The Fake Death of the Author: Where does the role of authorship reside in the contemporary framework of art production/consumption?

TEIJI WALLACE-LEWIS

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Where does the role of authorship reside in the contemporary framework of art production/consumption? Further, how does that residence ultimately affect/effect the legitimacy of the art object? Considering the complex and intricate systems intrinsically in place since the early modern period, the subject has to wonder who is ultimately retaining authorship—in relation to creator/curator—of the work of art/Art once it has been embedded within the public sphere for visual and/or capital consumption. This paper explores the roles of authorship emanating from the blueprints of the art world (“the Market”) and how that affects the welfare, or need of, the original author – or if the aforementioned concern or interest with the authentic creator is warranted. The argument  is more a demonstration of the ever shifting notions of “authorship” within the art world and how that can affect the art object’s validity and ultimately the object’s worth—aesthetically, commercially or otherwise. The paper is organized into four sections of investigation; an introduction concentrating on a brief history of the evolution of the museum; the systems of collecting embedded within; the curator as narrator (and subsequently “author”); and how these structures ultimately direct audience viewing and the upsurge of the notion of authorship once within these containers of display. Following the introduction are three points of enquiry focusing on authorship, curatorial involvement within authorship, and what framework of reference is actually in place in order to render authorship over an art object. The first point of investigation deals with Roland Barthes’ “The Death of The Author” and troubles his prognosis of the death of the author, its certain causes and consequences, and how we should evaluate the aspects of the death of the author. To wit, is everything now inauthentic (the author/the art object), was the death desirable and exhibit benefits that it is claimed to? The second point of investigation examines the reception of Jamie Shovlin’s original showing of “Naomi V. Jelish” at Charles Saatchi’s “Saatchi Gallery” and how it was conclusively deemed “fake” by the media. However, consequently perpetuated as such by Saatchi himself in order to construct a sort of mythos around the author of the work (albeit Sholvin or Saatchi at the end of the “performance”) it illustrates the curatorial sway over the art object’s possible consumption. The third point of investigation then poses the questions:  Can authorship(s) traverse one origin of conception to an/other? What is in existence in order to render these objects of construction in circulation an art object or not? Finally, drawing upon Jack Goldstein’s experiences with the politics of art dealers, the paper ends with the suggestion that within the art world the death of the author has been apparent since the construction of museums (or simply structures of display) and that it is really the market value that determines what is Art rather than art.

Re-creation of Olaus Worm's Cabinet of Curiosites at the LA Museum of Jurassic Technology
Re-creation of Olaus Worm’s Cabinet of Curiosites at the LA Museum of Jurassic Technology

The evolution of the museum

With the onset of the Italian renaissance came an increase in the public sphere of private collecting and display of objects acquired from around the globe based in the acquisition of a sense of dominance over the unknown/nature and driven by curiosity. This drive led to the creation of “cabinets of curiosities” or “wundekrammers” that were constructed by the elite and commonly referred to as “princely collections.” These private collections acted as vague blueprints in the construction of the modern museum and created the initial framework in which collecting and displaying of Art and objects would be conducted (Lewis, 2016). Within the act of collecting, albeit it personal miniaturized collections, that of Art objects, or within the realm of established institutions, there still lays the basic thread (no matter how thin) that ties all forms (professional or amateur) together – the removal of objects from their provenance, ultimately rendering their past invalid, with the objective intent of attentive looking by a viewer(s). This way of displaying material culture castrates these objects from their origins as they are chronologically ordered, described, and established within historical categories (of cultural reference of that of the collector/curator) which in turn transfers authorship to curator/collector as it is ultimately their sense of order that consumes the object and not the original authors (Alpers 1991, pp. 26-27). With this in mind one can see how collecting is inherently storied and weaves a narrative thread through all of the objects within the collection and transforms groups of dissimilar objects (culture/time) into one coherent collection – one petit-grand narrative – in relation and response to the curator/collector who in turn morphs into the Artist/author (Emery 2012, p. 13). The process illustrates the dependence of the collection upon the collector’s narrative, the key figure of dissemination; otherwise the system guiding the collection would be incomprehensible to the viewer(s) (Emery 2012, p. 21). As authorship transforms from creator to curator another layer of ambiguity enters the realm of display, that of the viewer and their own cultural experience. The exhibitor offers the object(s) of visual worth to display, however, the cultural lens of the viewer/other works upon the object requiring some kind of connection and ultimately a compatible interpretation of the collection with the viewer/other’s narrative projection (Baxandall 1991, p.6). Consequently, there is a blurring of the lines even further between authorship over Art and objects and who ultimately retains the title.

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Barthes and the demise of the author

Before we delve into the literary post structural discourse of the death of the subject, the “I” the self, “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes, it is of interest to note briefly the initial conception behind the text itself. In 1967 Brian O’Doherty was in the midst of the conception of “Inside the White Cube” for issue 5 + 6 of Aspen magazine when he requested of Barthes to submit a new essay for the project, that essay being “The Death of the Author” (Falguieres, 2008. p. 45) – a text specifically curated and collected for display within a preconceived and already narrated/constructed system. Barthes declares that the death of the author is primarily in the interest of writing and restoring a place for the reader and in fact the act of giving a work an author “is to impose a limit upon the work, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (Barthes 1977, pp.143-47) as he claims that “the reader is the space where all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”. Its destination being, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author” (Barthes 1977, p. 148). In other words, “the author cannot remain the owner of the text” (Wyres 1990, p.7) in order for the work to “flourish in its future void of myth” (Barthes 1977, p. 148)—a future where the concern is set upon the public, the viewers, and the consumers of the works and Art objects.

With this in mind where does this leave the Art object in relation to authenticity? Does the death alleviate the disconnection between artwork and audience and lend the work over to the public to experience and negate through? Perhaps a push towards public domain in which (possibly) curators can sweep in and take hold/twist the work (as they are now the sole mediators) to further their involvement “for the public”. If the author is now rendered void and the work is of the only importance what happens to the object at hand? Does temporary authorship come into play while being viewed or since authorship is now void does the rendering of Art objects become inauthentic as there is no grand narrative or ‘authentic genius” or is it the viewers who liberate them by viewing the work? Ideally yes, though it would seem that this idealistic proclamation would seemingly only lend hand to manipulation and misdirection by outside groups, i.e. curators, collectors, etc., in order to help facilitate the economization/consumption of the Art object, as explained by Ulf Wuggening in relation to the economization of Museums:

(a) The broadest possible acceptance for the economization of art institutions was evident, regardless of whether it was a question of corporate sponsoring or the question of whether the management of art museums should be oriented to commercial rationality. Over 80% of those questioned expressed agreement.

(b) There were only marginal differences between the responses from groups specializing in the field, in which—as the interviews showed—Adorno, but also post-structuralist authors such as Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, etc. are highly regarded, and the responses from the general art public, mostly comprised of occasional visitors to art exhibitions. There was little trace of an antagonism between “art and business” or a “break with the economic order.

Economization was thus accepted even in the center of the field, not by all the participants, but certainly by wide majorities. A climate predominated that supported the structural change directly and indirectly, actively and passively (Wuggening, 1990).

Clearly unveiling a “commercial rationality” backed by “post-structuralist” authors (in which Barthes reigns supreme) in order to further the economization of art veiled by a freedom for the viewer, as the author is no longer needed. A push towards this economic order within institutions falls into what Wuggening would dub the “economic definition of art” and that this definition (one that exists perfectly within the economic market) is an exemplary definition of art, and one that ultimately aims to subject producers to comprehensive compulsions of a general demand where the audience direction is for the purpose of the sovereignty of producers and curators (Wuggening, 1990), thusly illustrating the negation of author for the means of curators and institutions for authorship over the means of production. “The only criterion for success is the number of visitors, as it is everywhere else in business” (Wuggening, 1990). As such, the death of the author seems quite viable for all that are involved except for the authors themselves and the parties seduced into purchasing the Art objects.

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Shovlin or Saatchi: real or unreal?

With the declaration of the “death of the author” it is worth examining the public relations media influenced “fake” artwork of Jamie Shovlin titled Naomi V. Jelish and how between himself and curator Charles Saatchi a fabrication of a considerable mythos was weaved around the “author”. Shovlin’s work was an elaborately constructed fictional narrative in which the life endeavors of a 13-year old girl who had gone missing, were displayed in Saatchi’s gallery under the guise of a found work curated and displayed by Shovlin (Dorment, 2004). Shovlin “parodies the universally accepted practices of libraries, archives and museums” (Dorment, 2004) by offering a seemingly ordered and numerical narrative archive that is entirely based in fiction (though presented as fact) and lending to the critique of accepted modes of authoritative display (Dorment, 2004). In the work itself Shovlin has severed himself from authorship and seemingly enters the vacuum (wherein the author now resides and is severed from their work) almost voluntarily but almost acting more as a storyteller in the sense that borrowing authority from death, material, and human life in a craft-like relationship in order to express a collective experience (Benjamin 1973, pp.94-95). It is through this lending of narrative to storytelling by Shovlin that Saatchi entwined himself into the cycle of and subsequently took hold of authorship by perpetuating the myth that he thought the archive was real and the drawings were produced by a 13-year-old girl (Pittwood, 2014). Shovlin said, “There was a game to play… He told me [he was going to tell the press he thought the archive was real] and he said to me ‘this is going to be good for me and you’” (Pittwood, 2014). The game is demonstrative of the fluidity of authorship and the power curatorial sway can have, particularly in relation to success/wealth.

Who created this?    

As the role of authorship is seemingly fluid and constantly changing, what exactly can be put into place in order to render the art object’s authenticity/legitimacy and Authorship? One need only to look at Art Provenance: What It Is and How to Verify It on Art Business.com in order to establish that the “provenance is correct, legitimate, verifiable and does in fact attest to the authorship of the art” (Bamberger, 1998). The article lists an array of forms in which provenance can be ascertained:

A signed certificate or statement of authenticity from a respected authority or expert on the artist.

An exhibition or gallery sticker attached to the art.

A statement, either verbal or written, from the artist.

An original gallery sales receipt or receipt directly from the artist.

A film or recording of the artist talking about the art.

An appraisal from a recognized authority or expert on the artist.

Names of previous owners of the art.

Letters or papers from recognized experts or authorities discussing the art.

Newspaper or magazine articles mentioning or illustrating the art.

A mention or illustration of the art in a book or exhibit catalog.

Verbal information related by someone familiar with the art or who knows the artist and who is qualified to speak authoritatively about the art (Bamberger, 1998).

Followed by a detailed list concerning itself with how to navigate one’s self through the feat of dealing with galleries, auction houses, sellers and art buying and collecting – a system in which the object is assessed and validated via price and worth by parties other than the artist themselves. Though this system of authenticity seems to be established in a rigorous framework (such as that of the museum/gallery) when closely scrutinized it is quite clear that even verification (for the intent of purchasing) of an object’s authorship can be quite loose, unclear, and ambiguous, relying on verbal and written information attainted from various parties. The information is often quite vague and largely lacking in a direct voice from the author her/himself with a huge reliance on the information of collectors, galleries, and museums which only augment questions, if not suspicions concerning that of authority. Which, in Benjamin’s (1973) words (on that of information), attempts to “appear understandable in itself and often it is no more exact than intelligence from afar in earlier centuries”. If an individual party can ascertain provenance over an art object without that of the author’s voice, does that validate a transferring of authorship within a structure socially constructed by an elite?

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The Art of the Deal(er)

A perfect example of this questioning, or rather the inability of retaining an authorship and the vacuous effects and restraints that result for the initial creator within this constructed model of display and trade of art objects, is Jack Goldstein and his turbulent experience with New York art dealers (Hertz, 2003). Goldstein speaks of an art dealer who advised him to only create work when a show came up because she could not sell his work due to the sole reason that collectors were not interested in his practice at the time. He goes on to explain how he was being featured in large museum exhibitions internationally and was on the cover of Art in America but none of this provided stability as it had no direct affect to sales, and conclusively his career. Furthermore, Goldstein depicts a scene in which internal politics within the structure of being represented by a gallery led to the threat, by the gallery, of abandoning his work to the street and eventual voluntary dismissal from the gallery (Hertz, 2003, p. 143-144).  This ability to subvert authorship of artwork and dictate a directing control over production, sales, and stability only furthers demonstrates the systems fluidity in regards to genuine authorship over Art objects. Yet what is even more concerning is Goldstein’s account of Larry Gagosian and his proclamation of an ability to live off of (for the duration of his existence) one of Brice Marden’s paintings due to the sole fact that he knows when to sell and when to buy during auctions, when to let it go, and when to bring it back, all involving one singular painting (Hertz, 2003, p. 149). His own words capture well, “At that level the art game becomes like trading stocks and bonds”, thereby clearly highlighting the economic drive behind the validation and verification of the Art object entirely based upon market value and illustrating a complete neglect of the author – how is it one person can construct a fortune out of another person’s work in which none is returned to the original author? It appears that the true “Author” is the person with economic prowess and the concomitant knowledge of navigating and manipulating the market.

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Closing

The collector abolishes provenance and utterly eclipses the creator’s trace of authorship, the curator commands the reception and consumption of the objects for their private and material gains, the viewer is seemingly granted the right to prevail at the cost of the eradication of the author, the dealer functions as economic gatekeeper removing authorship with the threat and prowess of capital gains, and the museums, galleries, and showrooms act as sole providers of territory in which to let the madness unfold. These institutions and the people who operate them have over time created not so much an elite, but rather an invisible managerial class that has tremendous influence with the purveyance, legitimization, and commodification of Art. In the end, it seems the artist is left alone in a vacuum (in which his death has been apparent since the construction of these facilities that command the Art object) and must rely on the interests of collectors, curators, and dealers who present as a vitally important link between artist and the public, but are in fact rather self serving. As Charles Saatchi himself explains:

Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for his year’s spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another. (Saatchi, 2015)

Illustrating the bombastic characteristic traits of those fueling the consumption/validation of the Art object, while Jack Goldstein leaves us with, “[t]he art world is that vicious – all about money and deals; people don’t mean anything along the way…. There is no nobility in the art world” (Hertz, 2003, p. 151). As we consider the ever-shifting classifications of authorship we can see all too clearly that the death of the author is for the cost of the object. And in order for validation to occur someone must purchase the object in order to render it an Art object (or subject it to one of the many structures of display via a gatekeeper). The curators, galleries, and museums have eclipsed the author/artist with their narratives, their story. They have in a way turned Benjamin’s (1973, p. 95) notion that “death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell” to their own device. However, they have not “borrowed [their] authority from death” they have, it would seem stolen it.

 

 

References

Alpers, S. (1991) ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’, in Karp, I. and Lavine, S.D. (eds.) Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Washington DC: Smithsonian, pp. 25–32.

Bamberger, A. (1998) Art provenance—fake or real? Identification tips and pointers. Available at: http://www.artbusiness.com/provwarn.html (Accessed: 20 April 2016).

Barthes, R. (1977) Image, music, text. Trans., Stephen Heath, London: HarperCollins.

Baxandal, M. (1991) ‘Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects.’, Exhibiting cultures—The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display , pp. 33–41.

Benjamin, W. (1973). The storyteller. In H. Arendt (Ed.), (Trans., Harry Zohn), Illuminations, London: Fontana/Collins, (pp.83-109)

Dorment, R. (2004) The fakes that reveal reality. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3620650/The-fakes-that-reveal-reality.html (Accessed: 24 April 2016).

Emery, E. (2012) Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (1881-1914). Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Bq9PtTRm1E8C&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq=origins+of+the+Museum+and+systems+of+collecting&source=bl&ots=rTdNWGbiAz&sig=ZqukXg8TABdeip2BGGUCjdr8aCg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjUwqnCw47MAhWGPRQKHZjSB6Q4ChDoAQgbMAA#v=onepage&q=origins%20of%20the%20Museum%20and%20systems%20of%20collecting&f=false (Accessed: 18 April 2016).

Falguieres, Patricia (2008) ‘“Inside the White Cube”—In More Senses than One’, in Steeds, Lucy (ed.) Exhibition. London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: White Chapel Gallery and The MIT Press, pp. 44–48.

Hertz, R. (2003). Jack Goldstein and The CalArts Mafia. Ojai, CA: Minneola Press.

Lewis, G.D. (2016) ‘History of museums: museum’, in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/topic/history-of-museums-398827 (Accessed: 18 April 2016).

Pittwood, L. (2011) The big interview: Jamie Shovlin. Available at: http://www.thedoublenegative.co.uk/2014/11/the-big-interview-jamie-shovlin/ (Accessed: 23 April 2016).

Saatchi, C. (2015) Charles Saatchi: The hideousness of the art world. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/dec/02/saatchi-hideousness-art-world (Accessed: 24 April 2016)

Wuggening, U. (1990) Burying the Death of the Author. Available at: http://republicart.net/disc/aap/wuggenig03_en.htm#_ftn3 (Accessed: 24 April 2016).

Wyres, F. (1990) ‘Unamuno and “The Death of the Author”’, Hispanic Review, 58(3), pp. 325–346.

 

 

 

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