Let’s get a bit personal. When I was a child, I was introduced into the world of fairytales through the very first Disney princess film that I watched, Cinderella. Young as I was, I automatically fell in love with the idea of having a fairy godmother, wearing pretty dresses, singing with animals and, of course, falling in love with a prince and living happily ever after with him sweeping me off of my feet and into the castle of my dreams. However, as I grew up, my fondness in reading and watching has introduced me to many more versions of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted and Ever After, which tackled her story in different ways, but with both refusing to portray her as a damsel-in-distress, but a rather independent and strong character. Of course, in my fascination, I eventually ended up discovering some other versions which are very grim and involved sisters cutting off their heels and getting their eyes pecked by birds. Still, I read and read and was fascinated by the different portrayals and versions of the same character throughout different times and cultures. The same is true with my relationship with music. Being a musician, myself, I have always been fond of listening to modern takes of old classic hits. It’s always refreshing to hear an artist cover a song because each take is reflective of different emotions and contexts, making each listening experience unique and new.
As evident with what I have shared so far, I have always been more inclined to focusing on the content rather than who made it. I was always the person in the group who knew the song but not the singer. This tendency of mine made it difficult for me to adjust in my years in secondary school, as well as in college, because higher education demanded a certain fixation on authorship. In every literary lesson, there always had to be prior research and discussion on the author before we proceed to talk about the work. Everything was talked about—from the author’s childhood, career, issues, difficulties, advocacies, down to gossip. And all these were somehow incorporated into the discussion of the work as an effort to “contextualize” it. This led me to my understanding that the need to always look for and get to know the author was a staple item in the process of the analysis of art. With this, I have identified four main reasons as to why there is such a need in the first place.
First, and probably the most relevant reason nowadays, is the demand for accountability. We live in a fortunate time where change is being proactively pushed for. To state an example in the context of cinema, early films have always been about strong masculine characters saving damsels-in-distress. Female characters have always been subjected to the male gaze, and their primary purpose in a film is to supply the sexual visual needs of the dominantly male audience. Back then, white actors painting their faces black to portray African or Asian characters was totally acceptable. Stereotyping was the norm, racist and sexist jokes were also funny to the audience, and LGBTQ+ characters were always comedic side roles. Fortunately, the succeeding generations have grown to realize that these portrayals are not accurate, and neither are they okay. “Clearly, the cinema “reproduces” reality” (Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971), and these portrayals unrealistically fail to capture the totality of the human beings they have been trying to show. Instead, they created their own version of reality that was watched by all and, thereby, influenced the actual reality to be shaped accordingly. And now, humanity has been shaken enough to understand how they have been played by what was shown to them all along. This led to anger, frustration and, eventually, the demand for change.
The primary steps taken in this demand was to call out the continued misrepresentations and, in contrast, to acknowledge those who are doing things rightfully. In the process of calling out, it is understandable that there is a need to identify who is responsible for such work of art. This eventually puts emphasis on the determination of who is accountable for this wrongdoing so that the public could criticize and, somehow, crucify the author. Although some call outs are necessary because this is how the generation of artists will learn from their mistakes, still, there are some call outs that are unnecessary and were only triggered by the “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, such are reflections of a society outraged by the tremendous errors of the past. On a positive note, the same society also looks for the author of a “rightful” piece and glorifies her/him for getting things right. The author is amplified as much as her/his work so that s/he may serve as an example to aspiring and current artists about what the current generation demands for in terms of content. Such process is, indeed, a product of the evolution of society and, with it, the evolution of art.
The second reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the innate human desire to interpret art. I would like to quote a statement by Susan Sonntag that absolutely agree with,
“Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”(Sonntag, p.4, 1966)
It is very human for us to look for the meaning behind things which we do not understand. Art can be a surreal experience, unique and different to each who views it. Despite the fact that some art aims to mimic reality, realities of the artist still differ from the realities of the viewer. This tension behind realities creates confusion and possible misinterpretation of the work. Naturally, we are scared of what we don’t understand, so we seek comfort in one who can explain things. In the case of art, this pertains to its maker—the author.
“The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author “confiding” in us.”(Barthes, p.313, 1967)
People demand for the explanation when they are aware of the existence of the person who they can demand it from. By pinpointing who is accountable for a work, they seek the affirmation of their interpretations because having a realm of endless possibilities to a story is more frightening than taking a single explanation as it is and moving on. People crave for the gossip, the facts, the ultimate “truth” of the art, and they do not hesitate in identifying the author, cornering her/him, and imposing that it is her/his responsibility to explain the art which s/he enabled them to consume. This desire to interpret ultimately leads to the third reason for seeking the author, which is the people’s urge to criticize.
“When the Author has been found, the text is “explained” — victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered.”(Barthes, p.316, 1967)
Back then, when criticism was largely equated to interpretation, the goal was to derive meaning from the work, and the easiest way to do so was to let the artist explain. The reason behind this was most likely because of the urge to verify first the meaning of a work before saying something about it. It was ultimately playing safe to avoid errors in judgment and to form a more concrete opinion based on the established meaning of the work, rather than one’s own interpretation, which is deemed unreliable as compared to the artist’s claim. Once one true interpretation has been established, another objective might be to find loopholes.
“Once we realize that it is the nature of the system to turn the cinema into an instrument of ideology, we can see that the filmmaker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”…Certainly there is such a thing as public demand, but “what the public wants” means “what the dominant ideology wants.””(Comolli & Narboni, p. 755, 1971)
As a capitalist product, cinema, both consciously and unconsciously, complies to the system it adheres to. In line with criticism is the objective to inspect whether or not the work of art complies (or complies enough) to the standards revolving around the ideology it is bound to. The critic will, not only try to find loopholes in the work’s adherence, but also question the sufficiency of its conformity. The critics are also tasked to determine how the author makes use of the ideology in the work, whether or not s/he tries to oppose or agree with it, and whether the art is a criticism of this ideology or a complete product of it.
“Every film is political, inasmuch as it is determined by the ideology which produces it.”(Comolli & Narboni, p. 754, 1971)
“In this sense, the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society.”(Foucault, p.305, 1969)
Another task of the critic, once provided with the definition and meaning of the art by the author, herself/himself, is to determine the politics of the work. In its purpose of disentangling the work, rather than deciphering it, the critic determines where the art stands in terms of its politics. Whether or not it goes for or against the system, there will always be criticism depending on the standards of those in power. Ultimately, the author will be held accountable for the work’s standpoint in matters that it does not necessarily address, but is obliged to address as per the dominant ideology.
The final reason for the need to identify a sole author of an artwork is the desire to humanize the work. When a work of art is associated with a singular name, its transcendence is reduced to a humanized entity, thereby making it more accessible to those who wish to grasp it. The artwork, in its full form, is beyond human understanding. When it is (a) accounted for, (b) interpreted, (c) criticized, and thereby (d) humanized, it is reduced to something tangible and ultimately to what it really is—a capitalist product. When the viewers are finally able to take a hold of art, they eventually are inclined to possess it and, finally, co-author it.
“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.”(Barthes, p.316, 1967)
In society’s quest to dwell on the author, I would like to state that it is impossible for a work to have one singular author. There is no such thing. Each person holding a pen, a brush, or a camera has realities which are products of the works that precedes them, as well as the evolution of the society they live in. There are multiple influences in one mind and, therefore, many voices in one text. To give credit to only one voice is to disregard the history of the others. The experience of art is unique to each individual, based on their own personal realities. As a reader, for example, reads a text, s/he reads it and reflects on it based on her/his reality. Therefore, the meaning of the text diverts away possibly from what the “author” originally intended. As the reader unintentionally personalized the text, s/he becomes co-author of the work because, by this time, the work is already her/his own. Art, then, becomes possessed by s/he who digests it, reflects on it, and embodies it. It is rare for art to be taken as it is. Even so, it is still contextualized according to the realities of the readers-turned-co-authors. Ultimately, consumers of art are co-authors because they take the art and make it their own. During this process, the initial “author figure” is aware that s/he must let go of the work because it is not her/his anymore. Art is and has always belonged to everyone. The sooner we realize this, the more likely we can finally focus on giving due appreciation to the power and transcendence that every work of art rightfully deserves.
Barthes, R. (1967). The Death of the Author. Aspen, 313-316.
Comolli, J., & Narboni, P. (1971). Cinema/ldeology/Criticism.Screen, 121(1), 752-759.
Foucault, M. (1969). What is an Author?. Lecture, Collège de France.