Read Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What is an author?’ in ‘Art in Theory 1900-2000’ and Roland Barthes ‘The death of the author’ in ‘Image, Music, Text’ and make notes before answering the following questions.
Notes on ‘Death of the author’ by Roland Barthes
In ‘Death of the author’, Bathes is concerned with questions of authority and power between author and reader – there is no ultimate authorial meaning for readers to uncover in a text. Advocated critical and analytical reading of texts taking into account historical contexts and positions as a means of showing how the authority of the author as primary producer of a literary text is a myth. Texts are produced in the act of reading, drawing on the cultural and political perspectives of the reader – never fully according to the intentions of the author. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 52-53)
The creator of a text should not have the monopoly on its interpretation as other readings are equally tenable. (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 169)
The death of the author leads to the birth of the reader – a texts unity lies not in it’s origin but it’s destination. Context for the reader is key as this constitutes a frame through which they interpret a text. (Chandler, 2008: 200)
The author is traditionally evoked as the origin and explanation of a text, however, the idea of the author is tyrannical as it encloses a text within a single meaning. The death of the author signals the liberation of the reader as they no longer have to accept a single meaning enshrined on the biography of the author. (Macey, 2000: 83-84)
Barthes argument has three strands:
- When an author creates a character and gives it a voice, they cease to be the one speaking.
- All writing is simply words on a page, therefore, it is the language itself that speaks not the author. (A fundamental premise of structuralism.)
- All writing is quotation. (Buchanan, 2010: 110-111)
“The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred in the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions.” (Barthes, 1977: 143)
“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it…the voice of a single person, the author, ‘confiding’ in us” (Barthes, 1977: 143)
“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)
“Once the author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile.” (Barthes, 1977: 147)
“a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)
“to give writing it’s future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the Author.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)
Notes on ‘What is and author?’ by Michel Foucault
Explores the notion of a historically variable author-function defined by a variety of discourses and institutions. The emergence of the author-function is a relatively recent occurrence, for example, ancient epics do not have authors in the modern sense of the word. (Macey, 2000: 84)
The concept of the author did not always exist, and although it will probably pass out of relevance it is not exactly dead. The term ‘author-function’ is used rather than author – this is linked to the idea that an author/producer must stand behind any given image/text. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 53)
“The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy and the sciences.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 949)
“The author-function is…characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 950)
“We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent with regard to all languages that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 952)
“if we are accustomed to presenting the author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention, it is because, in reality, we make him function in exactly the opposite fashion.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)
“The author is…the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)
“as our society changes…the author-function will disappear, and in such a manner that fiction and its polysemic texts will once again function according to another mode, but with a system of constraint – one which will no longer be the author, but which will have to be determined or, perhaps, experienced.” (Harrison and Wood, 2002: 953)
Look at the work of Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman or another artist whose work seems either to be derived from a reading of the two articles you’ve read or whose work is better explained in the light of them.
Cindy Sherman became famous in the early 1980s for ‘Untitled Film Stills’; a series of 69 black and white photographs in which the artist appears herself in “a frequently banal yet charged moment that might be a still form a film.” (Badger, 2001: 165) The work references Hollywood and European cinema of the 1950/60s, a significant time for Sherman as this was when she was growing up and becoming aware of movies and television. The series evokes genres such as film noir and the French new wave; directors like Hitchcock and Antonioni; stars like Brigitte Bardot, Simone Signoret and Sophia Loren. However, the series is non specific and requires prior knowledge of the genre conventions Sherman is appropriating in order to be successful – as Badger (2001: 165) observes, this is a vital part of the series post modern credentials: we are not only required to recognize that we are viewing a scene from a film but also to appreciate and decode Sherman’s work through our shared knowledge of the still and moving images that enter our lives.
For Cotton, (2004: 192) the series is a prime exemplar of post modern art photography: in the series Sherman is both artist and model – both observer and observed. Yet, these images are neither self portraits or about a particular film star or character, rather, ironic and deliberate imitations or simulations of a type. Sherman’s work examines image and identity through the route of visual pleasure: for the viewer satisfaction is derived from developing narratives for the ambiguous scenes depicted.
Sturken and Cartwright (2009: 322) argue that this is an example of a post modern artist working reflexively – that is the work is based on self awareness and immersion in everyday, popular culture. Sherman is also responding to contemporary feminist discourse that challenged representations, the male gaze and structures of identification:
“Sherman’s compositions reflexively pose questions for viewers about spectatorship, identification, the female body image and the appropriation of the gaze by the woman photographer as her own subject.”
Another important distinction that makes ‘Untitled Film Stills’ post modern is that Sherman offers this feminist critique through visual practice rather than the written word as offered by feminist film critics of the same period. Although the series can be read as a critique it also ironically shows Sherman’s pleasurable engagement in the nostalgic fantasy images she creates in the series.
In ‘Art Since 1900’ (2012: 47-8), Foster et al make the connection between the Sherman’s work and the ideas of Barthes and Foucault. More accurately they assert how critics versed in post-structuralist theory reflected in the mirrors of Sherman’s photographs, creating an endlessly retreating horizon of quotation from which the ‘real’ author disappears. This is all well and good, but in her introduction to ‘Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills’ (2003: 12) she states:
“I didn’t think of what I was doing as political: to me it was a way to make the best out of what I liked to do privately, which was dress up.”
“It wasn’t about dressing up to look like mom, or Doris Day, it was just fun to look different. It had nothing to do with dissatisfaction, or fantasizing about being another person; it was instinctive.”
If you take these comments at face value, and it is unlikely having recently graduated from art school that Sherman was unaware of the cultural discourse of the time, these comments only go to further validate the notion of the death of the author – whether Sherman intended her work to have any of the connotations that were bestowed upon it is irrelevant, after all: “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.” (Barthes, 1977: 148)
Sherrie Levine is part of what was termed the ‘pictures generation’ of artists and participated in the ‘Pictures’ exhibition of 1977 curated by Douglas Crimp. These artists can be described as characteristically postmodern and share a resistance to modernist ideas of purity and individuality. Common concerns are the ideological role of photographic representation, issues of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, and, the changing dynamic of cultural politics. (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 183)
Levine’s work relies heavily on appropriation – predominately photographing other artists work and presenting this in a gallery setting without manipulation. With ‘After Walker Evans’ Levine presented a series of copies of photographs Walker Evans made during his participation in the FSA documentary project during the American depression. Levine raises questions about the ethics concerning copies and originals, issues of authenticity and image ownership, the value of photography through display in a contemporary fine art gallery and how historical records are viewed by different era’s. (These historical images of abject poverty were originally presented in the era of Reganomics.) (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009: 208-9)
Levine’s work is best explained as questioning and critique. Themes explored are: the idea of the original, (which is the real work of art? The Copy or original?) the male artist as master, the value of images (the aura placed on art by museums, galleries and the art market) and questions of reproduction, the artist as sole creator of a unique work.
In ‘Art since 1900’, Levine’s practice is described as an “act of piracy” (Foster et al, 2012: 48) which questions the authorial status of the image makers. The argument is made that the ‘original’ images that Levine appropriates are themselves “involved in an unconscious but inevitable borrowing from the great library of images…that have already educated our eyes.” (Foster et al, 2012: 48) The examples given are Edward Weston’s photograph of the nude torso of his son Neil which bears a debt to Greek classical sculpture. By fusing her own status as author with that of Weston’s, Levine goes beyond challenging copyright to addressing Weston’s very claim on originality. The male nude is one of the most culturally disseminated in western culture: originating in Greek classicism, the model for endless roman copies and seen through the prism of the post-Renaissance world as decapitated, armless fragments and cut off torso that has come to symbolise the body’s rhythmic wholeness. The ‘author’ of this image is therefore “dazzlingly multiple”: nameless antique sculptors, archaeologists, museum curators and even modern advertisers:
“It is this perspective that Levine’s violation of Weston’s “authorship” opens his work, setting up a long line of claimants to this privilege and making a mockery of the very idea of Weston himself as the image’s origin.” (Foster et al, 2012: 625)
Levine is arguing that appropriation has always been endemic in the fine arts, the implication being that photography merely makes this appropriation easier.
If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s ‘aura’ left?
I suspect that Barthes and Foucault are in agreement with Benjamin about the aura, in some ways the essays are an extension of his argument about the removal of privilege from works of art. However, for me these essays share the similar issue that they are written from a particular ideological perspective about what the authors aspire the world to look like. The realities of capitalist society however mean that the aura of a work of art as well as the assertion of authorship is a reality driven primarily by the economic workings of the market. The theories exist as interesting discourse and help us gain sense of the world around us and arts relationship within it.
In ‘Art since 1900’ the argument is made that appropriation artists such as Sherrie Levine belong to a generation where the ideas of Benjamin are second nature. The ‘Pictures’ artists attempted to demystify the idea of the aesthetic original and the idea of the authentic photographic print at a time when the fine art photography market was growing. A truth that is counter to Benjamin’s claim that the aesthetic magic an artwork possesses would be invalidated by the very nature of photography.
“Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the idea of whether photography is an art. The primary question of whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised.” (Foster et al, 2012: 625)
Does any of this explain or validate the unregulated nature of the internet?
I can see a connection between the utopic aspirations of Foucault, Barthes and Benjamin and the ‘so -called’ unregulated internet. The ideal for the internet age is that everyone not only has access to boundless information, but also has the ability to create their own content and engage in multiple discourse. The reality however is that the internet is a potentially bewildering area to navigate. It is true there is unlimited information but reliability and relevance are real concerns. The way most of us use the internet is very much guided by huge corporations like Google and Facebook, the rules these outlets operate by, and which we become complicit in, may not be overt – but are certainly not free or unregulated. The recent scandals of internet surveillance brought to light by Edward Snowdon and others proves that anyone believing the web is a place of absolute freedom of expression is simply wrong.
It is not governments that particularly regulate internet content however – it is the general public. Examples of this are demonstrated by Jon Ronson in his book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ which explores how the lives of normal people can be destroyed by reaction to an ill-judged social media confession or clumsy tweet: a kind of “vicious mob rule.” For example, Justine Sacco who had her life ruined after tweeting a poor taste joke about the racial politics of AIDS in Africa. After posting her ‘joke’ to her 170 twitter followers she boarded a plane and found after her 11 hour flight the tweet was the number one trending topic around the world and reaction was rabidly negative. She lost her job, was subjected to rape and death threats and spent the next year unemployed, depressed and virtually house bound. Ronson likens this treatment to the Stasi: “we have created a surveillance society where we are always looking for clues to our neighbours’ inner evil…” (Adams, 2015) The suggestion here is that the intention of the author is unimportant – only the reaction of the reader matters. A view that chimes with Barthes and Foucault’s assertions, if not the spirit, of the death of the author.
Ironically, by showing empathy for Sacco via Twitter, Ronson himself became a target for online abuse and was branded a racist. And yet, as testified by the Arab spring, WikiLeaks and the recent documenting and sharing on social media of police brutality against black people in the US, it is clear that the internet can give a voice to the voiceless. This use, which is important and powerful contrasts sharply with the witch hunts, with an air of quiet resignation Ronson observes: “We are now turning into a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.” (Ronson, 2016)
Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creators intent at the time of making?
This is an interesting question that both feeds into the notion of the death of the author and the idea of the Emperor’s new clothes. Barthes and Foucault argue that it is the reading taken from a text that is important – the intention of the creator is irrelevant. This is an appealing idea, but, taken to it’s logical conclusion runs the risk of finding meaning where there is none. On the other hand – does this matter? The introduction to ‘The Complete Untitled Film Stills’ Cindy Sherman talks of her motivation being dressing up and nostalgia for the films of the 1950/60s that she grew up with. As a recent graduate of art school I find it difficult to believe that she was not familiar with the work of Barthes and Foucault, it is possible however that these were not in her mind consciously as she worked on ‘Untitled film stills.’
It is also entirely possible for an artist to produce work that is filled with intended meaning that is missed by the audience. Sherrie Levine could be an example of this, I would imagine an enormous amount of people being unengaged and even angered at her work. While notions of copyright can be picked upon, it is unlikely that the casual observer would pickup on the critique of the myth of authorial originality. So, while it may be legitimate to say that with the death of the author every reader is entitled to an opinion about a text, this does not mean all readers conclusions are equally valid. The elitism and reliance on a high degree of cultural awareness that is connected with this sort of post modern art seems to me to alienate many, a kind of in joke for academics not intended to be accessible to the general population.
My preferred answer to this question relies on the truth that as individuals we all have a greatly differing perspective on life and our experience can have a dramatic effect on our responses. My personal way of approaching a text is with an open mind and the realisation that there is rarely a definitive reading, there are many possible conclusions available, and it is possible for many of these to be valid at the same time.
Adams, T. (2015) ‘Jon Ronson: ‘Time and again on Twitter we act like the thing we purport to hate’’ The Guardian, 14th December 2015 [accessed online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/dec/13/jon-ronson-shame-bullying-twitter-social-media [Accessed June 2016]
Barthes R. The death of the author pps. 142-148 Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text, London: Fontana Press.
Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.
Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.
Chandler, D. (2008) The Basics: Semiotics. Oxford: Routledge.
Cotton, C. (2004) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage
Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.
Foucault M. What is an Author pps. 949-953 Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (eds.) (2002) Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford: Blackwell.
Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books
Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.
Ronson, J. (2015) So you’ve been publicly shamed. United Kingdom: Pan MacMillan.
Ronson, J. (2016) Jon Ronson: How the online hate mob set its sights on me.The Guardian, 28th January 2016 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2015/dec/20/social-media-twitter-online-shame [Accessed June 2016]
Sherman, C. et al. (2003) Cindy Sherman: The complete untitled film stills. New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art.
Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press