Project Author? What author?

The title of this project is interesting and very relevant to the subject matter. ‘Project Author’ with a capital A suggests the Modernist view of the author – ‘a privileged creator of meaning and authority in the work in question’. “What author’ with a small a presents the contemporary/post modernist view – this implies ‘The Death of the Author’ as Barthes has it with meaning being largely derived from the reader/viewer’s interpretation.

The first issue for consideration within this project is to consider whether the work of two contemporary artists (the notes suggest Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine) are better explained as a result of my reading of Michel Foucault’s essay What is an Author? and Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author.  I have decided to look at the two suggested artists.

Cindy Sherman’s seminal work was her Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980. This  is a series of photographs which of Sherman acting out the role of various female characters from anonymous Hollywood ‘B” movies. Interpretation of what the characters represent is left to the viewer. To me the images include characters such as the bored and sexy housewife, the innocent and vulnerable secretary, the battered wife and such like. Sherman is said to have stopped producing the images when she ran out of cliches. I have looked at her work in the past and had generally thought it to be about the way in which women are presented as a series of stereotypes in the movies. I had perceived the work to be largely about gender and identity. I had thought that Sherman was illustrating how identity, and in particular female identity,  is unstable and constructed and how we are driven to consider in terms of media driven preconceived norms. What occurs to me now is that Sherman might also be acknowledging the ideas put forward by Foucault and Barthes. By presenting a series of cliche identities for women in the movies she is demonstrating how (to quote Barthes) “text is a tissue [or fabric] of quotations,drawn from innumerable centers of culture”. Sherman’s stereotypes have become so because they have been recycled by numerous authors and writers of film scripts over time. In this sense it can be seen as a direct challenge to authorship.

In the case of Levine I think I have always considered her work as a direct challenge to the concept of the author. Her work is largely based on appropriation which directly challenges the originality of work by artists, authors etc. By rephotographing the work of other artists she is confronting directly the originality of art and proposing that art is an amalgam of influences from a huge array of sources.

The project also calls for me to consider ‘If the birth of the reader is at the expense of the author is there still any of Benjamin’s aura left?’. In a previous post,  I have defined Benjamin’s aura to be ‘something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history’. At its heart ‘aura’ is about the sense of wonder that something engenders as a result of its unique and imposing presence. In a physical sense I best understand this in terms of the feeling I get when I look at a wonder of nature – a great mountain, a monumental waterfall etc. These are things which are unique in terms of place, time and history. So the question is how does my understanding of the ideas of Foucault and Barthes influence my sense of awe about an original piece of art. Well I know and accept that the work may well have been constructed from ideas gleaned from myriad sources and that is may well have been defined by cultural conventions prevailing at the time it was produced. So I would certainly question the originality of the content. However, I still feel drawn to admire the artist’s skill and intellect. This could be about their mastery of the media in painting or sculpture or about their synthesis of ideas in more conceptually based art and literature. I am beginning to wonder if I have become so conditioned by the [Modernist] norms that I am unable to see beyond these but I genuinely do feel a sense of awe when I stand in front of a great work of art. I think this sense of an ‘aura’ may well derive from the sense of place and time associated with the work, in the same way that looking at an historical building or artefact causes one to reflect on its history. On balance therefore I do believe that there is something left of Benjamin’s aura, but I feel my explanation of why is somewhat inadequate.

The next question posed in this project is ‘Does any of this explain or validate the un-regulated nature of the internet’. There is no doubt in my mind that the content one sees on the internet demonstrates very clearly how ideas are recycled and in this sense it is a clear demonstration of Foucault and Barthes’ thinking. As to whether it explains the lack of regulation of the internet I am not convinced. I think this is due to the fact that the internet us a world-wide ‘space’ and there is  no body in a position to regulate it. Many individual countries have tried to suppress it but people in these countries have found ways around such local censorship.

The final question posed is ‘Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?’. From a personal perspective I am always interested to find out what the author was intending. I will generally read artists statements and have some frustration with artists such as Richard Prince who claim never to comment of their work. So does this mean that I am forced to look at the work within the narrow confines of the artist’s direction. No it does not. I feel free to form my own views. I read a comment from Peter Haveland an OCA tutor on this topic recently which I think summarises very well how I would view this issue now –

“Once a work has been finished and moves out into the world it has an existence all of itself, rather like children having left home, and whatever the maker intended and however well that intent was realised, a whole range of other factors come into play. Not least of which is the variety of knowledge and experience that each viewer, reader, listener etc. brings to the work. Then there is the passage of time and the new things that have happened since it was made added to which we have the new situation of the image (or whatever), for example the meaning of a painting made to hang over a fireplace (Rubens’ Samson and Delilah for example) in a specific private house may well be changed by being hung in a gallery amongst other works. The maker’s intentions cannot take these things into account and so although it is fascinating and often enlightening to know what the maker was getting at the real artistic value of the work can be independent of this”