• Look at Sherrie Levine’s work and the work of Cindy Sherman (or another two artists)
  • Is the birth of the reader at the expense of the author and is there still any of Benjamin’s ‘aura’ left?
  • Does any of this explain or validate the unregulated nature of the internet?
  • Does this invalidate the interest of the artist’s or creator’s intent at the time of making?

I have already explored some of Sherrie Levine’s work in A2 and have been thinking and recording my thoughts since receiving feedback about the question of ‘meaning’. In my previous post I look at the subject of artists following capitalism’s example and appropriating signs, draining them of their original meaning, transforming the signification or attempting to nullify it, as Levine might have done. Whether or not the meaning is drained to zero is a contentious question perhaps, but original meaning undoubtedly becomes watered down in many cases and transformed, as is seen in advertisements in particular. It would also generally be useful when looking at meaning in texts to consider unconscious motivation from authors and the groups they represent, as well as more knowing intentions, which allows for layered interpretation.

Cindy Sherman is one of the most well-known appropriation artists, taking recognisable symbols from cinema, in particular female representations, and re-representing them in her photographs.  The reader is faced with an empty signifier since the recognisable role is minus subject, plot, text but still can be instantly recognised and imagined by the reader. We see the signifier and are invited to fill in the landscape/context through our inclination to give meaning to the signs we recognise. Women, like all humans, are handed roles to play and one crucial way for that to occur is through media. Real life is influenced by the film and TV shows we see. As someone who was given a large number of books over the course of my childhood by my father, which all contained pictures of movie stars from the early years of cinema onwards, I can recognise how these images played a role in shaping my own subjectivity and intersubjectivity. I expect one might be able to argue I felt compelled through the years to unconsciously follow something of Hester’s script in Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea, despite having never seen it. We conform to the roles we are handed, often without question. Sherman plays with this idea and transforms herself in her images, appropriating from the cinema, leaving the script to be written by the reader, and the reader is mostly  bound to follow the patterns/stories/structures that exist in society.

Is the birth of the reader at the expense of the author? Is there anything of “Aura” left?

These are two very different questions.

If one thinks of language as an external resource, then the stories language allows us to tell and hear, the myths that enable humans to make sense of some aspect of existence, are external too. The very many flood myths from Gilgamesh to Noah is an example of a story that has existed for centuries across cultures and time spans, even though the characters are given different names and the plot minor alterations – at heart they are essentially the same story. (I wonder if this example can be used to suggest contradictions to the argument that language and stories exist externally.  I am also mindful of  Jung’s collective consciousness and his belief in the value of an internal mythical life which must have some bearing on all of this.)

I looked at Death of an Author in A2, and Barthes in that essay asserts that the author reaches up to the ultimate ‘ready-mades’ – words and stories. “…text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture…. if he (the author) wants to express himself, at least he should know that the internal “thing” he claims to “translate” is itself only a ready-made dictionary whose words can be explained (defined) only by other words, and so on ad infinitum” (Barthes, 1967) In any case, one might be able to suggest the author is ‘dead’ and the reader has greater responsibility over interpretation in a way that didn’t happen in the past, but the way in which our society is organised shows us that individuals are still very much lauded as beacons of virtue, referred to as ‘immortals’ even. Nevertheless, questions surrounding copyright and ownership are current, especially as simply putting anything online leaves it so vulnerable to being purloined and repurposed. (I’m not sure a magazine dedicated to exploring this issue managed to raise the finance it needed to get started.)

Regardless of the salience of the notion surrounding ‘authorship’, nowadays there are very many narratives available to tap into in the modern world because society is so complex. Perhaps because of that complexity, the authors of today’s art often leave a great deal to the reader by providing extremely open-ended work that can be interpreted to suit the reader’s world view . In smaller more cohesive societies the variations would have been far more limited, perhaps without any room for question whatesover and Foucault suggests as much. I am thinking about The Continuum Concept where we are told the ‘subjects’ each have very clear roles and no-one seemingly question them. Individual authors in that setting are unlikely as the community provides societal authorship as it did once in our own society. “The coming into being of the notion of ‘author’ constitutes the privileged moment of individualism in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences.” (Foucault, 1969; 949) (The Continuum Concept is highly subjective and one has to tread carefully about how accurate it might be but it is a useful reference to a way of existing that is very different to our own, and may offer an example of something akin to how we might once have lived).

What’s more, pinpointing who an author might be isn’t always straightforward even in recent history.  Famously, Brecht, has much to thank the many women he worked with throughout his career, such as Elisabeth Hauptmann and Magarete Steffin for instance, but his name still presides over all of his work. He will always be Bertolt Brecht, the great author, and those other names are only known by very interested people. Foucault tells us that in contradiction to how things once were, “We now ask of each poetic or fictional text; from where does it come?” (Foucault, 1969; 951) The answer tells us what we might be allowed to think about the text. And Brecht’s authorship, a man’s, tells us it’s OK. We can trust it. The following Guardian article reports how a woman author elicited many more responses from agents when she used a male pseudonym so that particular issue persists. Foucault also tells us that authorship is a result of transgressive discourse, and is borne out of the need to apportion blame when ideas that challenged the status quo emerged.

Foucault raises the question of individuality and autonomy which is explored by philosophers and scientists today a great deal as neuroscience reveals how our brains work more accurately than before. Here is one example in an article about how there is probably no first-person point of view, “Our access to our own thoughts is just as indirect and fallible as our access to the thoughts of other people. We have no privileged access to our own minds. If our thoughts give the real meaning of our actions, our words, our lives, then we can’t ever be sure what we say or do, or for that matter, what we think or why we think it.”(Rosenberg, 2016). The book I read before starting this module, The Ego Trick also looks at how our brains are primed to make us think we have a mind, and that illusion is a result of social and physical functions evolved to further our genetic existence.

Regarding the question of aura, I think this is too complex and challenging to write about effectively here. Is that a cop out?  I just think one could write for a very long time about it and still not find a satisfactory answer. We certainly kneel down to kings and queens, and the gods that we believed appointed them, far less easily than we once did. We have new gods in the form of materialism and celebrity, which provide a different form of aura. Benjamin saw the weakening of ‘aura’ as a good thing. Art was becoming democratised in his eyes as I discuss in section 1. However, something powerful can and does happen when communing with some art. Even reproductions of art can make us cry, or the hair stand up on the backs of our necks, or convey something inexplicable and mysterious. I don’t think it is fair to say reproduced art doesn’t have that ability. But its true, it doesn’t come to us a in a cathedral with incense and chanting and religious rhetoric being sung at us while we cope with never-ending starvation and death and inexplicable disease, and beer for breakfast as the norm.

Does this explain or invalidate the unregulated nature of the internet. 

What is ‘this’ in the sentence? The problem with the idea of aura, or the fact that the idea of author is subject to more scrutiny that before? Or that fact that there is a scientific belief/knowledge that autonomy of thought may well be nothing more than fantasy/illusion?

I think the ‘power’ of the internet to give individuals more of a voice than they had before is over-played and over-imagined.  Of course, to say there has been no effect would be foolhardy – however, the way in which the powerful companies who dominate the web use code to categorise and market to and for people stops it from being the free for all some imagine. Yes, we now receive tweets and messages from people claiming we can self publish and be happy, but self publishing has always been around. It was referred to as vanity publishing. It is probably true that the opportunity to self publish is greater than it ever has been, but even so, becoming published and selling what you’ve published, or even having anyone read it is still remarkably hard work. Growing up in an environment that fosters self-belief still plays a role as it ever did and we seem to going backwards rather than forward in that regard.

The internet is unregulated, so anyone can publish stuff. But so what? What does publishing things on a webpage do for you? You would have had to get things seen by someone with influence pre-internet days too, just as its helpful now. The younger generation don’t assume they can’t publish and use the internet at will, and just get on with making their lives happen. But as ever, access to technology and self-belief play an important part. Social circumstance still have an impact.

In the end I think the internet is relevant but not quite as much as one might think. It has been the source of an economic and social revolution and has been assimilated into our lives remarkably quickly. But it’s just another means of transmitting information and it happens more quickly and easily now. (Strange how data and now money can be sent across the world in a jot but people don’t have the same ability, and for some without access to much that we take for granted in the west, it’s as hard as it ever was.) And just because it’s easier to get work ‘out there’ nowadays, it doesn’t mean the actual making of the work is any easier. Most blogs that are started are abandoned soon after and raising funds to self publish is not an easy task. The economy has changed because of the internet but the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer and the gap between the two growing. So if the internet is meant to be this great leveller and a democratic process I think it has failed. Internet shminternet.

Does this invalidate the interest in the artist’s intent at the time of making?

No. The artist is making because the artist must make. What happens thereafter is that the artist has a choice about letting go and allowing the work to go forth into the world and become whatever it is that the readers will make of it, regardless of the medium used to help disseminate the work. Louise Bourgeois’ book of plates and writing, He Disappeared into Complete Silence, contains a poem about a man who

“was not interested in being loved

or protected because he was interested in

something else.

Consequently at an early age he

slammed the door and never came back.

Later on she died but he did not know it”

The poem can interpreted on several levels, but one reading out of many, points to how an artist must let go of their finished works and let them be authored by the readers who find them thereafter. (Karshens and Schampers, Cluitmans, Mayhew and Schwartz, 2011) And it perhaps references how painful a process that might be at times. I saw on Instagram how photographer, Jennifer McClure refers to her editing process as killing her ‘babies’. It is very hard to let go of some images, I know.

So, of course the answer to the question must be an empathic no.

Image (c)SJField 2016


Cluitmans, L., Mayhew, A. and Schwartz, J. (2011). He disappeared into complete silence. Haarlem: De Hallen.

Alex Rosenburg, 2016, Why You don’t Know Your Own Mind, The New York Times,  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/18/opinion/why-you-dont-know-your-own-mind.html?_r=0 (accessed 2 August 2016)

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics. London: Routledge.

Micheal Foucault, What is an Author? 1969, Harrison, C. and Wood, P. (2003). Art in theory, 1900-2000. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Alison Flood, 2015, Sexism in Publishing, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/06/catherine-nichols-female-author-male-pseudonym (accessed 3 August 2016)






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