Manifesting without Manifesto

Manifesting without Manifesto
by Hope Mohr

Transcript of Public Lecture at Stanford University
October 28, 2015
Campbell Recital Hall
Presented by Stanford Arts Institute

I want to thank the Stanford Arts Institute for hosting me this month. I also want to thank several individuals on campus who have generously shared their time with me during my time here: Peggy Phelan, Leslie Hill, Cherrie Moraga, Sarah Curran, Diane Frank, Aleta Hayes, and the many students I’ve met. Thanks also to Brenda Hillman and Abby Reyes.

I came to campus with the intention of researching artist manifestos. In the course of my research, I’ve discovered that I’m less interested in the manifestos themselves than in the desires that compel an artist to write a manifesto in the first place.

This talk is not a comprehensive survey of the large topic of artist manifestos, but rather interwoven musings related to a personal art practice.  

The Good Rule

One desire behind manifestos, I believe, is the quest for a good rule.

Writer Richard Hugo has written of rules: “If they’re working, they should lead you to better writing. If they don’t, you’ve made up the wrong rules.”

What makes for a productive rule in the creative process?

As a post-modern choreographer, I’m working in an era where the field, in the long wake of Yvonne Rainer’s “No” Manifesto, has ostensibly shed the rules of conventional dance.  In this environment, what rules are nonetheless still necessary?

I’m interested in the genre of manifestos in part because I’m interested in the choreographic possibilities of improvisation. I value improvisation not as a free-for-all, but as choicemaking in real-time within a set of rules.  

Again, what makes for a productive rule in the creative process?

To be a good artist, you need to move toward what scares you.  An over-reliance on rules could arguably prevent you from confronting that void. But what if there were a rule that helped you confront the void?

Manifestos are an aspirational language, a coaxing of desire. Rimbaud wrote: “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious and rational disordering of the senses.”  Note that he says a “rational disordering.”  I too believe that rational structures like rules can open doors to our subconscious. I believe that rules can support intuitive practice. 

Perhaps a good rule would be that every day I must go into the studio with no idea what I’m doing. 

Productive artmaking toggles back and forth between rational and intuitive modes of processing information. Usually my most productive creative processes are those in which I spend a lot of time researching and writing in advance, but once I get into the studio, I forbid myself from looking at any notes.  In this way, I can respond in the moment to what is happening in the room.

It’s essential to take any rule in the creative process with a grain of salt. Because, in the words of Susan Sontag: “Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness” (Styles of Radical Will).  Our subconscious is bigger than us. It will trump any rule we set up.  But we must lure it to appear.

Indeed, manifestos seek to lure the subconscious. As Martin Puchner writes: “Manifestos do not articulate a political consciousness that needs to be excavated ….rather, they seek to bring this unconscious into the open.” (Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Gardes)

The search for the good rule resonates with my yearning, as a dancemaker, for the right words to facilitate image.  Manifestos are language that hopes to catalyze action. This is every choreographer’s dream: to articulate precisely the right phrase that will generate the desired image.

Choreography is an abstract language.   A landscape of bodies without words. It is also, to paraphrase Andre Lepecki, a language of command. Manifestos, as linguistic triggers for action, intrigue me. Of course, it’s about how you say it as much as what you say. What is more effective, the language of command or poetry?

Couldn’t choreography, like manifestos, be both?

Adolescent Desires

In addition to the desire for a good rule, I believe that another desire behind manifestos is what Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe, in their book Crimes of Art and Terror, call “transgressive desire.”  The desire to refute received authority.  To wake people up.  To transform the way people see.   

 Mary Ruefle writes:
“Most artistic ‘movements’ will be irreverent toward whatever movement preceded theirs. In that sense, almost all movements are adolescent---absolutely necessary and inevitable and their manifestos ridiculous.” –Madness, Rack and Honey

I think manifesto writers have more in common with adolescents than simply transgressive desire. 

Manifesto writers are drawn to rules as talismanic containers for big feelings.  My daughter is eight going on thirteen. She’s often overwhelmed by her feelings. Feeling rises up and jams her inside wires. She is also a rule-following child. And so in her I see overwhelming emotion do battle with a desire for control. The bigger her feelings, the tidier her room gets.  When she has a temper tantrum, she has little access to language.  But when the temper tantrum fades, she likes to practice cursive writing. She carefully traces letters in a workbook, following the ups and downs in exactly the right order. Increasingly, she uses language to try and get a handle on her feelings. I’m angry. I’m angry.  She says it over and over again, as if hoping that the language itself will help. And I believe that it will.

The line between confession and manifesto is quite thin. The confessional mode is one of spilling guts and bleeding on the page.  Manifestos are confessions transformed into rhetoric. The temper tantrum becomes ideology.   

Adolescence is also a time when the kaleidoscopic childmind gets filtered and simplified. As an artist, I long to recapture the pleasures and permissions of childhood.  But like a teenager struggling for mastery over oceanic parts of myself, I also look to language as a container for my desires.

Manifesto writers share yet another trait with adolescents: The need to stand apart or go it alone.  As Jean Genet wrote, “artistic work is the product of a struggle of the artist in isolation.”

And as Don DeLillo writes in Mao 2, his brilliant study of the common ground between artists and terrorists:

“The point of these lists and tasks seemed to be that when you performed each task and crossed off the corresponding item on the list and when you crumpled and discarded all the lists and stood finally and self-reliantly in a list-free environment, sealed from worldly contact, you were proving to yourself that you could go on alone.”  

Rules allow us to feel like we can go it alone.

The artist retreat.

The teenager’s closed door.

Rules function as a sort of parental proxy.  A guide for our wandering. 

Risks of the genre: Ridiculous Rhetoric?

Now that I’ve talked a little about what might drive an artist to write a manifesto, I’d like to talk about the dangers of the genre. One, as Mary Ruefle indicates, is ridiculousness. "Theatrical exaggeration” and “feigned confidence” (Martin Puchner) are hallmarks of the genre, masks for a lack of real authority.

The earnestness of an artist manifesto, in this age of irony, is by turns endearing and pathetic.  Can we take a manifesto seriously?  

If we do, artist manifestos arguably risk silencing instinct because they are rules external to the creative process. And an outside set of rules may suppress the development of an artwork’s internal logic.

Imagination, wrote Wallace Stevens, is “desire without an object of desire.”

This tension, between an artwork’s internal prerogatives and the mandates of a manifesto, is the essence of many critiques against conceptual and ideological art.

I think of Charles Simic, describing conceptual poetry as like a violin played by a hair dryer.

Likewise, Benjamin Moser on the novel of ideas:

“A novel with ideas is one thing: Any good novel, and indeed any bad novel, has plenty. A novel of ideas is something else. Ideas, after all, so easily slide into ideology. The characters in philosophical novels notoriously tend to become caricatures of authorial positions, less people than spokespeople….But the main problem [is that] fakeness always ensues when situations and characters are extracted from ideas. When ideas emerge organically from situations and characters, the opposite effect is produced.”

Some feel that art should arise from a dialogue within the artist, not between the artist and the outside world. 

W.B. Yeats wrote, “Out of the quarrel with others we produce rhetoric…out of the quarrel with ourselves we create art.”

And yet I continue to question this age-old binary that holds ideological art on one side and art for art’s sake on the other. 

Several years ago, I directed a couple of community-based performance projects—one with breast cancer survivors, another with military veterans. In these projects, I struggled to balance my aesthetic desires with the social justice goals of the project. 

In reaction to those experiences, my own art has become increasingly abstract.  And yet I would not call it art for art’s sake. I still believe that art is social practice, even if it has no explicit ideological agenda.  Abstract art, by insisting on ambiguity, invites independent thought.  

Perhaps, as my art dwells increasingly firmly in abstraction and ambiguity, my interest in manifestos reflects an ongoing desire to pus the art into social practice.

Martin Puchner argues that manifestos, as a genre, “weave together …. political acts and poetic expression.” The history of the genre of manifestos is itself a history of the struggle about the relation between art and politics. From the Italian and Russian futurist artists, who wrote political manifestos, to the Dadaists who wanted to continue the work of Lenin, to Andre Breton, who hoped his artist manifestos would further the aims of the French CommunistParty---there is a long list of artists and activists whose desires have converged and collided in the manifesto genre.   

The Feminist Artist  

As a feminist artist, I question any binary that places politics on one hand and aesthetics on the other. 

after a male critic
called a recent dance of mine hermetic (in a pejorative sense)
I had a series of dreams
about female artists
one woman wore a fish bowl on her head
another, a terrorist’s hood

one was radioactive
one dead by the side of the road

The inward turning instinct of a female artist is not apolitical.  It is not a rejection of social engagement.  It might even be necessary to define the terms of our engagement.  Without turning away from external rules, I would not be able, as an artist, to find the strange rich forms that, in the words of Judith Butler “compel the world to inhabit new values.” (Undoing Gender)

Feminists have long urged us to see aesthetic imagination as a kind of politics.

In fact, imagination might be feminism’s chief requirement.

In art, as in feminism, adherence to rules must not privilege intellectual analysis over the value of surrender, feeling, and listening.  Adrienne Rich urges us to beware of those cases where "intellectual analysis has been trusted to do the work of emotional apprehension, which it cannot do.” (On Lies, Secrets and Silence)


I want to return to my question at the beginning of my talk: what is a productive rule? 

I really hate to answer questions in the creative process.

I prefer to leave them unanswered.

And yet, if pressed to articulate a set of rules for artmaking—it might contain the following:

1.     Listen to the body

2.     Allow for ambiguity

3.     Invite pleasure

4.     Invite what is fragile

5.     Value both permission and constraint  

6.     Persist

7.     Let the making reveal itself to you

This last rule is the most important. Because it is essential to listen for the moment when the art outgrows the rules. Then my rule is:  put the rules away and let the art lead. 


It’s the same with raising children.

When she was younger, my daughter loved a particular swing at our neighborhood playground. Not the old-fashioned kind, but a large silver saucer type of thing. She would lay on her back spread-eagled, receding from me again and again, and say, I’m not making my body move! the swing is doing it! And I would keep pushing.