The first artist manifesto I read was Andre Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto,” and it made me a little uncomfortable. It read like a hit piece on mankind. It was the kind of emphatic pseudo-sociology that one scribbles furiously in a college journal.
“Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known,” Breton wrote.
But as I was in college at the time, it was also ego-affirming to read the words of this colossal figure, who articulated the same cultural discontent in 1924 that I felt as a frustrated student. I was pleased to know I was in good company.
The fact is, most art manifestos of the 20th century were written by swaggering young men around age 30. They are disproportionately imbued with that characteristic intellectual testosterone that is most typically associated with Hemingway.
Age has its blessings, and one of them is surely the acceptance of relativity: the sad but soothing acknowledgement that the world is flawed, most people are generally just doing their best and there is no catch-all solution to the cyclical crises of culture and politics.
As a general rule, I think people are better served to meet the world with some degree of flexibility. And so, the litany of uncompromising art manifestos from throughout the 20th century have come to seem almost cute in their blind confidence and self-professed grandeur.
This is all to say that I was a bit apprehensive as I entered the Hirshhorn Museum to see the current exhibition, “Manifesto: Art x Agency,” which examines the art-historical impact of artist manifestos from the 20th century to the present day.
No doubt there would be some powerful work on view, as many of the last century’s greatest artists were devout members of stridently manifesto-ed cliques. But I was skeptical of an exhibition that fawned too heavily over these cult-like declarations, which sing the virtues of made-up aesthetic orthodoxies and damn to bourgeois hell all those who dare transgress.
To my relief and delight, “Art x Agency” approaches its subject with a healthy dose of skepticism and humor, grounding each movement clearly in its historical context, then allowing the art to more or less speak for itself.
An installation by contemporary German artist Julian Rosefeldt does a lot of heavy lifting here. His outstanding multi-camera video, also titled “Manifesto,” anchors the exhibition.
The film stars the inimitable, shape-shifting Cate Blanchett performing excerpts from the most prominent manifestos of the past century. Playing across 13 screens in an immense gallery, each channel features Blanchett as a different character in a different setting.
On one screen, she is a bruised, bearded vagabond dragging a grocery cart and a dog through a post-apocalyptic urban landscape. On another, she is a Rockwellian housewife, leading her perfect family through an agonizingly long grace. She operates a waste management plant. She joylessly handmakes marionettes in a ragged studio that smacks of Mister Geppetto.
In each scene, Blanchett recites an art manifesto, wielding its arcane and tedious verbiage like Shakespearean poetry — all the while maintaining the unique character and context of each vignette and employing a dizzying arsenal of accents. Never will you believe how entertained you can be watching a Midwestern news anchor recite the “Minimalist Manifesto.”
I could easily run out this article extolling Blanchett’s many brilliant performances in Rosefeldt’s video (available on Amazon Prime, by the way). Rosefeldt himself proves a formidable director, each vignette thoroughly realized and beautifully cinematic. Should he ever debut a feature film, I will be first in line.
The film effortlessly accomplishes many daunting tasks. Perhaps most enjoyably, it anthropomorphizes these art movements in funny and oddly poignant ways. The scenarios Rosefeldt and Blanchett create to “portray” a manifesto align cleverly with the manifesto’s intention, but also with the truer and often uglier nature of the art movement born from it.
Abstract Expressionism is an art dealer speaking at a party in what looks like a Wall Street broker’s country place in Cold Spring, New York. Large, expensive-looking abstract paintings decorate the large, expensive-looking modernist villa. Everyone wears expensive-looking clothes and drinks expensive-looking champagne. No one is looking at art and there is not an artist in sight.
Dada is a graveside eulogy on a dreary afternoon. Surrealism is a puppet-maker, building a doll in her own image. Futurism is a stockbroker, chewing gum with a phone in her hand, pointing with a pen at a wall of computers.
The video contains multitudes. Rosefeldt seems openly skeptical of these manifestos while also admiring them, and his own “Manifesto” plays as both a love letter and a scathing critique. The film deflates with a laugh the tension of encountering these dense, jargon-y tombs, while maintaining serious artistic engagement.
It’s rather remarkable that for an art exhibition that features a veritable cheeseboard of 20th-century masters, I have not discussed one of them. Giacomo Balla, George Grosz, Dalí, Magritte, Miró, Mondrian, Pollock, Frankenthaler, David Smith, Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, Hans Hoffman, Nam June Paik, the Guerrilla Girls … they’re all there, and they are all very, very good.
But after losing myself for an hour in “Manifesto,” I’m not sure if any of them are as good as Cate Blanchett.
“Manifesto: Art x Agency”
Through Jan. 5, 2020
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue and 7th Street SW
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.