May 13, 2011

Manifesto for Confusion, Struggle and Conflicted Feelings


I’ve been making art for my entire life and I’ve never felt more lost. In this, I believe I am not alone.

Do we care enough about art, meaning, the world to admit there is no obvious or effective way forward? That we’re going in circles with an ever-lessening effect? That we’re going in circles but are unwilling to admit it?

The grand excitements of art – the modernist breaks, the new movements, the cataclysms – are long behind us. More recent trends are fleeting at best. The belief in originality is utterly depleted and, more importantly, no longer feels like a worthy goal. All we have now is A LOT, far too much, of everything. A LOT of art, theatre, dance, performance, music, installation, painting, literature, cinema, internet: of every possible type and gradation of quality. More stuff than you could possibly experience even if you lived for several million years.

But we don’t live for even a million years. Our lives are brief and what it means to seize the day is by no means clear. Why must we pretend that we know what to do?

Politics have lost the plot – right wing governments and the ascendancy of the super-rich are the order of the day – and artists are of little assistance. On our current environmental trajectory we believe the planet will not survive. But, if we keep hurtling forward, in fact it is we who will not survive, as the planet steps in to take care of itself. (Then again, it is likely at least a few of us will survive to sort through the wreckage. But we can’t make art for them. They’re not born yet. We must make art for now.)

With this present, and this future, how can one feel that bold artistic moves have any real energy? Conflicted feelings rule the day. Daily confusions of every stripe. Ambivalence is king. Where is the art that strikingly knows it’s own futility but stumbles forward compellingly, anyway, because as an artist you have no choice?

To change anything you have to work together with other people. This is the essential logic behind an art movement, behind a manifesto. To work together with other people you need to line up behind a potent conviction, agree to all run in the same direction, at least until you score the first few goals. There is power in numbers, in clans, clubs and mafias. So why can’t all the artists in the world who feel as lost as I do come together, think about what is left to do and how? There may be no convictions to unite us, but why can’t we unite in the potency of our contemporary ambivalence? In the desire to be honest and vulnerable about where we actually stand?

(An artist who is little more than an advertisement for him or her self is so lost there might be no way back towards meaning. I live in constant fear that this is what I might become.)

I dream of energy, content, value, meaning. Effective left wing populism. The end, or reduction, of alienation, consumerism, war and stupidity. But when you dream you are asleep, and right now I would prefer to be as awake as possible. And to be awake means to admit I have almost no idea how to bring such dreams closer to reality. All roads seem blocked. I have no idea what strategies – in life, politics or art – might be genuinely useful or poetic. I want to be awake, while not losing touch with the knowledge that to stay sane one must continue to sleep and dream.

In fact, I wish to write a manifesto that will admit to everything: ambivalence, conflicted feelings, doing things only for money, humiliation, cynicism, confusion, not being able to tell my friends from my enemies. To admit to everything and find out if anyone agrees. If anyone out there is with me. If such honesty and confusion can mean anything in the current world. If there can be any integrity to it. If it can transform itself into a useful truth.

An artist doesn’t need conviction. An artist doesn’t need to know which way to go. An artist needs talent, naiveté, community and life experience. None of these things are incompatible with feeling lost.

(I would someday like to write another manifesto about how art that is not intrinsically connected to life is of no value. But I feel too lost to enter into life. I’m an extreme case. I can’t find the way in.)

Of course, about such things one doesn’t write manifestos. But perhaps we should find a way to start.

[ You can also read the French translation by Simon Brown here.]



Matthew Flanagan said...


Anonymous said...

that's where art has always come from. but it's not how artists have supported themselves. the only answer is to force us into a garret, or out onto a platform. or a scaffold.

Anonymous said...


Seattleite Satellite said...

I don't think it's you thats void of understanding rather the world which we share.. the confusion comes about because there is next to nothing to connect with nowadays.. in this age of information, people have devolved to data, nothing more nothing less. What can data appreciate or experience?

Chris Benjamin said...

On quantity: I'm not sure there's more art, but there is more access, and greater ability to project our art. And thus, as experiencers of art, we are inundated, often with things we perceive as poor in quality, and often with things that we receive completely out of cultural context.

The best cure for me has been wandering around my own town, taking in all the art here, and the cultures here, life here. This is grounding, and inspiring, for me. It keeps me going.

Anonymous said...

Art is the dream we create to expose the flawed machinations of the waking world. Though the artist may find peace in the act of creation, (s)he must remain conscious to awaken the dream. The problem is, though a common sentiment may prevail, a unified vision is nearly impossible, as the dream is as varied as there are minds to envision it. Whether or not this makes art irrelevant is another question.

Anonymous said...

oh man, what a depressing read. Mr. Wren...I'd like to read your "manifesto" about "how art that is not intrinsically connected to life is of no value". sounds like ideological clap trap. What would art that is intrinsically connected to life look like? Is it Stelarc's arm ear, is it a poetry reading, a rock show, a happening, is it The Dance by Matisse, is it your latest "Facebook only" collaboration? What are the conditions required for this life/art connection to be intrinsic? How, Mr. Wren, is facebook intrinsically connected to life? thats an easy answer if you buy into the idea of how 'connected' everyone is now, but this boils down to faith and subjectivity. Its not lost on me that your facebook project is an attempt to undermine its very facebookness, highlighting the Orwellian tones of our Huxley-esque Brave New World. Bravo! but still, it only seems intrinsically connected to someone's computer through a kind of detached irony. never the less, I think that art is never NOT part of long as I am alive, and can experience art in its many forms and venues, including facebook, it is connected, and intrinsically so, to my life VIA MEDIATION, and my life is the only life I can actually speak for. I wonder why you rely so heavily on 'we' and 'us' in your post? I'd like to hear what Mr.Wren has to say, not what he thinks "we" think. so what do I think?..I don't think art forms oppose each other...there is no better art that invalidates lesser art, rendering it valueless. All art forms have a value, even an intrinsic value to itself. but this value is ultimately measured on an individual basis, in the experience of it, in the personal judgment of it. Its true that some art forms are more embedded in the 'life-world' than others; a work of public art compared to a gallery showing, street theater vs the opera house, for example. but this is to say that there are just degrees of embeddedness...we just have to be OPEN to them. Your manifesto, though only imagined, sounds like it wants to close doors on certain art forms, though its unclear which ones, but its sounds EXCLUSIVE since you make it clear its about making a value judgment to define what is valuable art...a very curious notion, given the vast subjectivity of the problem! its an activity usually saved for curators and historians. are you one? you don't need to be to know what art matters to you. I'm not convinced you are even interested in manifestos, otherwise you would not have hesitated. Call it "The way Mr. Wren Feels about the State of Things"...wait, this is achieved in your post, but don't wrap it up in the old modernist form of manifesto, invoking political tones and some kind of herd mentality it is supposed to galvanize, only to eventually becoming included in the very institution is was critiquing. Just write and call it your TRUTH. leave this old dusty idea of manifestos behind. Please! I don't need it to read MANIFESTO at the top to take it seriously. you say an artist doesn't need convictions, yet they need talent, etc??? it seems to me that conviction (AKA belief), is an inherent part of being alive, artist or not. If I have no conviction, I would not think myself an artist. It is impossible to KNOW what to do, where to go, and who would want to know? This cannot be predicted. I wouldn't want to know. The artist just makes the art. AGAIN WITH THE "WE". "Of course, about such things one doesn’t write manifestos. But perhaps we should find a way to start." WHO IS THIS WE? Who are you talking to? Maybe YOU should find a way to start, and freaking start it already...and I will sit back and enjoy the pleasure of my judgments on your BLOG! so thank you Mr. Wren for providing me with something to enjoy! looking forward to your next piece.

Jacob Wren said...

A manifesto proclaiming the value of being lost, or the value of being honest about one's feeling that one is lost, is of course a paradox. I am searching for the "we" who see the point in, and who relate to, such an endeavor. I am searching for them because I would like to feel less alone in this state and in the world. A manifesto is perhaps the wrong form for such a search to take. But what can I say, I gave it a shot.

John Pohl said...

Hi Jacob,
I was at your performance in July at the Darling Foundry and was quite moved by your message and how you said it. I don't know your email, but I want to let you know that I included a couple statements from your manifesto in my column for the Gazette on Aug. 20. By the way, I defend your calling it a "manifesto." It fits in with long tradition and it is a bold way to proclaim that artists can't work alone. You admit despair, but the despair you describe can only be fought after first waking up. The context makes it a call to arms.

Kashadura said...

I am lost too. No future for art and utopian ideas. This comment is a mini-manifest.