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Prof. Patrick Ffrench on ‘The Death of the Author’


Patrick Ffrench is Professor of French at King’s College, London University. His principal research interests are in twentieth-century literature and post-war literary and critical theory - in particular: Georges Bataille, the journal Tel Quel (1960-1982), the legacy of French theory, and the thought of Gilles Deleuze. Patrick grew up in Cornwall.


Rupert: Patrick, one of the most enduring legacies of recent French philosophy and literary theory has been Roland Barthes’ essay on the Death of the author, which seems to have been a succinct expression of a particular strand of thought that was around at the time. What is historically interesting about this is that he wrote the essay in 1967 at the same time that conceptual art and minimalism were born. Firstly, is that accurate?

Patrick: You are right that Barthes' infamous essay was written and published at a time when mostly US-based art movements such as conceptualism and minimalism were emergent – but actually it was 1969...

Rupert: Both conceptual art and minimalism seemed very much to be comparable attempts to get away from the idea of the artist as the origin of the work. Have you got any theories as to why these ideas emerged when they did? They seem, in my mind, to be linked to Zen Buddhism and John Cage (manuscript by John Cage - right) - particularly in the States.

Patrick: In fact as one of the adherents of the Tel Quel group with whom Barthes was associated, the poet and art critic Marcelin Pleynet, pointed out to me, the first Happenings took place in Paris in the early 1960s. Similarly, the same milieu which celebrated and affirmed Barthes critical theories also affirmed the movements across the plastic and performative arts which were coming out of New York at the time, in particular those linked to Charles Olson and the Black Mountain College such as Cage and Merce Cunningham.

Rupert: Would Pleynet have been referring to Yves Klein the French artist (image below left): famous for his performances and all blue monochrome paintings? As it turned out his work anticipated developments in American art to an extent that was uncanny.

Patrick: Yes – and I believe there were other artists doing similar things at the time.

The significance of the theory for visual art is probably less directly to do with the eclipse of the figure of the author, and more emphatically and clearly to do with with a stress on the gestural and graphic inscription of the artist, the aleatory and material trace of the hand, let's say, as opposed to the authoritative mind or brain of the artist-subject. Barthes' death of the author, linked for him to the birth of the reader, is also the liberation of a certain materiality of inscription and gesture, which brings into play the aleatory and ludic aspects linked to Cage, the I Ching and so on.

Rupert: So it sounds like this generation of French thinkers were interested in abstract expressionism to the degree that it entailed a letting go of authorial control, and the introduction of random or chance procedures into the making of a lot of it. The head was cut off from the hand to an extent. This was true of 2nd generation St Ives painters to a degree too - particularly Lanyon and Hilton.

Patrick: But the emphasis on inscription is also important. Minimalism and conceptualism, in my view, are errors of judgement, or at worst repressions of the materiality of inscription, which one could take in a Derridean sense, should one want to, by the transcendental idea, by Kant, if you like. Although it really depends what kind of minimalism is at stake. Cy Twombly (picture below right), for example, was very much a favourite of Barthes, for the lightness of his gestural touch and for the resistance of his graffiti like paintings to ideological appropriation. In the same way, it seems to me, Barthes likes the graffiti of May 1968, while he dislikes the politics.

Rupert: From the perspective of this brand of literary theory then, it sounds like minimalism and conceptualism were an erasure too far, as the artist was no longer ‘writing’.  Maybe this fits with Michael Fried’s criticism of minimalism as a form of theatricality.

When you read documents that were around at the time the artists involved in these movements - particularly minimalism - wanted to eliminate themselves from the work. They were reacting to what they saw as self-expression in the work of the abstract-expressionists.  Think of one of my own favourite artists: Agnes Martin (picture below left). I would argue that her art is kind of at the end point of this trajectory of self-denial in two dimensional visual art, which may have been underway in the fifties but kind of ended with her and some of the very minimal conceptual work. In my view there is a shade more author in Cy Twombly than there is in e.g. Agnes Martin because you're aware of his presence in the work to a greater extent. Maybe, then, it can be argued the self-erasure went too far with her (though thats not my personal view).

Patrick: Actually, I don't know Agnes Martin that well, but it seems to me that there has never really been any relaxation in authorial control as such. What happens is an author behind the author decides to express the idea of the absence of that author. What Barthes was having a go at in any case is the role of the author in the ideology of literature, in the popular idea of literature.

The figure of 'the artist' is just as strong now, and it seems to me that it has even taken over from the figure of the writer who is all but defunct. What I mean is that we still broadly support the idea of the creative individual having ideas and them being his or her property. It's not gesture or expressionism that undermines the author, it's anonymity.

Rupert: There is a huge cult of celebrity that surrounds the artist these days: which distracts from the content of the work, in a bad way very often, such that in the end it becomes the work. Tracey Emin is the classic example. This was always a problem with Joseph Beuys too. It’s become more of an issue in recent years though – maybe because the TV execs have become more adept at making visual art more media-friendly, and many artists are only too happy to play along with the spectacle that ensues. You can understand, under the circumstances, why some of the most radical contemporary artists choose to work in collectives e.g. the Guerilla Girls, Critical Art Ensemble and Bank.

Moving on, can we agree that Barthes ‘Death of the author’, related as it was to other ideas around at the time, coincided with the decline in the influence of St Ives? I wonder if there is a link?

Patrick: I think it's a mistake to see the decline of St Ives you mention as linked to the rise of theory. I think someone like Hilton or Lanyon resonate well with the affirmation of materiality and gesture that in hindsight - and longsight - come out of the French theorists take on art. Look at Barthes on Twombly, Kristeva on Kline, Pleynet on Cunningham, Derrida's book about paintings of the blind.

The ‘decline’ of St Ives if there was one, and I am somewhat in the dark here, was probably more to do with the parochialism, the provincialism, the whole fallacy of the return to nature that it seemed to embody, an ideological association with a certain Englishness which was being blown apart but curiously reaffirmed under the table elsewhere.

Rupert: Yes, quite possibly. This was why pop-art had the impact it had. It interesting though that though the ‘return to nature’ is flawed, and viewed by suspicion by many, it is still captivating and enthralling for many others: which is probably why St Ives art is as popular as ever, and viewed with such fondness. So maybe it’s wrong to call it a decline...I’ll take that back!