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The Death of the Author by Roland Barthes

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Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Published: Wed, 02 May 2018

In this essay I am going to write about Roland Barthes concept of The Death of the Author and how it applies to class and taste in the work of Tracey Emin. The reason why I am investigating this is that I want to show how different classes views work differently. my theory is that if your brought up in a similar class to someone else then your views on art work will be similar. the essay is divided into 3 section.

Section 1 I will be talking about the Roland Barthes concept of The Death of the Author which is an essay on who holds the meaning of any text/ artwork is it the author or the reader, he says as soon as the author present their work the meaning behind the creation dies, so the new meaning lies behind the reader, I will also be explain what Michel Foucault theory is which is contrasting to Barthes theory, I will be using Martin Parr mainly looking at his series for ‘Last resort’ 1983-85.

Section 2 I will be describing what class and taste is, I will also be introducing critical perspectives such as Marxism and Feminism. Introducing some key theorist including Pierre Bourdieu and Antonio Gramsci. I will be using Grayson Perry’s Tapestries for the series ‘the vanity of small differences’ 2009 that he created that explores class and taste.

Section 3 will be my main case study and I will be discussing Tracey Emin’s work in terms of class and taste and how Barthes theory applies to her work. This framework shouldn’t be biased on Marxist view or a feminism view because I am looking at what people think of Emin’s work what class and taste does it have and what she has. Also to see whether The Death of the Author applies to her work. Does she hold the meaning or does the viewer.

In this section I am going to be exploring the work of Roland Barthes. Barthes was born in 1915 and died in 1980, he was a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic and semiotician. Barthe wrote an influential essay called ‘The Death of the Author’. This essay was first published in a French journal in 1968. It was then re-published in 1977 in an anthology of Barthes essays called image-music-text. The Death of the Author is written in a semiotic framework. A British visual semioticians called Daniel Chandler defines semiotics as ‘is the study of signs’ (chandler,1994). Semiotics and signs are split into 2 which are signifier and the signified, a ‘signifier’ – the form which the sign takes and a ‘signified’ – the concept it represents. In this essay that I am writing about Barthes argues against the method of reading, nobody reads the description about picture first they are intrigued and get lost in the picture itself, he says that the reader has full control on what the context is all about, leaving their own mark on the meaning of a particular artwork for an example the Piss Christ created by Andres Serrano photographed in 1989 (see figure 1) his intentions with this image was to show how we all use this motif as a fashion accessory which people are not horrified by it all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man that will hold meaning forever not just to religious people, it has become well known. It caused controversy for more than two decades by art critics and religion, Christians found the art work very offensive, this art work was severely damaged in several places it has been exhibited. Art critic Jesse Helms had only one view on Piss Christ even after reading the synopsis “serrano is not an artist. He is a Jerk” (Brooks, 2014). I disagree with Helms view due to what his intentions where.

This essay addresses the lack of power of the authors in reading and analysing text/ artwork, this shows that reader or viewer ignores the authors and work background and focus on the work itself. When critically analysing a writing/ art work Barthes says “the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions” (Barthes P.383) what I think Barthes is trying to say is that when we analyze work whatever the outcome whether its success or failure the author is forced to take full responsibility of the work they present, its ‘his’ work. Serrano had intentions to present the work but he wanted it to show that we use the Christ as a fashion accessory but in fact this work was failure to present his idea to the world but he did succeed as this work managed to cause controversy to everyone.

In The Death of the Author Barthes discusses the text itself appearing as copied from other works. The intention of the text could be misleading due to the translation from the author to text then to the reader this is due to the subjectivity of the reader, different levels of education would read this text differently and get their own interpretation of the text.

This point ultimately leads to Barthes main point: the reader holds more responsibility to the text than the author. The difficulty of different connotations and experiences that come from the author into the text are compressed and flattened when it arrives to the reader. The reader comes empty handed and is completely self-engaged with the image presented. It is as if a sculpture, a three dimensional work, is photographed, reduced to two dimensions. So much information is condensed and made out-of-the-way to the viewer. Barthes makes the point that “the origin of a work may lie with the author, but its destination is with the reader”. Meaning that the original meaning lies with the author and some of that is noticed but the real notice is but the reader. I believe this as you never read the text to see what it’s about, you read the picture get your own connotations from it and then read the text if you can be bothered to do so. Barthes puts a point across of “… the birth of the reader must be at the cost of The Death of the Author.” (Barthes cited in Dayton, 1998, P.386). I believe that the reader holds the majority of the meaning but the author holds some meaning, especially if the author has a description of the image next to it, which the reader can then read to find out the background of the image can could give a different perspective on the work that could be what the author is trying to do or lead to a completely different to what the reader and the author is portraying.

Barthes goes on to say “a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other ….. But there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader” (Barthes 1968 P.6) I believe what he is trying to say here is that when people say a picture holds a thousand words doesn’t mean a thousand words in a culture but each culture places their words of meaning into an image, these words are then collated with each other to bring a final meaning to a picture. So Barthes is saying Millions of minds working together is better than one mind coming up with the meaning behind an+ image. Even if the meaning has a particular journey to get there.

Barthes states that the author is only a way through which a story is told. They have already been done by the journey of the particular image. But still the meaning behind an image still lays on the reader(s). if the reader was to view the work through the eye of the author then they will not gain any benefit from viewing an image. Barthes is saying that when we view an image without a text we immediately can relate to the image in a certain way, if they don’t then they are only stuck with the authors thoughts and intentions, which will not go far for the author. I think this is true because the author likes to know what the readers think of their work they are interested in the positives but most interested in the negatives, due to their personal experience that the image has recreated. (Atchison, 2016)

It appears that when Barthes says “the birth of the reader must come at the cost of The Death of the Author”, it would help the reader to interpretation and understand the image if they were some to non-connection between the author and the image. I believe that the author will never be completely dead. The thought process and the process of the image has some meaning to the image. Barthes said that “the author should get neither praise for a good book not blamed for a bad one” this is insinuating that the authors need labels, I believe that readers are responsible for the continued presence of the author. As well as the authors own interests in being involved. The author is stuck between death and alive the author can’t control what the viewers see of their work neither does he have a massive say on what they mean. For an example Martin Parr’s work who I will introduce further in the essay, when we view his work we immediately know its him due to his artistic approach so we know immediately know what the work would be about, so the meaning holds with the author, whereas Tracey Emin who also will be introduced later in the essay, her work was viewed differently due to her fame, she wasn’t known as much, her work was seen the opposite to what her intentions where. Only now as she became famous and more well-known her work is now seen as how she wanted it to be seen.

Nevertheless, in comparison to what Barthes is saying which is the meaning of an image remains on the reader, Michel Foucault was mentioned in the book Practises of Looking. He says yes the viewer does make meaning but there is a place for the author input/ style. This is called the author function. He identifies multiple functions of the author of 3 ways: which are author as a legal construction so we rely on author copyright and charge on plagiarism, author as literary construction so we they build a story to go with the image and author as a unifying construction, this function shows our belief that authors are internally steady. (Kelley, 2011)

We can see this theory in the work of Martin Parr mostly in his series of ‘Last Resort’, 1985. (see fig 2,3 and 4) A little description about this series by Parr, they were taken 1983 to 1985, which was a period of economic decline in northwest England. Parr picked a seaside resort that has passed its attractions designed to appeal to an economically depressed working class. Which are overcrowded beaches, video arcades, beauty competitions, chip chops and tea rooms. The series was exhibited at the serpentine gallery in London. Published as a book in 1986 and this set Parrs reputation as a photographer. Parr contrasts the traditional approach to documentary photography, he shows the working class seeking cheap thrills for pleasure. The typical documentary photographer photographs brits sought to worship the working class. In the 1980s The Last Resort was seen to be accused as to show what the economic policies of the conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-90). Parr was showing that Britain wasn’t great due to thatcher, “I was showing that it wasn’t as good as she was telling us it was”. We see a great division of meaning in his work, the north understood what Parr was trying to get across but the south sees his work as unartistic.

Some critics understood Parrs illustration of what the economic lacked. Val William has read the image with a less politician approach, in her views, the last resort typifies Parrs keen eye for the strange. She commented ‘there’s no sarcasm in Parrs gaze, just interest, excitement and a real sense of the comedic’ (Williams, 2002 p.161). Parr himself has claimed, ‘I’m less interested in the fact that these people aren’t well off financially as in the fact that they have to deal with screaming kids, like anyone has to … I’m also interested in making the photographs work on another level, showing how British society is decaying; how this once great society is falling apart’ (Williams, 2002, p.160). I agree with Williams on what she is saying, Parr take images as it is with his same technique that he uses. They are no real approach to his work. Also what I think he is trying to portray what us as brits have to deal with when we are the working the class, we don’t have much money for a luxury holiday or to even live, the working class has to take the cheap route to be thrilled.

In the DVD (the world according to Parr) David Hurn who is an English documentary photographer and member of the magnum photos, born in 1934, he stated “he has managed to encapsulate the vulgarity of this period”. What he is trying to say is that Parr encloses quality of being sophisticated at the period of time he was photographing. But other members of the magnum photos group they “considered to be Thatcherite, portraying working class as scruffy, unintelligent… but… he rapidly became a top earner”. Which is what my original view of Parrs work was like until I read into why he was photographing. In the same source Val williamson who was his biographer and curator she refers to him as a traditional documentary photographer, although I disagree as traditional documentary photographers in the era he was photographing are mostly in black and white or desaturated images. Parrs images are very saturated which is completely different to what everyone else was doing around the same time as he the series of images that he was doing. But if you look at Parr image you know immediately it was created by him use to his aesthetics, of saturated colours, the randomness of what he is photographing and the quality of his images.

In contrast critic Colin Jacobson comments that Parr is “wacky colour photography… attractive to magazine editors” (DVD) he also describes Parr as a “gratuitously cruel social critic who has made large amounts of money by sneering at the foibles and pretensions of other people.”. (Bishop 2005) he also mentions that “He uses the same tools as forensic and medical photographers – a macro lens coupled with a ring-flash – and photographs his subjects methodically.” (Jesse Alexander, 2008). Now I agree with what Jacobson is saying his technique is the same with no matter what the subject matter is and he isn’t exactly exploring new ways to photograph but what I have explained earlier this is his way of photographing, and due to this we can identify his images and we know what his work is all about, so really the theory of Death of the author is not true as we know what his intentions are due to his technique. I agree with his wacky colours, I think around the time he was photographing this is a new technique and it was different to what everyone else was doing that’s why I think he was attracted to magazine companies. Kathryn Mussallem states similar to Jacobson, “the use of a ring flash saturates the colours to an extreme making cheap “crap” look even cheaper and crappier”. Now this is similar but this is more a negative answer compared to Jacobson. I do think when he photographs he, makes crap things look crappier, but that’s my opinion even after knowing why he photographs like this I still think the same, nothing is as saturated as that. She also mentioned “The entire world is now caught in the saturated embrace of global consumerism”. This is referring to his technique and his style.

In this section I will be defining class and taste, some key words that needs to be addressed and I will also be looking into the work of Grayson Perry though class and taste perspective. a Marxist would say ”group of people sharing common relations to labour and the means of production’ about what class is all about, but in the encyclopaedia Britannica says social class, (also called class) is a ‘group of people within a society who possess the same socioeconomic status’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica). This exactly what I believe class is all about, I see they are different class in society that hold powers and certain assets to family and to their country. Which are very similar they both mean a group of people in a particular society that share similar statuses or power.

David Hume a philosopher in the seventeen hundred he says taste ‘refined ability to perceive quality in an artwork’ he thinks that taste is developed by education and experience (freeland, 2001, p6), whereas another philosopher Immanuel Kant from mid seventeen hundred to early eighteen hundreds says that taste ‘directly linked to beauty which is inherent in the work itself’. So taste does not serve basic human need. (Freeland, 2001, p6).

Pierre Bourdieu thinks that taste is largely determined and controlled by the dominant, ruling class. In the author of practises of looking in the glossary tastes is “shared artistic and cultural values of a particular social community or individual… taste is informed by experiences relating to one’s class, cultural background, education, and other aspects of identity.” (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001) I think taste is down to preference but I understand what these three are saying taste is down to what class a certain individual is in. higher class doesn’t mean you have good taste neither does the opposite, but taste is defiantly found in how educated and well discipline you are. This is also referred to habitus which is the idea that our taste is connected and results from our social class or education. Our taste identifies our social class.

They are high culture which is referred to one which only an elite can appreciate such as classical art, music, literature, ballet, opera. Lower culture seen as commercially produced and is accessible to lower classes. I personally think these doesn’t determine what class or taste you come under due to lower class can like high culture, I can also say that high class will like lower cultured stuff. Again this is determined by how well educated you are. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2001)

From the book Practises of Looking they are some key Marxist terms and theoretical areas that link to class and taste that I think are needed to express, these are Ideology, this is the system of ideas of the ruling class, which is the ruling class controls the lower class, for Althusser it was a lifeless process through which people accepted their place in society. I think this mean no matter what society you’re from the people accepted this. The lower class accept that the ruling class can rule control them. They are also hegemony, this is Gramsci’s development of ideology, the dominant ideologies changes and challenges values and ideas of the less dominant class.

The artist that I am going to write about for class and taste is Grayson Perry. The main focus art work(s) that I am focusing on are his 6 tapestries that he created based on class and taste, these are called ‘the vanity of small differences’. Perry was born in 1960s, his childhood has been a massive influence on his life, his teenager years he discovered he has an alter ego called Claire. In 2003 he won the turner prize. He is most famous for his large scaled pottery and extraordinary detail about transvestite potter. He is also a BAFTA-winning documentary maker; author; social commentator; curator and a lecturer.

His tapestries are inspired by William Hogarth’s moral tale, who is an 18th century painter, Perry’s tapestries follow the life of a fictional character called Tim Rakewell, as he develops from beginning through his teenage and middle years, to his untimely death in a car accident. The tapestries are rich in both content and colour and they show many weirdness and uniqueness that is associated with life in the UK. The composition of each tapestry also remembrances early Renaissance religious painting which draws us in to an art history. (Council, 2016)

Perrys work is considered to be Kitsch due to his high saturation on his garments. Kitsch is defined as a “German word for trash, and is used in English to describe particularly cheap, vulgar and sentimental forms of popular and commercial culture” (tate, 2016).

In this section I am going to talk about Tracey Emin and how different people in different classes view and read her work. I shall first talk about her. Tracey Emin was born in 1963 July, and she is an English artist known for her Narrative and confessional artwork. Her artwork is to challenge the subject matter and portrays a taboo. She also challenges feminism (explained later in the essay), the male gaze, class and taste. She challenges the working class root and everyday …… She produces work in different media such as drawings, sculpture, film, photography, neon text and sewn applique. She was once a member of the Young British Artists in the 1980s but now she is a Royal Academician of the royal Academy of Arts. Critics say that she relies on tactics that shock rather than the actual talent.

The main work I am going to focus on is Emin’s work ‘My Bed’ (1998) (see figure …) and ‘everyone I have ever slept with’ (see figure …) which are both representation alternative ways of viewing the bod., It shocked the nation when ‘my bed’ was shortlisted for the 1999 turner prize. Women are usually idealized cleansed and sanitized compared to men, this sort of work is expected to be done by male therefore maybe this is why the ‘my bed’ was a dramatic and disgusting piece of artwork to some society. Emin applies certain feminist ideas that presents the invisible nude, she offers symbolic gestures that indicate evidence of the body rather than the body itself. My Bed is the site of trauma and disgust, and with all the other dirt left intact. Her work is a self-expressionist piece that shows her personal trauma she claims that she produced is based on a mental breakdown that she had for 4 days, she quoted:

‘I had a kind of mini nervous breakdown… didn’t get out of bed for four days… made my way back to my bedroom, and as I did I looked at my bedroom and thought, “OH, my God. What if I’d died and they found me here?” (Christies, 2014, P.2) I can believe that she had a break down but I don’t believe that she stayed in bed for four days.

One thing I have noticed with Tracey Emin’s work is that she expresses an unusual side of feminism. The term feminism comes from 3 different waves of feminism; overall feminism is the suffegettes back in the 60s. Second wave feminism, refers mostly to the radical feminism of the women’s liberation movement in the late 60s and early 70s. Third wave feminism is basically girls being ‘girlier’ and be seen as strong, capable and confident social representatives, “The Third Wave is sustained by the confidence of having more opportunities and less sexism” this approach can be seen for all genders that power and taking control in situations are good third wave feminism people (Kroløkke, 2005).

Tracey Emin’s exclusive subject matter is her own life. At first it appears that My Bed, symbolises Emin’s feminist engagement, yet equally she challenges it. We are presented with the artists own bed, her most personal space, it’s her own bed yet it is covered in clutter, couple of suitcases behind the bed the duvet is messed up and ruffled up, it is also littered with Emin’s personal possessions, such as bloody underwear, urine-stained sheets and worn underwear, used condoms, dirty clothes, a partially used tube of KY Jelly, empty bottles of alcohol, cigarettes, and an over flowing cigarette tray. This to me shows her insecurity and imperfection.

Some experiences revolve around the bed; birth (ideally to some women own bed/ hospital bed), sleep, dreams, sex, illness and death (in some cases), (Kent, 1994, p54). Women are controlled and defined by the bedroom through marriage and sex due to society, the bed suggests sexual convenience but also limited. Emin further explores this in Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (see fig …), we see names of everyone she has ever slept with in her bed, the more noticeable names are men, but then when you look deeper we see names such as her grandparents which are now showing everyone that has been in her bed with her, maybe for comfort. I think Emin tries to show that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover concept. Throughout her oeuvre she shows serious feminist questions about women’s sexual responsibility and draws attention to late 20th century society’s ‘double standard’. (Doyle, 2006, p.98). Emin’s subject matter is herself and her personal experiences, her style is more personal and reflects universal concerns

Emin’s work are alternative and the unusual route towards feminism. Her work is disagreeing with the stereotyped Feminity from history. It is also contrasting the male Gaze. The Male Gaze was introduced by Laura Mulvey in 1975 who was a film feminist critic, it is about how visual art and literature show the world and women from a masculine point of view, women are objectified for male pleasure. The male gaze is the ideal woman to men for sexual pleasure. The male Gaze was created for advertising purposes, firstly gaze is a concept used for “analysing visual culture… that deals with how an audience views the people presented” the types of gaze are mostly branded by who is doing the looking, which is the audience. Women in the advertisement becomes what’s being bought and sold. Meaning buy this product and you will either get the girl or become the girl, so for Emin my bed shows a contrast of women but showing the truth about what women are truly like. The male gaze presents women as clean and tidy, but Emin is showing them as untidy and dirty as to what every person is like.

Emin has had many critical views of her work my bed and everyone I have ever slept with. My bed has received criticism that it is self- indulgent’ or ‘not real art!’. Some art critics describe Emin and her work as ‘self-degrading’, ‘exhibitionist’ and even ‘self-flagellating’. A paper critic, Richard Dorment calls Emin a “phoney”. He wrote “What interests me about Emin is not her relentless self-absorption, limitless self-pit or compulsion to confess the sad details of her past life, but that all of this adds up to so little of real interest”. (Dorment, 2016) what I think he is trying to say is that she is a lazy artist that she thought anything was art and she covered this up with a life story that is traumatic. Linking this back to section one and my opinion, I think if we didn’t know the history behind creation of this installation we wouldn’t feel the same with what the outcome was knowing why she created these art pieces.

On different note the Saatchi gallery, the gallery that owns this work, and Saatchi writes that Emin work is “A consummate storyteller, Tracey Emin engages the viewer with her candid exploration of universal emotions” (gallery, 2016) he is saying that she is an excellent story teller she engages every viewer with her honest study of general passions. Even in all classes they all have their own thoughts on it, even if it’s a positive or negative.

Journalist and author of dangerous women Liz Hoggard says that my bed “had the most powerful effect on my life. For women of my generation, it broke so many taboos about the body, sexuality, shame” maybe this was the start of anti-male gaze, I think Emin had a massive influence on female society but not so much on the male (Hoggard, 2015). also Jonathan Jones says “Emin wasn’t really doing anything new”. I understand what he is trying to get across due to Robert Rauschenberg put his own bed into a museum in 1955 (see fig …) he also says “she rubs our noses in reality, in a way that subverts all our illusions, fantasies, snobberies and repressions, those barriers we put up between us and death”. So we see a two side of Jones he is saying that she isn’t doing art as we have already seen it before but also saying that its new art that pulls the reader into reality of living. See this critical analysis of Emin’s work is what Foucault is saying, if Emin didn’t give detail on what my bed is about he would just think that its already been done, but because they is a story behind my bed he is agreeing with the author function.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Art and Interpretation: An Anthology of Readings in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art. Ed. Eric Dayton. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 1998. 383-386. Print. Book

Chandler, D. (1994). Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. [online] Visual-memory.co.uk. Available at: http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/ [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016]. website

Kelley, J. (2011). What does Foucault mean by “the author-function” in his essay “What Is an Author” ? | eNotes. [online] eNotes. Available at: http://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-does-foucault-mean-by-author-function-his-248608 [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016]. website

Imagine, The World According to Parr, 22:35 03/12/2003, BBC1 London, 50 mins. https://learningonscreen.ac.uk/ondemand/index.php/prog/004B986D (Accessed 21 Nov 2016) video

Williams, V. (2002). Martin Parr. 1st ed. London: Phaidon. Book

Christies, (2014). TRACEY EMIN’S MY BED ON THE MARKET FOR THE FIRST TIME YBA ICON SOLD TO BENEFIT THE SAATCHI GALLERY’S FOUNDATION. 1st ed. [ebook] London: Press Release, p.2. Available at: http://www.christies.com/presscenter/pdf/2014/RELEASE_TRACEY_EMINS_MY_BED.pdf [Accessed 21st Nov 2016]. Website

Kroløkke, C. and Sørensen, A. (2005). Gender communication theories & analyses. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. Book

Kent, S. (1994). Shark infested waters. 1st ed. London: Zwemmer. Book

Merck, Mandy and Townsend, Chris, The Art of Tracey Emin, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002) book

Doyle, J. (2006). Sex objects. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Book

Imagine: The World According to Parr. BBC1 3rd December 2003 video

Dawber, S (2004) “Martin Parr’s Suburban Vision”. Third Text. Vol18, Issue 3. p251-262. Papers

Bishop,B (2005) Martin Parr’s true colors. Online http://www.parisvoice.com/photography/35-martin-parrs-true-colors [assessed: 21 Nov 2016]

Jesse Alexander, 2008 online http://www.jessealexander.co.uk/pages/writing/2008_6_parrworld.pdf [assessed: 21 Nov 2016]

Dorment, R. (2016). Is it art?. [online] Telegraph.co.uk. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/culturepicturegalleries/8216563/Is-it-art.html?image=8 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2016]. Online

Gallery, S. (2016). Tracey Emin – My Bed – Contemporary Art. [online] Saatchigallery.com. Available at: https://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/artpages/tracey_emin_my_bed.htm [Accessed 21 Nov. 2016].

Council, B. (2016). Grayson Perry: The Vanity of Small Differences | Touring | Exhibitions | British Council − Visual Arts. [online] Visualarts.britishcouncil.org. Available at: http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/touring/grayson-perry-the-vanity-of-small-differences [Accessed 25 Nov. 2016].

Tate.org.uk. (2016). Kitsch. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/k/kitsch [Accessed 28 Dec. 2016].

Figure 1 – Serrano, A. (1987). Immersion (Piss Christ). [image] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piss_Christ [Accessed 30 Dec. 2016].

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