifesto (1970) by the Hungarian conceptual artist Gyula Pauer (1941-2012), or Manifest Zenitizma (1921) by the Serbian artist and poet Ljubomir Micic (1895-1971). Also similar kind of texts by South American artists and artists’ collectives, and of Black artists are part of the book.
The collection offers a wide range of ideas and positions and at the same instance it conveys that art is not about fortifying territories. It is beyond one’s location and about connecting to others through common search and struggle, as the compilation of manifestos communicates the sense of diversity – within regions, styles, strategies and ideologies. The editor brought together important texts: “Some of these manifestos have not been published in English before, others simply deserve to be better known.”
In her Introduction Jessica Lack informs: “The book begins with ‘Art and Swadeshi’, written by the Sri Lankan cultural theorist Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in 1909 (M1). At the very moment the Futurists were calling for cultural destruction, the Indian province of Bengal was in the grip of revolutionary nationalist fervour.” In his manifesto, written as early as the turn of last century, Coomaraswamy contests the influence of colonial art and cultural dominance. He describes and defends the local craft and sense of design, but abhors the natives’ attitudes towards the West and its comparison to vernacular. He criticizes how the indigenous population feels comfortable at their habit of servitude. “You are familiar with the thought that the highest ideal of nationality is service. Have you ever thought that India, politically and economically free, but subdued by Europe in her inmost soul is scarcely an ideal to be dreamt of, or to live, or to die, for?”
This contest between East and West, or between mainstream and periphery is seen again in Pakistani-born London-based conceptual artist and author Rasheed Araeen’s manifesto, actually an essay, Preliminary Notes for a Black Manifesto (1975-6) in which he talks about the politics of relationships between East and West. Contrary to eager, earnest and enthusiastic attitudes he analyses the behaviour of artists belonging to what we usually term Third World and how they act in regard of their positions and historic-geographic features. “The awareness that the Third World must now find a direction which is different from that imposed on it by the West has been growing; and, in fact, organized attempts pointing towards this goal have recently been made. But these efforts have either remained confined within different regions or lacked a clear (ideological) perspective. They have not therefore made any impact on the overall situation or offered a real challenge to those forces which have been responsible for the present predicament of art and culture in the Third World.”
There is more representation of so-called Third World through the manifestos of Iraqi artist Shakir Hassan al-Said, and of Chila Kumari Burman (British artist of Indian origin), and Hang Rui from China, Anita Dube from India, Habib Tengour from Algeria and the Women Artists of Pakistan. Written during the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq, the Women Artists of Pakistan’s manifesto reflects how women, especially women artists reacted against the draconian laws against women, also about a prevailing attitude among general public. In their 7 points manifesto signed by a number of women artists from Pakistan including Salima Hashmi, Meher Afroz, Lala Rukh and more, the text provides a guideline, not for a specific gender or for a particular time. Reading these words one fully supports, escpailly their point 5. “We vigorously condemn the attitude which minimise woman’s constructive role in society, and attempts to restrict her active and rightful participation in society”.
What the Women Artists of Pakistan reiterated can be applied to all artists of the world, who reside in a world divided, designed and designated by the cartographers of all kinds.