As the avatar of Authority in the art of the sixties – that parricidal decade – he was the enemy, and most critics who were not his progeny (and some who were) had it in for him. He had anathematized almost everything in new art, and to claim one’s own experience it was necessary to battle his ideas ... Reading [him] can be depressing because its cocksure lilt contrasts so painfully with one’s own usual lack of conviction. Still, it is in just such grinding extremes of discomfort that

creativity may find work to do. (Peter Schjeldahl on Clement Greenberg)[1]

Clement Greenberg represents the good and bad that comes with being authoritative. While being authoritative, sincere, expressive and to write in the first-person is out of favour in our contemporary times of objectivity, this lack of author(ity) that the author practices, and art institutions promote, is a choice that performs a stranglehold on authorial subjectivity.

This has been the case since the 1960s, influenced by the linguistic philosophical revolution that Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida advanced, from what literary critic Seán Burke interprets as a missed opportunity for a phenomenological revolution of the subject.[2] What is so wrong with a biographical interpretation of the object, what C.S. Lewis described as “personal heresy”? Is it true what Barthes says about language being “the destroyer of all subject”?[3]

I respectfully beg to differ regarding the confused definition/state of the author’s death that both Barthes and Foucault pronounced with varying degrees of erasure in their respective essay/lecture ‘The Death of the Author’(1967) and ‘What is an Author’(1969). Barthes was ruthless in his beheading of the author when he wrote “that writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.”[4] Whereas Foucault writes that the author function gives “rise simultaneously to several selves, to several subjects – positions that can be occupied by different classes of individuals.”[5]

In February 2012, New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, casually resurrected Roland Barthes’ death of the author discourse, by quipping:  “reports of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated.”[6] Roberta Smith’s flippant statement – more hook than thesis – was inspired by the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art New York. Smith’s aim is more specifically directed at the artist-author, something that neither Barthes nor Foucault confronted due to their shared bias for systems of belief that are controlled by philosophical and literary discourse, and by doing so limiting the subjects of authorship and authority; Foucault writes:

Up to this point I have unjustifiably limited my subject. Certainly the author function in painting, music, and other arts should have been discussed; but even supposing that we remain within the world of discourse, as I want to do, I seem to have given the term “author” much too narrow a meaning.[7]

What the above suggests is the author that Foucault is confronting is not just a historical construction, but includes the individual author and the power he/she wields or desires as a sole individual. Of course Smith’s one-liner reference to the author’s death is far from generous, but we have to take on board the context in which it was written – the throwaway newspaper to be digested en route to the Manhattan high-rise office. Literary critic Seán Burke, who has exhausted the question of the author’s death and return better that anyone else, admits that the death of the author is “one of the few theoretical ‘initiatives’ to cross the line between cultures – the academy and the Press.”[8] However, it must be assumed that the attention span for the subject of the author’s death from the perspective of the Press and its readership can’t go beyond the sans serif headline ‘The Death of the Author’. I am not underestimating newspaper eadership, but as American philosopher Geoffrey Bennington once observed

there is not enough time to read philosophy the way it should be read, admitting that “there’s a perfectly respectable and welcome use of hypertexts to make scholarship less like hard work, for example, and so to free up time for thought. I hope and trust there’ll one day be a CD hypertext version of Derrida’s work.[9]

Is Roberta Smith seriously arguing an academic argument that is over forty years old in this fast-track context? No. Is it a good hook in the first paragraph of a hack art review to get the hurried capitalist to read further? Yes. Is it a jibe at ‘cold’ poststructuralist thought? Maybe. Is she generally scoffing at the unrelenting academic argument? Probably. Does she believe the author is dead? Probably not.

Smith’s quip about the author’s death is not surprising. In the past she has blown her own anti- institutional trumpet loudly, especially when referring to art education and the proliferation of practice-based PhDs. So, her position regarding such subjects as the author, artistic expression, or the overtly academic art work (see her New York Times review of David Godbold’s solo at Mitchell-Innes & Nash New York in May 2007 for a taster [10]) is no surprise to her readership, which doesn’t separate it’s academici(z)ed Z’s from its commonplace S’s; not to mention their phenomenological I’s. Capitalism and reflection don’t go hand in hand. Personally I relish an art critic that doesn’t mind their P’s and Q’s from time to time, especially when they provoke academic offense. Smith’s contextually incongruous revived author supports Burke’s observation that there is “growing breach between academic literary criticism and broad intellectual culture. This breach is marked by a ‘politics’ of theory which seems to have very little to do with politics in anything like a ‘real world,’”[11]

This breach between theory and life is very telling via the artist-author’s relationship with their own biography, by quoting Smith’s authoritative diagnosis of the biographical seeds of Sherman’s art:

But an uncommonly intense attraction to dress-up and masquerade dates to her childhood: It was in her blood. The catalogue includes a photograph of Ms. Sherman and a friend around age 11, dressed and made up as old women; her stooped creaky posture already signals the ability to crawl into other people’s skins.[12]

Albeit slightly clichéd, Smith’s biographical reference to “Ms. Sherman” at age 11, “dressed and made up as old women,” is appropriate for the artist in question. The cliché is the schemata that Sherman utilises for her work. When clichés are translated into language there is no avoiding trite psychological commentary on selfhood, unless the writer uses fictive and philosophical novelty and avoids the subject of her work altogether. Although it is known that Sherman does not attend her own exhibition openings, I do not believe that this is a market-driven performative element to create the persona of ‘enigmatic artist’. Her collectors’ desire to have her presence in the artwork rather than in person is a poststructuralist wet dream, but biography always has a way of leaking out of somewhere. When biography does leak it pours with subjective persistence. Take for instance Martin Heidegger’s Nazi sympathising, or one of the most brilliant but biographically repressed post-structuralists, Paul de Man, who cannot be read now without the context of his early articles for a Nazi paper which were found subsequent to his death and expressed anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi sentiments. Burke goes on to suggest that: “De Man’s denial of biography, his ideas of auto-biography as de-facement, have come to be seen not as disinterested theoretical statements, but as sinister and meticulous acts of self-protection, by which he sought to (a)void his historical self.”[13]

The thought that comes to mind when Foucault writes that “we are accustomed to presenting the

author as a genius, as a perpetual surging of invention”[14] is that he is referring to himself from the third-person. He could have as easily used an exclamation rather than question mark in the lecture title, ‘What is an Author?’, to explicitly stamp his authority on the subject of the author. His philosophy has been criticised by the likes of Habermas as having no normative function whatsoever; in other words having no practical real world use. But underneath all this veiled objectivity there is Foucualt, the very pronounced author-god.

Although Barthes set himself against biographical interpretation, the artist-author has always invited it, not to mention the viewer, for whom – from an ‘uneducated’ standpoint – looks at art with a backpack of psychological baggage. Their interpretation is based on the psychological How? and Why? rather that the academic When? and Where? The public love to entertain the cliché of the psychologically damaged artist.

Performative art practices like Sherman’s are psychologically determined and individualistic. Although psychological clichés are not intellectually or academically progressive, they are a fundamental part of our real world modes of being. American artist Paul McCarthy inverts American modes of communication and entertainment through the carnival grotesque, but you have to wonder as a viewer what is the psychological makeup of an artist who desires to do so in the manner that he does. His is not solely an objective critique of contemporary culture or an aesthetic partner to the philosophical theories of, let’s say, Mikhail Bakhtin (although it could be). First and foremost McCarthy performs the physical act of making art based firmly on his own psychological needs and desires, however clichéd that might sound.

So, allow me a metaphor or three when I say that the author is the pudding; Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’ is the cream; and Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ is the cherry on top of what is a spoilt desert of sorts. Although I would be disappointed if you licked off the cream and robbed the cherry, I believe the pudding is where the sustenance has always been, is and will be, and forget the academic cream and cherry.


[1]Peter Schjeldahl, ‘Clement Greenberg’, February 4th, 1981, The Hydrogen Jukebox, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 65-69.

[2]See Seán Burke’s brilliant analysis of a ‘A Prehistory of the Death of the Author’ in The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault and Derrida, Edinburgh University Press; 3rd Revised edition, (24 Oct 2008), p. 12.

[3]Roland Barthes, Sade Fourier Loyola, Richard Miller (Trans.), Cape, 1977.

[4]From Roland Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’(1967), in Image-Music-Text, Hill & Wang, 1978.

[5]Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author?’. This essay is the text of a lecture presented to the Societé Francais de philosophie on 22nd February 1969 (Foucault gave a modified form of the lecture in the United States in 1970).

[6]Roberta Smith, ‘Photography’s Angel Provocateur’, New York Times, Published: Feb 23, 2012.

[7]Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author?’, op.cit.

[8]Seán Burke, op.cit. p. xvii.

[9]Seulemonde, online interview with Geoffrey Bennington []

[10]Smith writes: Mr. Godbold’s drawings have a nice collaborative drift in which the random expressions and needs of everyday life refresh and subvert established art and religion. Yet they are a bit academic and a little too neatly the sum of received ideas (from William Wegman, Sigmar Polke, David Salle and Richard Prince). It comes as no surprise that Mr. Godbold has a doctorate in art history. Roberta Smith, David Godbold, Art in Review, New York Times, Published: May 18, 2007.

[11]Seán Burke, op.cit. p. x.

[12]Roberta Smith, 'Photography's Angel Provocateur', op.cit.

[13]Seán Burke, op.cit.

[14]Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author?’, op.cit.




Subjectively Yours

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