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”


Project The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

This project is based on study of the Walter Benjamin essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and Chapter One of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing  that is based on Benjamin’s essay. The project calls for the following questions on Berger’s book to be answered:

  • Do you find his (Berger’s) case convincing?
  • Do you think that a work of art removed from its original location grows or diminishes in meaning?
  • Does familiarity breed contempt?
  • Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
I have set out my thoughts on each of these in turn below.
Do you find his case convincing?
I found Berger’s presentation of Benjamin’s ideas very compelling. The style of presentation seeks to simplify what are very complex ideas. Berger’s intent is to question some of the notions about the tradition of European painting and in particular about how we now see such art today.
He begins by suggesting that how we see things is directed by habit and convention. He focusses particularly on the convention of perspective in European painting. This convention implies that the viewer has to be a a particular place, at a particular time to see a particular scene. The convention of perspective gave European painting its sense of reality. He uses the 1923  film and quotation from Soviet film director Dziga Vertov to illustrate how the camera has changed this convention. We can now see things which happened a long way away and at different times. He also references how the birth of photography led to artists such as the Impressionists and Cubists to challenge the conventions of perspective. These arguments are compelling.
He moves on to show how mechanical reproduction of images has changed how we view paintings made long ago. He contends that originally such a painting would have been unique in terms of what it showed, where and when it was displayed, its history and how it was used in ritual, e.g. religious art. All of this created a unique presence or ‘aura’. In the age of mechanical reproduction its uniqueness now relies solely on the fact that it is the original work. The ‘aura’ is lost. Once again the arguments are persuasive.
He next illustrates how the art world has sought to mystify original works based on the rarity value. He references the fact that the National Gallery’s  catalogue entry for Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks  runs to over 14 pages and the way in which Leonardo’s cartoon The Virgin with St Anne and St John the Baptist  has become the most popular exhibit at the  National Gallery purely because of the monetary value it achieved. His argument is further supported by statistical data which shows that the majority of people when questioned say that Museums remind them of church demonstrating that a bogus religiosity has been created. Once again these arguments are effective.
He shows how reproduction gives images information value. Through isolating details, presenting narratives and introducing text the same image can be used to convey different meanings. He also demonstrates how the context in which images are viewed can create different readings.
In the final section he argues that for the first time images of art have entered the mainstream of life over which they have no power. He argues that very few people have noticed this as the means of reproduction are used to create an illusion that nothing has changed. I am less persuaded by this last point today as in the post modern 21st century there is much wider awareness how images are used to influence opinion.
Does art removed from its original location diminish or grow in meaning?
Most original works of art would originally have been created for a specific purpose and as such would have had a well defined meaning. This is not to say that the power of the art would have been limited. Indeed religious and iconic art would have been highly influential. With the mechanical reproduction the  capacity to display images of art in many different locations has been hugely broadened.  As explained above, they have now entered the ‘language of images’ and can be used to convey a far greater range of meanings.
Does familiarity breed contempt?
I think there is information overload taking place in society such that we now take for granted images which 50 or 100 years ago would have seemed miraculous. This most likely also applies to images of art. A contra view is that the democratisation of images of art may encourage a wider cross section of society to explore an interest in art.
Has Benjamin’s ‘aura’ been removed by the postcard?
In effect Benjamin defines ‘aura’ as something which a work of art loses because of the removal of its uniqueness in time, place and history. So yes, if one uses the term postcard as a metaphor for the many forms of reproduction of images of art, then ‘aura’ has been removed by the postcard. There may be those in the art world who would wish to move away from Benjamin’s original concept, and to suggest that original works of art still retain an ‘aura’ because they are original, but a strict interpretation of Benjamin would  reject this notion.


Evans, J. & Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: the reader London: Sage

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