My Opinion on ‘Death of the Author’

This will be a more personal post, as I try to gather my thoughts. If that doesn’t interest you, our regularly scheduled articles will return soon.

While researching for an article I was going to call “What Is ‘Death of the Author’?”, I began to become physically uncomfortable, so I decided instead to switch to explore that reaction. Why does this concept seem so repulsive to me, just upon my initial reactions?

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

– E.M. Forster

What is Death of the Author?

Death of the Author is the name of a 1967 essay by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes, and has since been synonymous with his theory within. He stated that when interpreting or critiquing a piece of literature (and art in general), the context of the author should be ignored. Whether that’s intentions, political views, religious background, etc., a piece of art should stand on its own merits.

Barthes goes on to explain that to give a single interpretation of a work of art, based on the author, is to limit the possibilities of what that text can mean or represent. In the same way that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” interpretation and meaning is in the mind of the audience.

Why Don’t I Like it?

A work of art is full of intention, whether or not it’s intentional. What I mean is, no story exists in a vacuum. Every story that is told is born of thoughts and ideas that the author has about the world around them, and is their way of processing that world. Therefore, I think you should look at a story in how it reflects specific topics.

Being an audience is a largely passive act. You sit, and let the work of art happen to you. Your reception of the work can then influence you and how you create art in the future, but in the moment, an audience does not affect the art they take in.

The art itself does not have action, as it is a construct, like a building. So if the only active role taken is by the artist, then that is what we are watching/reading/absorbing. An artist producing abstract thought in a more material way. Therefore it is like theft, to take the art without taking the artist with it.

The difference I feel between being an artist and a content creator, is who you create for. An artist creates for themself, because they feel compelled to create. A content creator creates for the audience, with the hope of entertaining, or invoking thought from, others. So if a piece is truly art, and not content, then it isn’t for us. We are merely benefiting from the artist, and their work. You know when someone is an artist, because they have more work that you will never see, than all the work you will. They create, not only regardless of an audience, but sometimes specifically lacking an audience.

Why It Might Be Right

I can’t deny that there is merit to this concept. As I tried to write examples of how the idea was flawed, I found myself writing about my interpretations of stories, as I don’t explicitly know intentions of artists’ works.

I’ve heard director’s commentary, or stories behind scenes in movies, but a director, or actor, is not the one who created the story. They are only the ones who changed the medium of storytelling, from written to performance.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an artist explain the meaning behind their work directly. Only the interpretations of others, and how they grow the original work.

In the same way that art is born from the world around the artist, it is impossible to examine every influence in every work of art, because there are moments in life, every single day, that influence you. So there are an infinite amount of topics that each story is processing, that they artist can only articulate a fraction of. The artist themselves don’t even know what all their art is reflecting. They can usually identify the major themes, but each individual word or note comes from somewhere. If the artist can’t even truly identify their work and it’s inspirations, then how can any audience member.

It is impossible, and therefore a fruitless endeveour, to take the artist’s context to it’s fullest extent, when examining a piece of art. Perhaps it is better to just take the art on it’s own, let it pass through you, and derive whatever context you grant it.

While this will always be incomplete, it is simply impossible to be completely thorough. You will always be working with a fraction of the truth.

An artist is not ultimately better than their audience, simply because they created work that others enjoy. An artist holds no more weight of societal importance than each individual who receives their work. Therefore, should not the belief of 100 audience members outweigh the belief of a single artist?

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