Reading and/or Looking


[SYMPOSIUM] #4 Barthes: The Death of the Author, flier.In February’s [SYMPOSIUM] we discussed Roland Barthes’ influential essay The Death of the Author (1977). Many thanks to everyone for their contributions to a very productive event. It was great to see everyone again and to welcome some new faces. A special thanks to Henrietta Ross for leading, chairing and summarising the discussion.

Henrietta got us off to a great start by suggesting three broad thematic approaches with the questions: What is an author? What is a text? and What is a reader? She also suggested that we address the question: What does the text mean? Adding that we might want to contest the terms of this question in light of Barthes’ own resistance to fixed meaning. And finally, she suggested that we might want to discuss the roles of the critic, of ideology and of literature.

We addressed all of these issues, maintaining some consistency with each term but also skipping back and forth between them. We questioned the difference between an author, a writer and a scriptor in Barthes’ terms, and came to the conclusion that beyond the “authority” of the Author, and the “performance” of the narrator, there was ambiguity around these terms. We also briefly alluded to the “author function”, which Barthes introduces in Authors and Writers (1960) and Foucault takes up in What is an Author? (1969). We adhered to a structuralist definition of a text as any cultural artefact that can be “read” and interpreted, we therefore discussed artworks as texts and stopped to ponder whether a scientific article could also be considered a text in this light, or whether Barthes was only referring to literary texts. We discussed Barthes’ premise that readers bring the text to life by reading it “here and now” as Johanna pointed out, thereby interpreting the text in a multitude and variety of different ways, and we were left with the vivid image of tiny reader-maggots feasting on the Author’s dead body. We didn’t address the question of how we construct meaning per se, and we might want to come back to this in the future. We also discussed the role of the maligned critic, who fixes or determines the meaning of a text authoritatively in public forums, referring to exhibition display texts as examples. We will have a chance to return to this subject when we discuss Brian Sewell’s review Tate Triennial 3 (2006), which will be led by Richard Lloyd-Jones in May.

[SYMPOSIUM] #4 Barthes: The Death of the Author, 12 February 2016 at The Field. Photo by Maria Christoforatou.
[SYMPOSIUM] #4 Barthes: The Death of the Author, 12 February 2016 at The Field. Photo by Maria Christoforatou.
We briefly addressed the question of ideology by considering the question of whether there is a need for a determinate meaning, and why, despite the influence and verity of Barthes’ premise that meaning is constructed subjectively and constantly shifting, there is nevertheless a general consensus on the meaning of texts? We posited peer pressure and the natural social tendency we have for consensus or sameness.

Henrietta summed up the discussion elegantly with a prescient observation on the topic of ideology, in her own words:

“…while I found the discussion of the role of the author in the production of texts such as works of art interesting, for me what is most engaging about Barthes’, and wider post-structuralist ideas, is their implications for ideologies. And the possibility of considering ideologies, alongside ‘image, music, [art]’ etc, as ‘texts’. In Mythologies Barthes discussed a wide range of activities: from drinking wine to wrestling, as cultural texts which have a role in creating ideologies. The ideas he discusses with regard to authorship in The death of the author suggest that the reader might not just be key to the understanding or the creation of meaning in writing (for example) but also ideologies. This suggests a concept of ideologies or hegemonies not as top-down, one-way or imposed narratives, but something that a wide variety of actors are involved and complicit in establishing and sustaining. While this might be a concept that is discussed or suggested by a variety of social theorists or philosophers I think the way in which Barthes and other post-structuralists come to this position through the consideration of linguistic theory and semiotics is interesting.” (Ross, 2016)

[SYMPOSIUM] #4 Barthes: The Death of the Author, 12 Feb 2016 at The Field. Photo by Maria Christoforatou.
[SYMPOSIUM] #4 Barthes: The Death of the Author, 12 Feb 2016 at The Field. Photo by Maria Christoforatou.
The jury is out on whether we would like to come back to the subject of ideology in the future. We could approach it via Louis Althusser’s “state apparatuses”, Antonio Gramsci’s “cultural hegemony” or a range of other approaches.

A feature by Dave Beech titled On Critique in the February 2016 issue of Art Monthly is relevant to the discussion we had about whether artworks can in fact be “read” and creates a link between Barthes and the texts by Marcel Duchamp and Brian Sewell that we will be discussing in April and May.

Beech begins by addressing his early critical writing and goes on to discuss the tension between looking at and reading about art. Beech shares the discomfort that many artists have with the idea of “reading” artworks, he sees it as a “misreading of CS Pierce or a misapplication of Ferdinand Saussure’s linguistics to non-linguistic material” (Beech, 2016, p. 7). I am similarly resistant to the idea that an artwork can be broken down to a code or a set of rules, like a language. Language is not merely a series of words that must be deciphered, language is governed by syntactical and grammatical rules. Although poets might play around with these rules, artists’ materials are not primarily linguistic. Artists may indeed think in linguistic terms about their work but they also think in terms of images, shapes, colours, pressures, textures, qualities, quantities, equivalences, oppositions and so on. All these values are governed by diverse and conflicting rules once we free them from narrowly aesthetic definitions. Do artists always think in narrowly aesthetic or art-historical categories? Do viewers approach art from narrowly aesthetic or art-historical perspectives? Artists, viewers and critics bring all kinds of other approaches and discourses into their engagement with art (personal experience, science, mysticism, critical theory, etc).

Wittgenstein claimed that we cannot conceive of something that we do not have the language to describe:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Wittgenstein, 1922, p. 74)

This is true to an extent; the structure of our language (its ideology) limits the kinds of thoughts we can have – to come full circle to what Henrietta said about ideology. When Derrida refers to language as a structure that both makes possible and limits play (Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, 1966), he is talking about language as ideology. The concept of ideology in Marxist thought articulates the relation between culture and political economy. Ideology is a naturalised framework of assumptions about the world that we internalise. In Althusser’s words, ideology does not constitute “the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals”, it constitutes the “imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (Althusser, 1971, p. 165). For Althusser, ideological state apparatuses are the material manifestations of ideology in practices and institutions. Language is arguably the primary social institution, it makes possible but limits the freedom of the agents who use it.

But I disagree with Wittgenstein, on the basis that if we could express everything that we conceive, perceive and feel in words, then we would have no need for art. Wittgenstein’s assertion also suggests that we can think of nothing that someone else has not thought of and named already. But we evidently can and do have original and unique thoughts and we don’t use language for all of them (how we articulate them and whether we reject them out of habit are different questions, Arthur Koestler goes into this in The Act of Creation, 1964).

I am reluctant to admit that artworks follow rules but, apart from rare exceptions, they generally do and this has grave consequences for my argument against Wittgenstein above and my faith in the liberating power of art. Wittgenstein says that if we change the rules of a game, we change the game (Wittgenstein, 1968). When an artist breaks the rules, art is redefined in the process. But evidently that doesn’t happen very often, instead there’s a fashionable shift now and then in the general sameness that is paraded in galleries and museums all over the world, until the next novelty comes along to spread the sameness.

The other reason that Beech offers for taking issue with “reading” artworks involves what he calls a “process of prolonged looking”, which he finds “inadequate for the works that engaged [him] the most” (Beech, 2016, p. 7). He finds that thinking and reading about these artworks in their absence is a better way to understand them. This is the main crux of his argument and I thought it might be interesting to debate it because looking and observing is generally considered a cornerstone in visual arts education – even in art schools that shun the discipline of drawing – and what about photography and film-making? I reckon that thinking and reading about artworks in their absence is certainly a good way of learning new things and generating ideas of your own – which brings us back full circle to the death of the author. Beech uses artworks as an inspiration and starting point for his own writing – so maybe this article is about how to generate critique and not about how to look at art after all, something he admits in his introduction:

“When I began writing, reviewing exhibitions in London in the 1990s, I was immediately struck by the contrast between my initial impressions of an exhibition and what I came to say about the work. Not always, but often enough to cause concern, in the time it took me to write about art my response shifted from enjoyment to disapproval. The practice of writing turned me from a consumer into a judge.” (Beech, 2016, p. 5)


Althusser, Louis (1971). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. In Lenin and Philosophy. New York: Monthly Review Press, pp. 128-194.

Barthes, Roland (1977). The Death of the Author. In Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, pp. 142-148.

Barthes, Roland (1993). Authors and Writers. In A Barthes Reader, Susan Sontag ed. New York: Vintage, pp. 185-193.

Beech, Dave (2016). On Critique. Art Monthly, February 2016, pp. 5-8.

Derrida, Jacques (2005/1996). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and Difference. London: Routlege, pp. 353-354.

Foucault, Michel (1977). What is an Author? In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, Donald F. Bouchard ed. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, pp. 113-138.

Koestler, Arthur (1975). The Act of Creation. London: Picador.

Ross, Henrietta (2016). Personal communication, 16 Feb 2016.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922). Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. London: Kegan.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1968). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

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