Critical Thinking Watch: Is Jonathon Keats’ “Copernican Art Manifesto” Serious?

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Jonathon Keats, “conceptual artist,” has written an art manifesto worthy of an Onion News parody, and yet I think he’s actually serious.

His manifesto is getting some straight press (such as from Wired magazine) and he’s accompanied the manifesto with the kinds of art pieces he means to promote. As we speak, those art pieces are on exhibit at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery. Here’s the title of Jonathon Keats’ manifesto:

The First Copernican Art Manifesto

At first glance, the title seems hopeful: an artist calling other artists to think about their art in the light of a scientific discovery.

But below is the manifesto itself, which is a disappointment. Rather than taking science seriously, the manifesto simply demonstrates how a pretender to the title of “artist” might make excuses for mediocrity, most particularly his own:

Science began with the Copernican Revolution. Recognition that the world is an average planet, and that our place in the cosmos is nothing special, has allowed humanity to make generalizations about the universe based on local observations. Yet while the Copernican Revolution has enlightened scientists for centuries, art remains Ptolemaic. Masterpieces are worshipped. Only the extraordinary is deemed praiseworthy. If art is to foster universal understanding—and be more than a cultural trophy—the great works must be abandoned. Art ought to be mediocre. The art of the future must be Copernican.

1. Painting must have the average color of the universe. Let it be beige.
2. Sculpture must have the predominant composition of the universe. Let it be gaseous.
3. Music must have the gross entropy of the universe. Let it be noisy.
4. Architecture must have the fundamental geometry of the universe. Let it be flat.
5. Cuisine must have the cosmological homogeneity of the universe. Let it be bland.
6. Film must have the mathematical predictability of the universe. Let it be formulaic.
7. Dance must have the characteristic motion of the universe. Let it be random.
8. Literature must have the narrative arc of the universe. Let it be inconclusive.

How convenient that the “artist” has landed on an artistic principle to which no conventional talent in art is actually required when applying it.

Perhaps the joke’s on me for taking the manifesto seriously, but, in the off-chance that Jonathon Keats is serious (and, God, I hope he’s not), I offer my own Copernican art manifesto to illustrate Hume’s dictum that no is makes an ought. You can derive very different conclusions from Copernicus than the ones that Jonathon Keats does.

THE SECOND COPERNICAN ART MANIFESTO

The Copernican principle admits of no center; therefore, the average needn’t assume the center. Copernicus decentered, not just the earth, but universal (catholic) authority. The Copernican provocation is the Protagorean provocation: in the absence of a governing center, man is the measure of all things.

So, take center stage! The Copernican universe welcomes you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be here. The Copernican universe and the anthropic universe are one. Therefore:

  1. Let the art of the future reify no average as the center.
  2. Let genius measure the frame.
  3. Let no “must” intrude on any medium.
  4. Sculpture may be gaseous. The artist decides.
  5. Aquinas for Ptolemists; Nietzsche for Copernicans.

I suppose my own parody of Jonathon Keats’s parody—for I’m guessing that’s what his manifesto must ultimately be—illustrates how the metaphorical mind can readily make off with a fact or claim (scientific or otherwise) to any strained associative insight or conclusion it wants. And maybe that’s the point of Keats’s conceptual art: logically possible worlds are infinite, and most of them are absurd, including those purporting to ground themselves in solid scientific principles. For 21st century urban seculars, scientific authority casts spells in the way that religious authority once did for medievals, and this makes for the danger of swallowing new absurdities. So, caveat emptor. Keats drops us into a cascade of subtle non-sequiturs (conclusions that do not really follow from their premises) under the pretense that he is reasoning “scientifically.”

He did his job as an artist. He got me.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Critical Thinking Watch: Is Jonathon Keats’ “Copernican Art Manifesto” Serious?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I don’t like dead pan satire put to print. Eventually the context changes and people who look back will take it seriously. Jonathan Swift had a point with his modest proposal though…

  2. Iain McMahon says:

    I think if you followed his art directions in terms of form rather than aesthetic you could produce some pretty funky sculptural or video-media art pieces. But they they’d be interesting and break 5 and 6. So throw out the stupid ones and give some university art students a go and see what they produce, I reckon!

  3. Number Six says:

    I f$%king love it! Echoes of Magritte (“ceci n’est pas une pipe”) and Dada. And, well, just plain bloody awesome…

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