Stephen Carter On the ‘DEATH OF THE AUTHOR’
Barthes (1968a) with reference to Balzac’s novella Sarrasine speculates, “Who is speaking thus? Is it the hero of the story bent on remaining ignorant of the castrato hidden beneath the woman? Is it Balzac the individual, furnished by his personal experience with a philosophy of Woman? Is it Balzac the author professing ‘literary’ ideas on femininity? Is it universal wisdom? Romantic psychology? We shall never know, for the good reason that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (p.142)
Some Background Context and Questions
This extract from Roland Barthes’s often cited and variously interpreted essay offers up a conundrum and a fitting general background context for the discussion that follows.
Why has this short and gentle essay prompted so much reaction and why is there an ongoing controversy? What does the essay really tell us about the relationship of the writer to the reader and by extension of the artist to the audience? While the essay refers specifically to literature, (and to a particular literary trope), is it also applicable to other art forms, including the visual and aural, as some commentators seem to believe? How much is this essay an index of a more widespread trend to approaching art in Barthes’s own oeuvre and in poststructuralism or postmodernism more generally? Are the questions raised of particular topical concern? If so are we now starting to experience the backlash to this approach? Is the essay’s importance linked to the question of how the artist handles responsibility and is this in turn a reflection on the contemporary condition of having other professionals speak on behalf of the artist? Does this group of theorists, curators, gallerists, and other mediators now constitute a kind of priesthood? Are contemporary artists complicit in this process or are they victims? Does this mean that they are divesting themselves of taking full responsibility for the consequences of their output? Who then controls the meaning and significance of the artwork? Is this in turn given impetus by the perception that some of the most discussed contemporary artists are losing their integrity in their pursuit of money and fame, and their willingness to participate in contemporary celebrity lifestyle cults, as part of the entertainment industry?
A Little Prior History
It is not as if Roland Barthes or the poststructuralists were the first to consider the dynamics of the artist to audience question, nor the first to propose a more active role for the reader or audience. In the interwar period many cultural commentators were re-evaluating these dynamics in the light of a rapidly developing culture industry with its increasingly international mass audience. Walter Benjamin, along with other Marxist oriented thinkers, was concerned to contest the passivity of an audience under the spell of capitalist consumerism. These concerns were specifically addressed in the celebrated and much discussed essay of 1936, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ and in a lecture of 1934, ‘The Author as Producer’. As Leslie (2007) in her commentary on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ observes, “ Art’s aura was a sort of glow that adhered to products of high art, making them untouchable, unapproachable, immensely valuable artefacts of geniuses. Auratic artworks disenfranchised the spectator, who became an individual privileged enough to enjoy unique communion with the art object. They compelled the spectator into the position of a passive beholder who consumed the vision of genius. Benjamin argued that the decline of this ‘aura’ – the happy by-product of mass reproduction – opened the way to a new appropriation of art by the masses.” The passage then continues with, “The new art forms met the viewer ‘halfway’, exiting from darkened niches, out of the gallery, from the captivity of singular time and space. In the age of technological reproducibility, art was, at least potentially, removed from its traditional spaces; indeed, art disintegrated and multiplied all at once.” (p.162) Benjamin grappled with the complex and contradictory interplay between the liberating and levelling effects of the new art forms and their technologies of diffusion against the exercise of manipulative centralised power and conformity on the other. Although the sense of Marxist guilt and fascist anxiety, which pervade these writings of Benjamin and others of this period, may now seem quite distant, in other respects there are some surprisingly contemporary resonances with the polemics and imperatives of relational aesthetics, as advanced by Nicolas Bourriaud and others.
Language and Misunderstanding
The difficulties of using precise language to address visual and spatial experience and the scope for misunderstandings are well known. These problems are related to, but differ from questions of interpretation, concerning the relative importance assigned to the intention of the artist, contrasted with the experience of the viewer. This exchange is given extra impetus by the call from some quarters for interactivity.
The coincidence and misalignment of these questions prompted me to revisit a range of Barthes’s writing and in particular to reread the ‘Death of the Author’ essay in order to better articulate my responses. The wider context is the sometimes subtle, but nevertheless profound change from structuralist to poststructuralist thinking of which Barthes is so much a part. For the purposes of this reflection, the key shift is as Milner (2000) identifies - within the abandonment “of the older structuralist aspiration to scientificity, on the grounds that meaning is ultimately always indeterminate”. (p. 675)
However the desire for clarity of communication is not without its dangers. It is important to note that set against an age expecting instant gratification, there may be delays in communications that aim for deeper comprehension. In these cases initial confusion can turn through reflection into appreciation.
Additionally there are differing understandings of terms that are governed by their uses within a particular discipline or cultural milieu. For example modernism signifies something different in the context of sociology from architecture to fine art. While there is not a magic formula to ensure unequivocal communication, it obviously helps to be mindful of these contextual and other differences. Ambiguity can play a positive role too, in that it can allow the thinker some space to play with a concept and explore alternative interpretations. For an artist to exactly express their intentions in words is not always possible or even desirable. Similarly for a viewer to clearly articulate their response can prove frustratingly elusive.
Often valuations are made on the basis of perceptions of difference of apparently comparable examples, rather than on analysis of the work itself.
This is likely to be the case for both the producer and the consumer.
How do we know an artists intention?
We have to examine our means of knowing an artist’s intention and how reliable these means might be. There may be spoken or written commentaries or explanations from the artist. Often the most celebrated artists are also surrounded by the chatter of overheard remarks, anecdotes, gossip, stories and Chinese whispers; witness for example the incredible quantity of anecdotal material surrounding the likes of Picasso, Duchamp or Warhol. Such casual remarks (whether reliable or not) often become in the audiences interpretative mind, the most telling at illuminating the artists’ intention. We can also probe the artists’ intention through examining other examples of their work, including their source materials and preparatory work, by comparing their work to their contemporaries, discovering autobiographical and contextual information, to name but a few. This brief resume surely shows that any attempt for an audience to understand an artist’s intention requires detective work and interpretation.
The other side to the question concerns the artists’ desire and ability to communicate their intention. It is possible to say and in some cases it may be true that what the artist produces and signs off on embodies their explicit intention. To this end, some leading contemporary art commentators advocate and practice a return to close first-hand scrutiny of the artworks themselves. As Bois (1993) notes, “The urge to take painting seriously, or any kind of art for that matter, and to understand it not as the illustration of a theory but as a model, a theoretical model in itself” (p. xxx). However it must also be pretty obvious that, to discover the artists’ intentions the viewer must be prepared to engage in a lot of time-consuming detective and interpretative work. Furthermore it will have to be acknowledged that this is also an act of translation (from visual to verbal language) and is by no means an exact science. As can be seen from even a cursory glance at the way that artists respond to prompts to elucidate their intentions, the range is extreme between those who wish to communicate their intentions to those who favour mystification, as well as from those who are extremely articulate, through to those who find communicating their intentions through words problematic. An anthology of recent artist interviews such as (Bickers 2007) graphically illustrates this range. In this selection ranging from the studiedly enigmatic Jasper Johns interview of 1978, through to the extremely articulate and communicative one with Robert Motherwell of 1978, from artists who privilege their own working methods and practices to those who attempt to identify a broader cultural context for their operations.
These and other examples indicate something about how artists respond to the freedom accorded to them and what an audience may expect that will help them to understand intentions.
Freedom for the artist (as for others) is relative. It is no doubt true to say that an artist in a contemporary democratic first world country enjoys a greater degree of freedom than would be the case in a dictatorship, or than has been the case in many historical moments. There have also been periods when an artist was more valued for the ability to copy rather than to be original or to explore notions of personal freedom through experimental practice.
The question also presupposes that the artist knows their intentions before visualising their ideas. It is equally possible that the process of making leads to the discovery and clarification of artistic intentions. This can be compared to the intention of the traveller, who may only have the vaguest notion of why he or she wants to go to Egypt, or who might have studied countless books on Egyptian history and culture before going. Either way where there is a determination to travel, there cannot be a complete absence of intention, but neither can there be a perfect plan that will be rigidly adhered to. The experience of going to Egypt will to some degree fulfil the intention of the traveller but will also be its contradiction.
(Barthes 1968a) has been variously interpreted and applied or misapplied. One interpretation has focused on the possibility that a work is dead until or unless activated by a ‘reader’ or viewer. By this token it is the audience through their desire to make something that resurrects the work (the birth of the reader). One gets the image of a book gathering dust on a shelf. It is only when the reader arrives, takes the book from the shelf, blows off the dust and starts reading, that anything happens. Another example would be the public sculpture that is rendered invisible through over familiarity and a coating of grime and pigeon shit. It then regains visibility because it gets cleaned up and illuminated. At this point it reconnects to an audience. Whose intention then predominates – is it the original artist? – the intention of the original commissioners? – the local authority that effected the makeover? – the contemporary audience who project their meaning onto the work?
Notes On Some Of The Relevant Literature
In revisiting a range of the writings of Roland Barthes, it is perhaps worth making a few general observations, before getting into the more exacting questions concerning intentionality. As Sontag (1982) observes, “Writing is Barthes’s perennial subject – indeed, perhaps no one since Flaubert (in his letters) has thought as brilliantly, as passionately as Barthes has about what writing is.” (p. xvii) Apart from the celebrated reflections on photography (Barthes 1968b, 2000, 2002) and city spaces and signs (Barthes 1982a, 1993), there is a particular emphasis within Barthes’s output on literature as a subject, but (and herein lies a difference), the act of reading and interpreting is consistently regarded as much worthy of attention as the act of writing. In this regard, he is not alone, Sontag (2007) reminds us that, “A writer is first of all a reader. It is from reading that I derive the standards by which I measure my own work and according to which I fall lamentably short. It is from reading, even before writing, that I become part of a community- the community of literature- which includes more dead than living writers. Reading, and having standards, are then relations with the past and with what is other.” (p.179) To reassert the importance of the ‘community of literature’ is to cut across the perceived divisions between author and reader, not to mention other professional players, including publisher, literary agent, critic, publicist, editor and bookseller. Similarly the art world has become increasingly professionalized and compartmentalised. The artist is commonly proposed as separate from the curator, critic, or theorist and is often supposed to be alienated from the audience. Even so it is frequently the case that the artist is also a sometime curator, collector, teacher, critic and almost certainly is a keen viewer of other art, museums and exhibitions. The contemporary art student is likely to learn about art through a complex mix of experimental making, skills acquisition, studying other art from the present and the past, learning about arts’ cultural contexts and so on.
It is worth commenting on the tone of Barthes’ writings, one that is affable rather than confrontational, although there are times when the reader is ‘struck’ forcibly by a turn of phrase or a surprising idea as in Barthes (1968a),
“ We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” (p.148)
There can be little argument that Barthes has been enormously influential and that this influence has extended way beyond the realm of literary criticism and theory. In the visual arts, there are artists, curators, gallerists, art theorists, sponsors and funding bodies whose modus operandi has been turned upside down to accommodate some of the apparent implications of these ‘death of the author’ ideas, sometimes in a desperate effort to encourage audience participation and interaction and to shake off the dusty authoritarian image of the scholarly museum or archive. This development is by no means exclusive to the art world, variants on the trend can easily be found in institutions ranging from science museums, through to local public libraries. There can however be plenty of debate around the way that these notions have been applied and how helpful they are in the educational process. Whether also a literary model can be applied to the visual arts and how the role of the reader compares with that of the viewer. Moreover since the process of rereading a text is so important to Barthes, how does this compare with the viewer looking again at the artwork, or being with the artwork, in the same space? Barthes (1990) says, “Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us “throw away” the story once it had been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors), rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality: rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology . . . rereading is no longer consumption, but play (that play which is the return of the different). If then, a deliberate contradiction in terms, we immediately reread the text, it is in order to obtain, as though under the effect of a drug (that of recommencement, of difference), not the real text, but a plural text: the same and the new.” (p.15)
Surely the critical thrust of this passage is not so much to do with rebalancing power relations between author and reader, but is more of a critique of what reading as a creative endeavour has become in a consumer economy. It also suggests ways that creative play can be reignited. This is reinforced when Barthes (1990) asserts, “Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.” (p.4) Since Barthes’s death in 1980, there have been those such as Nicolas Bourriaud who have sought to use such ideas to ‘liberate’ the audience and foster interactivity, within the contemporary art world. These strategies are often referred to as ‘Relational Aesthetics’, after his book of the same name. Bourriaud is a prominent French art theorist and curator whose ideas are hugely influential on contemporary art practice and its presentation. Indeed there is practically no first world art institution up to and including the likes of the Tate Gallery that has been immunised to the effects. Meanwhile funding and commissioning institutions such as the Arts Council of England have become preoccupied with the notion of the ‘audience’ as a first principle, and consequently face the charge of pandering to the audience and of dumbing-down. While there is obviously a need to be accountable to the taxpayer, there is also a sense that creative exploration has been snuffed out before it has begun. The Arts Council applicant must respond to bidding requirements under the heading of ‘How the public engage with your work’, which must include ‘evidence that there is demand for your activity or your work in general’ along with, ‘how you have considered the needs and expectations of the people the activity is intended for.’ One glance at the user-friendly, but stultifying Arts Council guidelines will be enough to make the genuinely creative turn tail and run. There is a curious but unholy symmetry between the Arts Council and relational aesthetics in their desperation to connect with an audience in a preconceived manner, even though Bourriaud’s emphasis on exploration, openness and play, contrasts harshly with the Art Council’s sense of predetermination.
Bourriaud (2002a) says, “Anyhow, the liveliest factor that is played out on the chessboard of art has to do with interactive, user-friendly and relational concepts.” (p.8), and goes on to add “Artistic activity is a game, whose forms, patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts; it is not an immutable essence.” (p.8) Elsewhere Bourriaud (2002b) extends the thought to challenge the divide between producer and consumer,
“These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work.” (p.13)
But a critical counter to this tendency has also emerged, for example Pelosi (2009) contends that, “Postmodernism encourages the belief that no artist or author is able to convey his or her intended meaning because everyone must experience art through their limited frame of reference. Semiotician and social theorist Roland Barthes wrote of ‘The Death of the Author’ because, in his eyes, the author’s intention is irrelevant. ‘To give a text an Author… is to impose a limit on that text.’ Intentists call this the gagging of the artist because the artist is very much alive and has a message to say.” (p.20)
Perhaps what lies behind this desire to reassert the artists’ explanatory voice is the concern that the way that Barthes’s reflections have been applied often lead to an abdication of authorial responsibility. This is not, I suspect what Barthes intended and it does not follow that because the process of reading is revalued that the responsibility of the author diminishes. However such disavowals are commonplace within the contemporary art world, where the indeterminate and opaque are often held up as badges of pride. A typical example, “In this instance, the meaning of the word (sequelism) is left as yet undefined, awaiting its new meaning. Rather than illustrating a ‘theme’, the exhibition invites doubt, speculation and to-be-determined outcomes” is contained within the August 2009 guide for the exhibition titled ‘Sequelism’ at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol.
Clearly it is not appropriate to level blame at Barthes for this kind of debased and lazy progeny. At any rate there is nothing new in the art worlds’ propensity for vague and indeterminate twaddle, especially by those charged with the task of helping the audience to engage with the artworks. However it would seem that the licence that Barthes apparently offers has allowed this verbiage to descend to a lower level of complacent nebulousness. Of course the author or artist must still take responsibility in their choice of content, manner and means of communication. To reassert this is not at odds with Barthes exploration of the creative role of the reader or audience, nor with the positive dimension of ambiguity and complexity in the working through of these dynamic relationships.
The critical contemporary backlash against Barthes and poststructuralism more broadly is driven by the supposition that the consequence of this type of approach must lead to an abdication of authorial responsibility. As Pelosi (2009) puts it, “the artist becomes simply another interpreter of his/her own work since the meaning of the artwork is not connected to intention.” (p.8) While Belsey (2002) in her poststructuralist overview says, “How can we decide which reading to settle for? Traditional criticism would say we should ask the author, and if the author is dead, as in this case, we should read biographies, diaries, or letters, until we can guess what the author might have intended. Poststructuralism, however disagrees. If language is not ours to possess, but always pre-exists us and comes from outside, and if poems issue from language, not from the ideas which are language’s effect rather than its cause, there is no final answer to the question of what any particular example of language in action ultimately means.” (p.18)
Another interpretation of the significance of Barthes’s concern to return over and again to the themes of the death of the author and the dissolve of voices, with the reiterated question of ‘who is speaking?’ suggests an idea of an invisible puppet-master. Barthes (1990) poses the question, “Who is Speaking?” and follows up with observations about the plural nature of the text and its multiple voices (p.41). In fact as he well knows in this case Balzac is the author, but who in his subtle mastery of language has managed to persuade the reader to replace him, in favour of the cast of characters and narrator that he has fabricated. As such Balzac the author disappears into the background and becomes the invisible puppet-master.
In this sense the death or disappearance of the author is virtually a gauge of good writing. The author surely wants the reader to engage with the text, its actors and narrative. This entails forgetting about the puppet-master who really determines the events behind the scenes. Similarly in a medium such as painting, the consciousness of the painters’ style and manual effort can operate as a barrier to the viewer who wants to enter into the imaginative space of the painting. In this way the painter actually wants their intentions to be unknown, so that the painting space can be engaged with as fully as possible. In this case far from wanting to spell out intentions in words (even if able to do so), the artist merely leaves some clues to piece together. These clues will probably be in the form of other work, studies, notes and source material. Other clues may not be of the artists’ own making, but will rather be fragments that accrue around the work and acquire interpretative significance. An artists’ apparent reticence to speak and explain, or rather to translate from the visual to the verbal can actually constitute part of the intention. Out of respect for the audience, comes a desire for silence, if enough has already been said within the chosen language. As Bois (1993) in his essay “Ryman’s Tact” puts it, “ The question – despite its rhetorical flavour- must be asked at the very outset: why is it so hard to write about Robert Ryman’s work? Aren’t his paintings themselves- pre-eminently antiillusionist, flatly literal- all the explanation the viewer or critic needs to penetrate their ineffable silence? Don’t they reveal what they’re made of, proudly, with a kind of routine generosity, thereby cutting short any attempt at associative readings? Simply, don’t they seem to suggest their own commentary, to define their own discursive terrain?”(p. 215)
The Condition of Painting
As has already been briefly noted, there is surprisingly little in Barthes’s writing that deals with painting. A rare exception is a short essay, (Barthes 1982b) which focuses on the seventeenth century Dutch painter Pieter Saenredam. This contrasts with the recurring concern with photography and extended meditations on the photographic image (Barthes 1968b, 2000, 2002). It is worth taking a little time to explore the possible reasons for this. It cannot necessarily be assumed that it simply indicates that Barthes was more interested in photography than painting per se. It seems more likely that photography allowed more of a space for reflection, freed from the mediation of the painters’ style and touch. As structuralism shifted to poststructuralism, Barthes was not the only one to desire and value an authorless expression. What Barthes may have found in photography matches what Levi-Strauss identified in anthropology since myths have no authors; their creation occurs imperceptibly in the process of transmission and transformation over hundreds of years and across hundreds of miles. Indeed the attraction to the notion of an anonymous or invisible creator seems to pervade much poststructuralist thought. As Barthes (2000) himself notes, returning to the particular focus on painting, “ Painting can feign reality without having seen it”. (p.76)
It is interesting to speculate how this preference might have played out since his death with the development of digital photography, photoshop and postproduction manipulations, which have arguably pushed the photographic image much closer to the fictive and constructed territory of painting, and well away from the idea of photography acting as a neutral witness.
Similarly but for apparently different reasons, there seems little room for painting to occupy in Bourriaud’s universe. When Bourriaud (2002b) asserts that, “This culture of use implies a profound transformation of the status of the work of art: going beyond its traditional role as a receptacle of the artist’s vision, it now functions as an active agent, a musical score, an unfolding scenario, a framework that possesses autonomy and materiality to varying degrees, its form able to oscillate from a simple idea to sculpture or canvas.” (p.20) and goes on to say, “Appropriation is indeed the first stage of postproduction: the issue is no longer to fabricate an object, but to choose one among those that exist and to use or modify these according to a specific intention.” (p.25) It has to be said however that on the basis of the Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain of 2009 and of other outings by Bourriaud approved artists, that on the whole the rhetoric is more engaging than the work. All too often the invitation to participate seems vague and sometimes rather patronising and pointless. Franz Ackermann was one of the very few painters included in the Altermodern show, presumably on the basis that his apparently open-ended approach to painting fits Bourriaud’s thesis about as much as painting ever could. So it seems that painting somehow carries on, albeit it in a marginalised role, apparently mostly indifferent to the seismic shifts in the art world and its transformed understanding of relations between producer and consumer.
Towards a Summary
Some contemporary responses to Barthes’s notion of the death of the author, and the birth of the reader are dangerously close to becoming reactionary. This also applies to responses to poststructuralism more widely. While it cannot be wrong to re-examine the importance of the artists’ intentions, it is simplistic to assume that this will deliver an inevitable correction of Barthes’s position. Many other thorny questions have to be faced, such as how confident can we be in knowing an artists’ intentions, and where does this information come from? Similarly it is not wrong for Bourriaud and others to want to find new ways of engaging an audience and encouraging experiential participation in art. If we understand this tendency in art to be at least partly inspired by Barthes’s pronouncements, then it puts an increased value on the audiences’ experience. As such it is in step with other developments in our culture such as interactive libraries, museums and theme parks conceived as a means of learning through experience.
An ongoing question that seems to sometimes get confused is to do with the differences between interpretative engagement and manual participation.
A way out of the impasse could be to return to the idea of communities of participants as elucidated by Sontag (2007), “it is from reading, even before writing, that I become part of a community – the community of literature” (p.179). It is quite possible to transpose this state of affairs from the literary to the art world. What will then be acknowledged is that the artist, when viewing an exhibition is also a critic, when working in education is also a teacher and so on. The collector is also a critic, a curator and quite possibly an artist who perhaps happens not to make anything. Even here we discover we are back to Bourriaud’s idea of postproduction as artistic practice.
What we discover to our possible surprise is that we are indeed a community of active participants and the labels we stick on ourselves or have been stuck on us, only limit the scope of our participatory interests.
London December 2009
Word Count 5072
Bibliography & References
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