Project 3-4: Author? What Author?

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:

  1. When an author creates a character and gives it a voice, they cease to be the one speaking.
  2. All writing is simply words on a page, therefore, it is the language itself that speaks not the author. (A fundamental premise of structuralism.)
  3. 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

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

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: [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: [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


Project 2-1: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This project requires reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and the first chapter of John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ before considering the following questions:

On ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ by Walter Benjamin:

How does Benjamin state his case for the removal of art’s elite nature?

“for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” (Evans and Hall p76)

Benjamin argues that works of art are elevated to the status of revered ritual artefacts. Ownership, which can be seen as a closed ritual, and value are based on the status of a work of art as being unique and exclusive. This leads to art becoming a commodity in capitalist culture and the preserve of the privileged and therefore unobtainable to the majority – the masses. Reproducibility means that this system can be challenged and that art can become a democratizing, potentially revolutionary, force in more fluid socialist politics.

Benjamin believed that reproduction would lead to a profound change in the function of art; instead of it’s purpose being ritual it would become political – the potential for images to be used for political purposes would be opened up. This could have potentially liberating effects on human consciousness – artworks that were previously only available to the rich or elite who had the means and capacity for travel and ownership, a relatively rare experience, would become available to the masses who through reproductions could come to know, love and even own a copy of a valued work of art.

What do you make of Benjamin’s ideas of the ‘aura’ of the work?

‘Aura’ is the term used by Benjamin to describe the intrinsic, unreproducible aspect of a work of art that is eliminated through the act of reproduction: “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Evans and Hall, p74) It is the special quality of a work of art that makes it unique, authentic and original (in both time and space), although ‘aura’ is not inherent in the work itself but imputed by a culture that holds it in high regard. Benjamin states that the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition and allows the beholder to meet the reproduction in their own situation, and therefore, has the ability to shatter tradition and is linked to mass movements. An original work has a unique existence in the place where it happens to be and even the most perfect reproduction cannot capture this fleeting aura. Aura originates from the ritualistic/cultic value of primitive art which is replaced by exhibition value in the modern sense. Benjamin believed the aura to be in decay because the idea of the original does not apply to the new art forms of photography and film as they are always/already a copy.

Reading ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Benjamin seems both critical and nostalgic for the phenomenon of the aura. It seems he is willing to sacrifice that which is desirable of a work of art’s aura in order for art to become liberated from ritual and association with the ruling elite and become a force for politics. It seems to me that even though artworks are more reproducible and accessible now than Benjamin could ever have imagined, an artworks ‘aura’ is stronger than ever – the act of reproducibility has only strengthened the cult of the original rather than diminished it. Famous artworks become part of the popular consciousness, the example used in many of the texts I read was of the Mona Lisa which is now so famous it becomes more than simply a painting and is elevated to reverential status with visitors to the Louvre queuing for hours to spend the average time of 2 minutes in the paintings presence. If reproduction meant an artworks aura was diminished we would expect the  publics interest to be reducing rather than increasing that the increase in museum/gallery attendance seems to suggest is true.

Studying Benjamin and thinking about the subject of the ‘aura’ has made me question my own relationship to original art work. My personal view is that viewing a work of art in the flesh cannot be replicated through viewing reproductions either physical or digital. This is mainly based upon a memory from when I was 16 and a holiday to Paris. I visited the famous Musee D’Orsay and recall being floored by the effect of seeing the real famous impressionist works of Monet and Van Gogh – famous images that I was aware of not through study but because they had entered the popular consciousness. No reproduction could replicate the scale and beauty of the works, the textures of the oil paints added an extra dimension that the flatness of a print could not. I remember being particularly struck by this self portrait by Van Gogh.

As a sixteen year old I was taken in by the tragic romance of Van Gogh and his tortured genius. This self portrait was not one I knew before visiting but the swirling patterns of oil paint around Van Gogh spoke to me deeply about his possible state of mind as well as causing me to recognise that the experience I was having in front of the original work would be impossible to replicate through any reproduction. On the way out I bought a postcard of the painting from the gift shop and was immediately struck by how lacking it was – without realising it I recognised that it was the paintings aura that was missing.

Does the improvement of methods of reproduction, colour printing, digital imaging and television strengthen or weaken his case?

The capacity for reproduction presented by modern technology is almost limitless and would have been impossible for Benjamin to imagine, however, on the main thrust of his argument that reproduction would make art a political force this has not happened – at least not in the way he has envisioned. Although there are many artists who are motivated by political aims, it could be argued that the majority of us view art as a career and business. Art is available to everyone, think google image search, and if anything the aura and fetishism of original works of arts has only increased because of this.

Artwork has never been more prevalent than it is today while the capacity for us all to express ourselves is something Benjamin could never have envisaged. What we understand as the establishment is significantly different too, new money probably outstrips old. If anything however, the proliferation and accessibility of imagery has only increased the cult of works of art and to own an original remains the preserve of the well off. The truth is that it is impossible to generalise about the impact, effect and use of modern methods of reproduction – as soon as I thought about examples of how an artworks aura have been destroyed through reproduction I could immediately think of opposites to refute my argument. The modern world in which we live is incredibly complex and on the face of it access to works of art has never been more democratic, works can be immediately accessed to view via the internet and the increase in admissions to galleries and museums as well as growth of the art market would seem to suggest there is a growing interest in art. The choice available is bewildering to many of us however and it seems to me we are more reliant than ever on the guidance of a few experts to signify to us which art works are worthy of our attention. It is now a commonly accepted truth that art can now be anything, a notion that reproducibility does not take into account of.

Does the failure of the Soviet experiment alter the validity or otherwise of his case?

Benjamin underestimated, and was maybe even naïve, about how political systems could use photography and film for their own ends, the propaganda of the Soviet Union is a strong example of this.

On ‘Ways of Seeing’ by John Berger:

Do you find his case convincing?

‘Ways of Seeing’ is a polemic and reaction against Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilization’ television series and book which preceded Berger’s series in 1969 – Clark represented the old establishment and the ruling elite while Berger had a radical, modern approach with political intent. It is written in a style that uses generalization and does little to recognise alternative arguments, I can understand Berger’s approach but for me it is somewhat off putting –  recognising opposing viewpoints could have been used as a way to strengthen rather than diminish his argument although this would undoubtedly have increased the word count. The book and television series were intended as a primer to provoke and promote further thought and study of art, and in this respect it is certainly a success – proved by the fact that some forty years after publication and broadcast they are still being studied.

Personally, I find Berger of interest historically but in the end not completely compelling. Some of this is due to his presentation style, although it is intended as a polemic the piece has the air of preaching to the converted to me. The Marxist style of discourse contained in ‘Ways of Seeing’ seems outdated, clearly Berger’s aims were to influence real change not only in the art world but in society in general. The fact that the market and the economic value of works of art is now stronger than ever shows how wrong he was in the future of art.

Do you think that a work of art removed from its original site grows or diminishes in meaning?

It depends on what is meant by ‘original site’ and how it is removed – literally or by means of reproduction, if the latter then as already discussed the artwork would naturally be different anyway. In antiquity artwork was on the main designed to be in a particular place, for example churches and temples which promoted the idea that they were sacred and spiritual and set them apart from normal life. Likewise when artwork became social it entered the culture of the ruling class and was displayed in palaces and stately homes which made the authority of the artworks inseparable from that of the ruling elite. It could be argued that museums and galleries are the modern day equivalent of churches and temples and are places we go to worship art with the custodians of these places are similar to priests. Likewise visitors to galleries and museums are similar to dutiful worshipers in that they are already converted to the cause. On the face of it displaying art work in public places could be a way to break this elitist barrier down, the only problem being however that these public venues then become the original site for the artwork and thus the argument loses all meaning.

Does familiarity breed contempt?

This question depends on our understanding of who would feel contempt toward the familiar. The elite nature of art criticism would seem to suggest that experts certainly feel this way – that popularity somehow diminishes the importance of an artist and their work. This view can be backed up by the way some art experts look down upon those that are popular or successful, this is something that I came across when researching Jeff Koons in project 1-5 (Art as Commodity.) Another example would be how some recent ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions have been poorly reviewed – surely the increased visitor numbers to museums and galleries and the increased appetite for art from the general public that this would suggest would be seen as a positive rather than being attacked? I am sure Berger would be unsurprised by the critics reaction however, to him this would be an example of how experts use mystification to protect their status as pillars of good taste.

Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?

I would say yes and no. It is true that a postcard does not retain the aura of an original work of art (see my thoughts about purchasing a Van Gogh postcard above) but the very production and distribution of the work of art as a postcard can go a long way to increase the aura of the original. It is also true however that the aura of the original can be transformed through the act of reproduction, again I think of a work of art like the ‘Mona Lisa’ which has become elevated to the status of icon rather than painting with parodies and appropriation being commonplace. It seems to me impossible for the real work to live up to the myth and disappointment seems to be the main reaction of those that have braved the crowds to spend their (on average) two minutes in its presence.


Reading ahead of the course notes I was conscious that this is a pivotal project in the course; ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, ‘Ways of seeing’, Benjamin and Berger are work and writers that I have come across often through my research. I felt determined to give myself sufficient time and consideration of these essays and set about taking extensive notes and being planned about my responses. Despite this I struggled to gain the insight that the questions posed in the course material seemed to be pushing me for. In fact, the more I thought about my responses the less certain (and able) I seemed to be able to articulate myself. At this point I am at a loss as to why this should be but clear that this has led to a severe depletion of the momentum I had been building in the course. The only explanation I have is that I have completely missed the point of the questions posed – I have been searching for definitive answers rather than  using them as a jumping off point. I am far from happy with the responses I have posted here but feel that moving on is the best course of action rather than becoming further entangled.

One of the problems I think with these two essays is that they are informed by a particular historical moment that we are now far removed from – Berger’s notion that artwork can be democratized by individuals having a pin board to display postcards seems somewhat bizarre to me. Interestingly, I find Benjamin’s writing and means of discourse much more compelling than Berger’s which, although intentionally polemic, deals too much in absolutes which has a kind of arrogance I find off putting. For me, recognising alternative viewpoints and then showing why yours is more valid represents strength rather than weakness. I found Peter Fuller’s ‘Seeing through Berger’ an interesting read, although I have not directly referenced it, particularly the escalating argument that moved Fuller from a disciple of Berger to a sworn adversary.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Marxism, surrealism, modernism, the ‘aura’

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Brecht, Lukacs, Adorno, Frans Hals, Leonardo Da Vinci


Benjamin, W. (1999) Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing (BBC series) – Episdoese 1: Available at – [accessed April 2015]

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage.

Fuller, P (1988) Seeing through Berger London: The Claridge Press

Howells, R. Negreiros, J. (2011) Visual Culture 2nd Ed, Cambridge: Polity Press

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Pooke, G. and Newall, D. (2008) The Basics: Art History. Oxford: Routledge.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Project 1-7: Leisure time and Consumerism – The Flâneur

For this project we are required to search the web for articles on the flâneur making notes on the phenomenon and what thinkers like Walter Benjamin have to say on the subject.

We are also asked to consider what effect we think this phenomenon had on the world of the artist in western society from the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Flâneur is a French term with no direct English translation popularised by Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ and linked to the emergence of consumer culture in the late nineteenth century. Baudelaire describes the elegant flâneur, strolling through the streets and arcades of Paris, simultaneously taking pleasure from the act of looking at items of commodity culture and remaining detached from the cityscape around him. He neither belongs to the richest or poorest class and existed on the margins of the city, he takes in the sights – especially the new phenomenon of consumerism found in the displays of the shop windows of the arcades. For the flâneur the act of looking becomes a pleasure in itself.

Sturken and Cartwright offer one of the most concise and interesting definitions of the flâneur that I came across:

“A flâneur is a kind of urban dandy who strolls through a modern city (such as Paris), a space that is newly organised in modernity to encourage a mobile and specular (looking) relationship to urban space and the new consumer goods that are displayed there.”

The phenomenon of the flâneur is tied to the quickly changing landscape of the late nineteenth century: the modern city and its changing architecture, dramatic changes population densities, emergence of factories, industrial manufacturing and production, the growth of the bourgeoisie, advances in technology and communication as well as developments in capitalism. Interestingly, the flâneur of the nineteenth century was always male because society at the time did not allow females the freedoms that men enjoyed.

Walter Benjamin, who was much influenced by Baudelaire, took the notion of the flâneur and turned it into a kind of mythological figure, using it to explore the development of consumer society, that is a society where the practices of consumption rather than production are predominant. For Benjamin the flâneur is a sociological icon of the nineteenth century and emblematic of modernity and his use of the term in his unfinished and posthumously published major work ‘The Arcades Project’ is seen as being responsible for the term entering critical theory.

The ‘Painter of Modern Life’ Baudelaire describes in his essay is the artist he also describes as the archetypal flâneur: Constantin Guys. Baudelaire admires his ability to capture the ephemeral but irreversible changes brought about by fashion and the new commodities of the arcades. Guys paintings employed a new realism both in terms of subject matter and style that marked a radical departure from traditional academic history paintings. This theme was further developed by Manet and then the impressionists before continuing into other avant-gardes such as futurism and surrealism. For me, the idea of the flâneur as artist is perhaps best encapsulated by the street photographer. Researching this project, my mind kept returning to photographers who I have grown to love as masters of street photography such as Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Martin Parr and Garry Winogrand. Indeed, the mental image I have of Winogrand prowling the streets, camera in hand, trying to create order and meaning out of the chaos of modern city life is one that stays with me. The image of William Eggleston also springs to mind because although he does not photograph city life his detached style and privileged background (meaning he could concentrate on taking photographs as an interest rather than by any need to make money from it) seem to fit the notion of the flâneur well. I often have the sense when looking at Eggleston’s work that although the subjects portrayed are on the main the banal and every day we are somehow sharing his way of seeing. Personally, being a flâneur is also something I enjoy doing myself. I love nothing more than picking up my camera and exploring the streets with no other preconception than to make images of what I see.


The subject of the flâneur is an interesting one, but I am not sure that studying this is the real purpose of the project which I suspect is more concerned with study techniques, time management and introducing Walter Benjamin. It is interesting that the course notes offer no direct article or work as reference but direct us to conduct study on the internet. A google search for flâneur invariably makes Wikipedia the top hit before branching into many varied sources. I quickly decided to conduct my research in the way I have all other projects using the text books I am beginning to become more familiar with and learning to trust, making notes and also jotting down  further keywords and concepts to research further. Having done this first I felt much more equipped to tackle internet search results and identify articles potential value as well as being able to directly search for essays and books that I had found referenced. I quickly amassed a large amount of reading material and was left with the difficult choice of how much further research to do – by this point I had probably gained enough knowledge to complete my write up and I must admit being torn between wanting to gain as much understanding by reading as widely as possible and progressing. Up until now I have continued reading until all of the sources I have identified are completed, I decided to moderate this approach here by putting a timescale of a week on my further research. This meant rather than trying to read each source in detail and take notes I needed to skim moist of them and prioritize those which appear of most value. For example, looking at Benjamin’s ‘The Arcades Project’ meant merely skim reading and concentrating on passages that caught my eye. At 1000 pages and extremely complex, trying to assimilate the work would have been a major distraction, but, gaining a sense of the tone of the piece by allowing it to wash over me did help inform the project.

I note that after assignment one, the first project of part two concerns Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, a work I expect to be extremely challenging given what other students have noted. That said, as I have now been introduced to Benjamin as a writer I feel I can tackle the project without becoming side-tracked by studying his biography. The experience of his writing I have gained here also means I have some understanding of what to expect.

Keywords and concepts for further research:

Consumer society, phantasmagoria, modernity, situationism, dérive.

Key figures for further research:

Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy Debord, Constantin Guys.


Baudelaire, C (1863) The Painter of Modern Life. (translated and edited by Johnathon Mayne) Phaidon Press

Benjamin, W. (1999) On Some Motifs in Baudelaire                                                                                                   in Illuminations. London: Pimlico.

Benjamin W. (1999) The Arcades Project. (Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin from the German volume edited by Rolf Tiedemann) Cambridge:Harvard University Press

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York:Oxford University Press inc.

Friedberg, A The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flaneur/Flaneuse                                           in Mirzoeff, N. (ed). (2002) The Visual Culture Reader Second edition. Oxford:                       Routledge

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Seal, B. (2013) Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur. Available at [accessed February 2015]

Sontag, S. (2008) On Photography. London: Penguin.

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.