The Death of the ‘Authorlessness Theory’?
Let’s face it. Can one fully buy into Roland Barthes’ claim that “The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”? (172). Even if “it is language which speaks, not the author” (168), an author is responsible for the creation of a unique sequence of words in a novel, a poem or an article. The canvas on which freeplaying signifiers paint themselves seems so vast to Barthes that “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original” (170). His claim, when taken at face value, is equivalent to saying that since paint exists, there can be no Painter. But it would be a faux pas give his idea such a naïve reading—a reading strictly limited to written texts. When applied to projects such as Group art, music and film, his theory gains greater validity. Three such works that illustrate the complexities of authorship are Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), Gram Parsons’ second solo album, Grievous Angel (1974), and the 1939 MGM film version of The Wizard of Oz. Adding to Barthes’ idea proposed in “The Death of the Author” will be discussions of Michel Foucault’s “What is the Author?” and Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory to understand the complexities of claiming authorship. These examples will show that the Author is a construct that might not disappear as quickly as Barthes and Foucault had anticipated.
A discussion of The Dinner Party group project is an excellent starting point to explore definitions of “The Author” and authority. First, to what extent can fine art be authored (or rather, can a non-text be authored)? Second, who should receive credit? A simple dictionary definition of “author” will contain at least two entries: 1) one that writes or creates a literary work, and 2) one that originates or creates. Both of our questions are answered. Art can be authored, and, so it follows, the originator of the idea should receive credit. Authority, in this context, then becomes the power to influence thought. Michel Foucault’s notion of an author-function supplements color to these black and white dictionary definitions. He defines the author-function as a “characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society” where ownership and the importance of the individual are stressed (202). Now that the author has been defined, can it be shocking to learn that “some four hundred women and men from all walks of life” contributed to The Dinner Party, but it was credited to Judy Chicago (Jones, 68)?
The Dinner Party, first exhibited in San Francisco in 1979, was a massive multimedia display composed of tables (that together formed a triangle) on which 39 decorated plates (most of which contained intricately caricatured vaginal and butterfly imagery) were placed. Underneath each plate were needlepoint runners. Inside the area outlined by the tables were...