Heather Dimarco

Author v. Reader

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Is authorship/authenticity of an artwork a sign which enables the viewer to endow value to the work?

An artwork is said to be of value when it is seen to be original, unique and irreplaceable therefore granting the work with authenticity. In this essay I aim to explore the role of the artist with regards to the notion of authorship. I intend to look at how authorship and authenticity of work became one of the key characteristic of postmodernism and how this was originally influenced by many artists in the Modernist period in particular Marcel Duchamp. I also intend on questioning the importance of artist intention with relation to viewer’s interpretation.

What does it mean to be an author? Is an artist an author? Does the death of the author need to occur to enable to the birth of the viewer? (Bathes, R. p148)

Many Post modern artists deal with authorship within their practice but they are to me undoubtedly influenced by Marcel Duchamp.

Figure 1: Duchamp, M. Fountain 1917 (1964 replica)       readymade porcelain 36 x 48 x 61

In 1914 Duchamp proposed his ‘readymades’ which are a series of works that obtain little or no creation by the artist, but rather he chooses ‘readymade’ objects  mainly with a utilitarian function from everyday life and presents it in a way that the original use is no longer of importance. Duchamp’s readymades challenged Marxist notion that value is determined by the investment of human labour, its relationship between aesthetic, use and exchange value. Duchamp was reacting to a challenge in representation that was informed after his cubism style painting was rejected from an exhibition in Paris. This reaction you could say also influenced by the collages of fellow cubist artists in particular Picasso evokes philosophical thought and brings into question, what is Art? What is the role of the artist?

In 1917 Duchamp submitted a urinal to an exhibition with the title ‘Fountain’ under the pseudo R Mutt. (A pun on the original urinal manufacturer Mott, and Mutt a popular cartoon of the time) He later wrote but has never acknowledged authorship of the following text:

…….Mr R Mutt sent in a fountain. Without discussion this article disappeared and never exhibited.

What were the grounds for refusal of Mr Mutt’s fountain:-

1 Some contended it was immoral, vulgar

2 Others it was plagiarism, a plain piece of plumbing


Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

Quote source: Duchamp, M. (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000,                                                               p252. Originally published in (1917) The Blind Man

In this work Duchamp questions the authority given to artist and the idea that because he chose the object and declared it to be an artwork therefore is must be. He wrote ‘Can one make works that are not ‘works’ of art?’(Duchamp, M (1913)) This then questions the role of the viewer and their interpretation of the work.

I find Duchamp’s work to be significantly influential to the work produced by postmodern artists and quiet uncharacteristic of the modernist period where according to Greenberg, Modernist work should not reference anything out side of itself, art and everyday life should be separated.

In the 1960’s there was a crisis of modernity which lead to the beginning of Postmodernism. Minimalist artist were reacting against Abstract Expressionism and the idea claimed by Greenberg that the works contain an inner meaning, that ‘the viewer was taken out of time and space and history – A disembodied eye who sought transcendence through the visual.’ (Greenberg, C. p25)

The Minimalists artist argued that the aesthetic experience is dependent on many factors and that meaning resides in how the viewer interprets the work, instead of   being contained within the work itself. In other words meaning and value is not intrinsic but is reliant on the context. As in Wittgenstein’s meaning and understanding he notes, ‘The meaning is the use.’ (Wittgenstein, L. p57)

They embraced the use of manufacturing techniques and industrial fabrication that reflected realities of post war America. The use of such materials and industrial techniques questions the role of the artist and authorship; it emphasized the depersonalisation of the making of the works as they display no signs of the hand of the artist.  This further reinforces the eviction of the author as no inner intentions of the artists can be seen to be the ‘meaning’ of the work. This industrial fabrication also guarantees that the art works could be mass produced, and therefore have no claim to an original.

It could be argued that due to the depersonalized artwork produced the value is then placed on the process. In this way, the process of creation and creativity is valued in place of authenticity, undermining conventional notion of authorship.

In Robert Morris’ Untitled 1965 sculpture 3 L beams he presents 3 identical L shapes structures, but positions them with different relation to each and the floor. He then questions the viewer to see the structures as the same. After further analysing the works they can only be understood as ‘different.’ This work demands the viewer to question the ‘truth’ and ‘belief’ that they are indeed identical but also our understanding and perception that the sculptures are not.

In this work and many others by Morris it could be suggested that the viewer is the most fundamental part. The works continually transform and adapt to its environment, many made from detachable segments that can be rearranged during installation. This reiterates the idea that no single work has a pre-given shape or inner meaning that functions at its core.

Morris notes that such objects, ‘takes relationships out of the work and,’ he continues ‘makes them a function of space, light and the viewer’s field of vision.’

Quote source: Morris, R. Notes on sculpture

Artforum October 1966.

Figure 2: Morris, R. (1965-1969) Untitled (Three L beams)

How does one know of the artist intention when viewing an artwork? Do we trust that the curators and critiques of art work know of the artist intention and find that of importance or do they simply instil their own interpretation onto the work whether encapsulating original intention or not. Of course it is possible to find out more about an art work after initially viewing it but hardly ever will you be able to talk face to face with the creator of that work.

Therefore I question is the artist’s intention of more, less or of equal importance to the viewer’s interpretation?

Barthes claimed;

‘We know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’

Quote source: Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text, Death of the Author, p.148.

Must they therefore be of equal importance, but is it necessary to know the artist’s intention to be able to interpret an artwork?

No, even if I were to know the artist intention there may be something that I find personally more intriguing and interesting about the work that may or not have been intended. The artist can not have full control over how the work is viewed as according to Barthes, work is made and interpreted from previous experience, nothing comes from nothing, however I feel for an artwork to be successful the consideration of how the work will be viewed may be considered. This leads me to Hal Foster’s essay Subversive signs and the idea that;

’The artist becomes a manipulator of signs more than a producer of objects, and the viewer an active reader of messages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular’

Quote source: Foster, H. Subversive Signs, (2003) Art in   Theory 1900-2000, p1038

The artists can regain some control over how the work is viewed by the consideration of the external signs that culture and society have produced for example colour or material in an artwork contains within it certain connotations that when used have to be acknowledged. Is this the same as authorship/authenticity in work? Are they merely signs which enable the viewer to bestow value onto an artwork? As said by Michel Foucault;

‘Discourse was acceptable only if it carried an author’s name: every text of poetry or fiction was obliged to state its author and the date, place and circumstance of its writing. The meaning and value attributed to the text depended upon this information.’

Quote source: Foucault, M. 1970, The Author Function,


An artwork that is a signed original, it is said to be of significant value. How then do we value the work of appropriation in artwork? Appropriation art is something the came into full fruition in the early 1980 by a group of artists in an exhibition ‘Pictures’. Appropriation is making use of work that already exists and adding your own authorship to the work. I find it difficult to comment on appropriation without mentioning the work of Sherrie Levine. Levine’s reproduction of others works as her own undoubtedly questions originality, authenticity and authorship. In 1980 her series of photographic reproductions Untitled, After Edward Weston she clearly is challenging the notion of authorship. She directly photographs a group of images that Weston had produced of his son in 1925. She goes beyond questioning her own authorship of this work and challenges Weston’s property right to originality as the images he produced were inspired by the male nude of Greek Classicism.

Figure 3: Levine, S. (1980) Untitled, After Edward Weston. Photograph (10×8)

In making art you are undoubtedly influenced by your surroundings if not making a statement about them, therefore is it not society and culture that have created these issues and are the authors of the works.  Is there any guarantee that the artist intention will be translated into the viewer’s interpretation?

I find myself questioning the difference between appropriation art and plagiarism, how can you differentiate between the two and who has the authority to do so?

Benjamin Walters writes:

‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.’

Quote source: Walter, B. (1936) The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.

As with Duchamp’s readymades the main aim of appropriation artist to create a new situation and therefore a new set of meanings for the reproduced image.

There are many arguments and discussions as to the authenticity/originality of appropriation art; however now I want to focus on how the viewer may interpret the work. I think that it is clear in the work of Levine her intention to critique the notions of authorship and I think this possible by her simply use of photography as a medium. More recently, with the progress of technical possibilities it emphasises the processes involved in the creation of work in an age of infinite reproduction.

In conclusion does an author really exist? Is the desire for the artist to create original works a pressure directed by society? I feel like with so many questions in art there is no definitive answer, many of these ideas are still questioned today by many practicing artist. I do feel that the reader/viewer of the work has over taken the importance of the author/artist’s intention to some degree. But in contradiction how do you ever really know what the artist intention is? Does the artist themselves know at the time of production, or it only after contemplation of surrounding issues that this is really understood. Therefore I find myself thinking that both artist and viewer are of equal importance, as one cannot exist with out the other.

‘Underneath each picture there is always another picture’

Quote source: Crimp, D. (2004) Art since 1900, Thames and Hudson, p580

Written by heatherdimarco

March 10, 2009 at 10:57 pm

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