“In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”
Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretations”, 1964
Questions of authorship, spectatorship and interpretation are holding a prime position in contemporary art theory. Spectators’ knowledge and interpretation of a work depends on a mixture of factors; it is, indeed, the author’s biography, which is, whether it is desired or not, discussed and interpreted by exhibition curators, art historians, art books, numerous artist biographies and autobiographies, interviews, etc.; it is also strongly dependent on art theory and theoretical criticism. However, arguably, a spectator’s understanding of a work relies on one’s own experiences, points of view, standards, interests, gender, sexuality, origins and comportment in the world – in other words, on personal interpretations. The spectator, or reader, is the essential judge of a work.
In order to talk about the question of the presence of the artist within their own work, it is crucial to closely look at the works of several art giants, as well as look at two of the most important texts that question the importance of authorship – Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author”, and Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretations”.
To begin with, let us vaguely define and look over the positions of two authors. Roland Barthes, in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, argues against an author’s aggressive dominance over the interpretation of a text. Barthes writes that the sole significance of the work does not rely on its origins, but on its destination – the reader. As mentioned before, the reader or the spectator is the ultimate judge.
On the other hand, Sontag, in her 1964 essay “Against Interpretations”, strongly claims that the freedom of subjective interpretation overshadows and blurs the true meaning of a creation – in this particular essay she analyzes both text and art. For Sontag, spectator’s interpretations are not as valuable and deep as the original meanings.
To examine the two works more closely, it is fundamental to review them alongside examples of art works. I will advocate Sontag’s idea using the example of Marina Abramović. Following that, I will look at Mark Rothko in an effort to present that Barthes’ decision to kill the author is not exactly wrong.
To begin, it is impossible to argue against the fact that the life of the artist does strongly determine what they put into their work. One of the clearest examples of that is performance artist Marina Abramović, who was born in Serbia, Belgrade, to a partisan family. Both of her parents were War heroes, and Abramović was raised under an extremely strict regime – up until Marina was 29 years old, her curfew was 10 pm, so all performances had to be done before that time. These performances included Rhythm 5 (1974) and Freeing the Body (1975), which are arguably Marina’s most powerful, most violent and most intense early works. Having to live under the reign of her parents must have taught Marina about self-control and restraints; that kind of discipline has clearly shaped the artist’s thoughtful, passionate and enduring work.
Marina Abramović. Rhythm 5, 1974
Marina Abramović’s art is full of strength. It is closely linked with physical pain and bodily restraints. In an interview with Karlyn De Jongh and Sarah Gold, Marina was asked:
‐ Most people would have difficulty even pricking their skin with a needle, but you seem to want to torture yourself. It’s almost fatalistic.
The answer Abramović gave stands impossibly close to the artist’s personal biography:
‐ You have to remember that both of my parents are [Serbian] national heroes. Just so you know. So, it might be something in the genes. But apart from that, the body is not important. It’s the mind that counts.
Not talking, fasting, falling into deep meditation, restraining herself from the outside world and entertainments – all came from Marina’s upbringing, her family history and roots.
In the book When Marina Abramović Dies, James Westcott offers up to the reader an intimate biography in which it is clearly stated that Marina was not a happy child. A major part of her adolescence and adulthood the artist had spent on her own – suffering from infinite heartbreaks, absolute loneliness and cruel obstacles. However, the one thing that would never let Marina down was her clear mind and persistent desire to create.
Marina Abramović. Freeing the Body, 1975
In summer 2014, Marina performed 512 Hours, a work of long duration that took place at the Serpentine Gallery, London. During this performance, Marina was more than extremely close to her spectators – the artist herself managed to talk and to help navigate each person who entered the gallery. Having been inside the gallery 19 times and coming to queue each morning at 5am, as well as staying inside the Serpentine until 6pm, I overheard many conversations. Many people were fascinated by Marina’s presence simply because of her celebrity status; others only came to see the performance out of passing interest, as a must-do. I found it hard to explain why I could not stop coming. Indeed, Marina has always been one of my favorite artists not because of her celebrity status or popularity, but because Abramović is one of the most unique and mysterious people alive. My close friend gave me an explanation – “You see, for you, going there every day to see Marina is like going to see God”. It is true, indeed – the experience of seeing someone with such a powerful personal history, and with such vast and overwhelming personal energy, simply cannot be put down into words. Certainly, seeing Marina every day – thereby working on my own personal energy and cleaning my thoughts and my soul – was an unearthly, godly experience.
On the very first day of the performance, before the show had even started but when the public was already inside the gallery, waiting for something to happen, Marina jokingly said:
‐ What are you all waiting for? We are all here to work together!
512 Hours is a perfect example of how an artist’s work is so very tightly connected to their persona. The performance simply has no meaning without the artist’s directions, energy and, well, simply put – their presence. The artist must be present.
Whilst Susan Sontag, who was actually Marina Abramović's close friend, would fully support Marina, Roland Barthes would most definitely argue that the artist’s persona is a break pedal in terms of perceiving the artwork.
Mark Rothko. The Seagram Murals
“To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing” – this is a quote from Barthes’ text “The Death of the Author”. Even though, arguably, in terms of meta-modern contemporary theory, the famous French critic would be proved wrong, he is simultaneously ultra correct. In a world which is constructed out of infinite numbers of copies and simulations, a decision to give a work the label of “original” is, in some way, a decision to erupt the process and the progress of the work.
Once the spectator enters the potentially holiest room of the Tate Modern (London) – The Seagram Murals room, which is filled with artworks created by the Latvian-born artist Mark Rothko – all words and interpretations are left at the door. The room – which is always colder that the rest of the gallery, and always darker than any other room at the Tate – is full of godliness, purity, energy and force. Once you are inside, the whole story about The Four Seasons, and even Rothko’s death (which had truly transformed the whole meaning of his work) – is all gone, lost. The overwhelming force of The Seagram Murals does not need any justification, explanation or history. Once you are there, all that matters is y-o-u. Barthes writes: “once the Author is discovered, the text is 'explained'” – and that is the last thing that a viewer of Rothko’s work would expect. The Seagram Murals are works that carry so much inner power that they do not require an explanation.
Yet, if one chooses to appreciate The Seagram Murals room as a semi-religious space, it is important to consider that Mark Rothko was born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. Born Markus Rotkovich, the artist was sent to a cheder, and even after the Rotkovich family emigrated from Russia (now Latvia) to the United States, the artist continued an active participation in the Jewish community. Therefore, to see The Seagram Murals as a holy place is to also consider it as a space of Judaism. This little remark proves that a spectator can never fully eliminate the artist, or author, from his or her work.
I don’t like it because I don’t understand it
If all art galleries had microphones with which to overhear the conversations of the viewers, it would be no surprise to hear the phrase “I don’t like it because I don’t understand it”, over and over again. Above, I have presented two antagonistic points of view about the role of the author – one belonging to Susan Sontag, who strongly defends the creator; the other belonging to Roland Barthes, who sees the author as a limit. In order to advocate Sontag, and to prove that art does not exist without the artist, I will describe and analyze several artworks that solemnly rely on their creators, and on the creators’ personal narratives.
Ai Weiwei, Tree, series started in 2009
The so-called trees created by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei are constructed out of various parts of dead trees, all of which were collected in southern China and sold in Jingdezhen. Later, these parts were transported to Beijing, to the artist’s studio, and joined together with rough industrial bolts.
Ai Weiwei. Tree
Most literally, the dead pieces of trees are joined together so as to look like a real tree. In other words, pieces of dead wood are connected to each other, to simulate the form and shape of a real tree. This installation is supposed to represent China – a country where groups of completely different and unrelated peoples are forcefully joined together, to form “One-China” – a policy which, again forcefully, unites two governments that both claim to be China – the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of China.
Trees were indeed inspired by Ai Weiwei’s intense involvement and interest in the political situation in China – the artist led a survey and a documentary film about the post-earthquake conditions in Sichuan. This so-called Citizens’ Investigation was against governmental interests, and led to Ai’s arrest; and later – heavy surveillance and restrictions on leaving the country.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991
This artwork by Cuban-born artist Gonzalez-Torres is a work that is simultaneously jolly and impossibly traumatic. The installation itself consists of a large pile of candies, individually wrapped in colorful cellophane. The artwork is an allegorical portrait of Gonzalez-Torres's partner, Ross Laycock, who passed away of AIDS-related disease in 1991. The ideal weight of the installation is around 79kg, which refers to Ross’s ideal, healthy body weight.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)
Viewers of the exhibition are expected to take a piece of candy, and by decreasing the weight of Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) in this way,the artist allegorically describes the rapid weight loss that his lover underwent prior to death. Gonzalez-Torres’s idea is that the pile of candy should be continuously restored, so that, at least within the frames of artistic allegory, Ross never fully dies.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999
Louise Bourgeois’ sculptural installation Maman is a direct reference to the artist’s complicated family relationships and Bourgeois’ memories of her mother.
Louise Bourgeois. Maman in London
The artist’s mother passed away when the young girl was only 21 years old. Before that, Bourgeois was unlucky enough to witness her father cheating on her mother with an English maid who lived in the Bourgeois' house. Both the sudden death of the artist’s mother, and her extremely difficult relationship with her father, had a major impact on the artist’s work. Throughout her artistic career, Bourgeois continues exploring the difficulties between herself and her father, as well as her sharp perception of her mother’s absence.
Maman is an installation depicting a large steel spider standing on eight legs, with a meshed sac in which she carries seventeen marble eggs. This large sculpture is not supposed to shock or scare the viewer. Maman is a flashback to the artist’s childhood – as a little girl, Louise helped her mother with the family's business, the restoration of antique tapestries. Maman, which in French means “mom”, looks over her little girl from above, always protecting her. The artist’s motherwas so neat, so clever, so helpful – and these childhood memories cause Bourgeois to compare her mother with a spider.
Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-1995) and My Bed (1998)
Tracey Emin’s installation Everyone I Have Ever SleptWith (1963-1995) is a tent, the inside of which is covered with names and peculiar portraits that have been joined together with stitches. These names symbolize everyone who has ever been in the same bed with Tracey, in the period spanning from 1963 to 1995. Apparently, there are over 100 names sewn into the tent.
Tracey Emin. Everyone I Have Ever Slept With (1963-1995), 1995
Several critics and yellow press journalists have tended to forget that this installation is not meant to be provocative, rotten or vulgar. Without knowing the origins and the meanings of the work, they only state assumptions about the indecency of the installation. Indeed, there are nine names which belong to the artist’s partners or ex-partners, but right next to them the artist has included the names of her own twin brother, her teddy bear, her grandmother, and other people Tracey used to love – without necessarily having had any physical desires towards them. Emin is playing with the word “slept”, which, in the perverted world we occupy, is almost immediately associated with a sexual context.
Tracey Emin. My Bed, 1998
My Bed (1998) is an artwork that caused a big shock when it first came out. It is an installation that consists of Tracey Emin’s own messy bed, with different objects lying around it – empty and partially empty bottles of alcohol, cigarettes and cigarette packs, underwear with menstrual blood on them, condoms, tights, money, slippers, a toy dog, handwritten notes. The bed stands on a blue carpet. This piece of contemporary art is exhibited in the exactly same appearance as it was when the artist, Tracey Emin herself, was in a state of deep depression caused by her complicated relationship with her partner. In other words, Tracey Emin managed to produce the purest self-portrait there could ever be. Without drawing her face, or carving out a representation of her body, the artist has succeeded in presenting the most accurate image of herself.
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The four installations I have described above make no sense without a detailed explanation of the artist’s motives and routes. Without the artist’s directions, we are lost among useless and limitless interpretations. Without the author, culture – art, literature, music, cinema – becomes clueless entertainment with no theoretical and historical background. Once you dive deep into the world of art-loving and art appreciation, you infinitely continue to seek answers and explanations. Without an original meaning, art suddenly becomes less exciting and less inspiring.
However, at the same time, art cannot exist without a spectator and his or her opinions – and it does not matter whether the spectator is passive or active. Above, I mentioned the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which most definitely would not exist without a spectator. Indeed, Rembrandt’s paintings need a viewer as well, however, they do not demand such an active viewer as Gonzalez-Torres does. Whether it is a spectator grabbing a piece of candy, or a gallery/museum assistant bringing in new materials and “updating” the artwork, the installations by Gonzalez-Torres will always require human involvement, and that is what makes them, irrevocably, works of Relational Art.
What is the right way to elicit any assumptions or interpretations? And, according to the essay “Against Interpretation” by Susan Sontag, does a viewer ever have a right to interpret the artwork? Roland Barthes argues that a spectator is sometimes just as important as the artist; however, it is impossible to leave a work without an author/artist because the author has power. The artist is powerful. In the essay “The Death of the Author”, Barthes agrees that a work is a result of the author’s biography – “Baudelaire’s work is the failure of the man Baudelaire, Van Gogh’s work is his madness, Tchaikovsky’s – his vice”. However, Barthes decides to fully reject the egocentric and monopolist figure of the author, thereby making the meaning of the work wider, and creating space for interpretation. He believes that a work of writing, or, indeed, a work of art, is a collective, ”…there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader; the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of…”
On the other hand, Susan Sontag, in her essay “Against Interpretation”, argues that the spectator’s goal is to minimize the content so that he or she can see the work itself. “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” According this quote, it seems that Sontag is arguing that, by seeing less, we end up seeing more.
Sontag is thinking of works that have been re-interpreted for centuries, and that will continue being re-interpreted forever. These interpretations and assumptions are, undoubtedly, changing the text and changing the meaning, not to mention the lexicon. For instance, after having read the book or seen the film “The Da Vinci Code” (2003), people honestly believe that the figure in blue, to Christ’s right in The Last Supper mural painting by Leonardo Da Vinci, is Mary Magdalene. Hence, does the spectator’s point of view bring depth and width, or does it narrow the text and give it new, unnecessary interpretations?
In contemporary art and in contemporary art theory, as well as in the contemporary art market, art does not exist without its creator. Today, an artist is not simply a craftsman or a performer. The artist is a name, a face, an instagram profile and a signature. An artist is someone who defines culture; someone who directs the streams of culture and who also predicts and determines the future. The #anishandweiweiwalk in London raised awareness about refugees; Keith Haring made, and still makes, people think about AIDS; Cildo Meireles reminds us about post-colonialism. Artists have the power to lead and to inspire; and to take away this truly magical ability is to kill the author. I urge you to always remember the roots and origins of a piece before coming up with associative interpretations.