Notes for a 21st Century Artistic Manifesto

  1. The Place of Literature.

Art is the imitation of life by means of signs, symbols and plastic objects.  Literature is the imitation of life using symbols and signs to tell stories. To understand what life means we use art as a skeleton key into what has always been the greatest of mysteries and challenges. Here in the 21st Century we face great, some would say unprecedented, challenges. Now more than at any other time an uncertain future awaits us. We face massive environmental, political and health challenges – not simply as members of diverse communities with rich cultures and histories and traditions, but as a people who share a common humanity here on Earth.

2. What Writers do.

It is the calling of writers and artists and thinkers to work along with others to work on answers to the most difficult of questions that challenge us. Artists of all stripes strive to give others effective tools for solving these issues. In other words, while avoiding the party political and the propagandist, art and writing has and always will be being profoundly and inescapably political in its nature, that is being concerned with the life of the polis. It’s interesting to note how one of the first acts of all totalitarian regimes whether hard or soft in their approach, is to round up the writers and the artists and the intellectuals and to suppress them by any means necessary. As populist or capitalist regimes take hold we see arts grants being defunded as not cost effective or ideologically questionable, writers and thinkers losing important jobs that kept them supported, or if they do not write the kinds of books approved of, they are unable to find publishers and are repeatedly turned down for funding.

3. Literature and Politics.

Art is political. In other words it exists only in society and amongst our relations with each other. As it exists between the artist and the world, it is intimately connected with life. If literature does not engage with life and how one does or should live in the world, then art quickly devolves into irrelevant distraction and entertainment. For instance the brilliant story by Kurt Vonnegut Harrison Bergeron epitomises and describes a world where people are kept stupid by technology and distracted by dull and meaningless entertainments by an elite and secret group, a real problem in countries that restrict what can be accessed on the net, seen on television and where the media and publishing is in any way state controlled whether through funding, policy, or political edict. More specifically, literature has always and should always have a significant role in answering deep and taxing questions of what it means to live on Earth. Literature, which seeks answers to the great questions that face us in life, is and should remain a balm to troubled hearts and minds, and a source of dialogue and insight into these issues.

4. Covid-19.

In the 21st century we are troubled not just by personal demons, but by economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic with its health and devastating quarantine restrictions. This virus has caused massive economic suffering. COVID-19 has a survival rate of over 95 percent, but we still face an uncertain future with it. Despite being a low mortality virus, it has still succeed in killing many, caused untold personal suffering including unemployment, and made many very ill. It sweeps across the world. It knows no borders or ethnicities and its legacy will be felt long after an effective anti-viral agent has been secured by the scientific community. This being the case, COVID-19 is but one of the many issues that assail us in the twenty first century. We are plagued by uncertainties in the battle of ideas, by discrimination – especially against minorities and by the oppression of peoples because of ethnicity, belief systems, and sexual orientation. One thing we also need to brace ourselves for is the coming tsunami of “Covid” novels and books. It should be interesting to see what kinds of books will emerge.

5. The Power of Literature.

Literature, which can only emerge when we are free to be truly creative, serves as a unifying force for real and substantial change so we might come together to find common solutions to these issues, to have a conversation across time and space, to work together to find peaceful and creative solutions to the deepening problems that face us. Literature seeks to describe the world both as it is and as it could be using a skill set the artist has developed over a lifetime. Because it seeks the truth in all its simplicity, beauty and complexity, literature offers comfort and joy to us in hard times. The power of the word is transformative. By casting light in the darkest of places writers and artists work to clarify complex issues, to bring catharsis, and by using their wit to suggest a path forward by constructing powerful narratives. Literature at its best embodies the sense of positivity, inspiration, courage and sensibility which helps not only the current generation but proves by its prophetic powers, to warn of trouble ahead. It seeks to give counsel and comfort to future generations, to see the humour in the darkest of situations, and to emerge whole out of grief, pain and trauma.

5. The Future.

Finally literature should seek to work towards peace and hope and love even when this seems improbable. Literature in all languages and traditions helps peoples to emerge as fighters against the forces of oppression and become a symbol of courage and bravery for the coming generations. Despite everything, our resources are greater than ever before. Thus, because of the power of people, with the support of leaders and thinkers and artists, we have to power within us to unite, to be a community of truth, hope, of peace, and of love. These ideals should be the star that guides us through this or any other time of darkness.

Note: This blogpost began life as a document circulated among writers trying to pose an artistic/literary answer to the 2020 Covid crisis. For me I kept tinkering with it and it evolved into a manifesto of sorts. I have excluded all text (I hope!) written by other writers and thus all opinions herein are my own. If a fellow writer who originally collaborated on the other text happens to read this post and finds their words within this text, please drop me an email and I will remove them pronto. tnx.