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”

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Project Myth is a type of speech

This project called for me to read (several times) Roland Barthes essay Myth Today  and to consider a number of questions:

  • Who was Minou Drouet and why does Barthes cite her?
  • Consider Barthes reference to a bunch of roses and a black pebble and find other examples of elements signifying passion, emotions,or other objects or events from images I know.
  • Myth changes the real into the ideological. Find an example of an image which exemplifies this.
  • Consider carefully the passage on meaning and form “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning’. Annotate and artwork to illustrate my thoughts on this passage.

Minou Drouet was a child prodigy who published a book of poems Arbre Mon Ami (Tree my friend) in 1957 – the year Barthes published Mythologies. There was much controversy at the time as to whether Drouet wrote the poems herself or whether she was assisted by her parents. I suspect that Barthes refers to her because her poetry transformed real objects into myths. Trees took on a meaning beyond that of the tree. I also wonder if Barthes considered Drouet herself to be a myth, signifying the idea of the child genius. It is also clear that the Drouet affair was a major news item at the time Barthes was producing his work and this may have been a current affairs issue which intrigued him.

When considering how elements within an image can signify passion, emotions etc I thought about the way in which portrait painters have incorporated elements within their works to present a broader picture of their subjects. Holbein’s The Ambassadors is an excellent example of this.

The Ambassadors by Holbein

This image incorporates a multiplicity of references. The globe signifies the international nature of the role of the subjects, the lute and the books testifies to the fact that they are cultured men and the skull signifies the inevitability of death. It is a memento mori (Holbein has disguised this such that when the painting is viewed from the front it appears as a slash across the mid bottom of the frame, but from the side it is revealed as a skull).

Magnum photographer Rene Burri’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara has come to stand for so much more that just a ‘Cuban with a cigar’. It signifies revolution and opposition to western capitalist imperialism. It is now a strong idealogical statement.

Che Guevara by Rene Burri

To understand what Barthes means by “The meaning is always their to present the form; the form is always there to outdistance the meaning” one needs first to understand the terms he is using. He defines ‘meaning’ to be a sign which has become the signifier in a myth and ‘form’ to be the signified. So in the case of the above photograph this means that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ becomes the ‘meaning’ within the myth and the ideological concept of opposition to western capialist imperialism is the ‘form’. The combination of the two Barthes called the ‘signification’. When Barthes refers to ‘The meaning is always there to present the form’ he is stating that the ‘Cuban with a cigar’ is a signifier in a myth. By ‘the form is there to outdistance the meaning’ he is saying that the ‘form’ takes on a meaning beyond the original concept of the ‘meaning’. In other words the ‘form’ in the myth goes beyond ‘Cuban with a cigar’ to stand for the idealogical concept of opposition to western capitalist imperialism.

Project Rhetoric of the image

This project involves reading Roland Barthes essay Rhetoric of the image and make notes. The second part of the project is to make notes on some contemporary advertisments in the light of Barthes views.

Barthes work focuses on the multiple meanings which can be attributed to the visual elements within advertisements. He demonstrates that literal (denotive) and implied (connotive) interpretations are always present. With regards to the linguistic component he argues that the most common role is for the text to provide the context in which the authors wish the denotive elements in the advertisement to be interpreted (he refers to this as anchorage).

In the case of literal messages the relationships between signifiers and signifieds is simply one of recording, e.g. this photograph of an apple simply depicts an apple. In this regard the myth of photographic ‘naturalness’ adds a sense of objectivity derived from the general understanding that for a photograph to be made mechanically it is a given that the thing must have-been-there. 

Connotive interpretations of visual images require an understanding of relevant cultural codes. The photographer’s intervention when producing a mechanical image, i.e. choice of framing, viewpoint, lens etc, also falls into the realm of the connotive. An apple can given alternative meanings depending on how it is photographed.

I have chosen to review some recent advertisments for sports equipment as it is an area of personal interest and is very topical given the upcoming London Olympics.

The first advertisement is this one for Nike.

Nike advertisment featuring runner Mo Farah

The construction of this ad is very simple. It is a photograph of the runner Mo Farah in action overlaid with a significant amount of  text. Looking first at the text. There is an apparent hand written note from Farah stating DON’T DREAM OF WINNING. TRAIN FOR IT. Mo, then a web reference, including the statement MAKE IT COUNT in red and finally the Nike logo. The literal interpretation of this is get out there an train, its the way to win. Dreaming alone simply does not get the job done. Mo’s signature, the web reference and the logo add credibility and legitimise the statement and the use of Mo’s photograph. The photograph shows Mo hard at work. His eyes stare straight ahead. He is not sweating, nor does he appear to be distressed. His body and arms show that he is running. As does the movement of the chain around his neck. He looks very lean, very focused and very fit. On a connotive level the image is saying ‘this is how you will look if you train a lot (using Nike products)’. Mo is associated with speed and success. His endorsement of Nike products transfers the association of success to the use of Nike products. So the implied (connotive) message is ‘use Nike products if you want to be a successful athlete’.

My second advertisment is for Reebok Easytone shoes.

Reebok Easytone shoe advertisment

On a denotive level this ad shows a woman with an enviable figure from the waist down set in a room with a wooden floor. She is dressed in her Reebok shoes and panties. There is a old red telephone on the floor and the telephone wire is wrapped around her legs. On the floor surrounding her are various items spread around untidily – shoes, a clock, a pile of magazines, a pot plant, some dice and some roller skates. The wall she is facing is white and there is a door at the centre of the image. To the left of the door there are various items of clothing hanging, presumably from hooks. On the wall behind there are various photographs pinned up.  Easytone help you tone your butt and legs with every step, Available soon Runtone for running and Traintone for working out. EASYTONE RUNTONE TRAINTONE  is the main subtext on the advertisment. In larger letters to the left centre is Reetone  and to the bottom right Reebok your move. The scene is apparently intended to denote a typical domestic scene of a woman at home. On an implied level the scene suggests a woman with lots going on and little time to keep fit. The fact that she has a perfect body stands in contradiction to this situation as one would think that she might have little time to train. The shoes she is wearing are suggested as the reason for her perfect butt and legs. The message is ‘buy our shoes and you will look like this’.  There is little sign of family life in the stuff spread around the room, so this woman is presented as a single girl with a busy work and social life, suggesting that this is the target market for the product. The text anchors the scene causing the viewer to focus on the shoes. The male audience would no doubt focus on the girl’s figure and men might be seen as a second audience for the ad, with boyfriends and husbands being encouraged to purchase the product so that their girlfriend/wife’s figures might be transformed into the perfect form presented on the ad.