Down with art!: the age of manifestos


In the world of polite letters, literature is the enemy of programmes, polemics, sectarian rancour, the sour stink of doctrinal orthodoxies. It is the home of the unique particular, the provisional and exploratory, of everything that resists being reduced to a scheme or an agenda. This, one might note, is a fairly recent point of view. That literature should be free of doctrinal orthodoxy would have come as a surprise to Dante and Milton. Swift is a great writer full of sectarian rancour. Terms like “provisional” and “exploratory” do not best characterize Samuel Johnson’s literary views. Nor do they best describe the views of the various twentieth-century avant-gardes, which set out to demolish this whole conception of art. From the Futurists and Constructivists to the Surrealists and Situationists, art became militant, partisan and programmatic. It was to be liberated from the libraries and museums and integrated with everyday life. In time, the distinction between art and life, the playful and the pragmatic, would be erased. There were to be no more professional artists, just common citizens who occasionally wrote a poem or made a piece of sculpture. The summons rang out to abandon one’s easel and design useful objects for working people, as some of the Russian Constructivists did. Poets were to read their poetry through megaphones in factory yards, or scribble their verses on the shirt-fronts of passing strangers. A moustache was appended to the Mona Lisa. A Soviet theatre director took over a whole naval port for several days, battleships and all, and commandeered its 300,000 citizens for his cast.

more from Terry Eagleton at the TLS here.