Death of the Artist

Courtesy of Unsplash.

Op-Ed: Death of the Artist

by Kimberly Ruth | Life & Times | Mar 25, 2017

In 2014, Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter claiming that she was sexually assaulted when she was seven-years-old by her stepfather Woody Allen, who whispered in her ear that “she was a good girl and that this was their little secret.”

Raising the creep-factor even more, in 1979, six years before Farrow was born, Allen wrote, directed and stared in a movie titled “Manhattan,” which follows a greying and frustrated television writer—played by Allen—who falls in love with a fresh-faced high school girl.

Despite my knowledge of the accusations against Allen, I decided to watch the movie. I cringe to say this, but I found it to be a cinematically beautiful, and even convincing, love story. However, I was distracted. It was near impossible for me to disassociate the artist’s biography from the fictional portrayal I viewed on screen.

I pictured Mariel Hemingway—who played the young girl—as a tangible replacement for his stepdaughter. I imposed the love he seemed to have for this character with love that he may have felt for Mira, which is dangerous, as it can be seen as a gateway for excusing abuse for love.

I truly wanted to appreciate the film as a work of art independent from its creator, but given the extremity of the allegation, I was unable to take the active role that I so often try to do when being a spectator.

Most of the time, though, I work to divorce a work of art from the biography of its producer.

Many critics do.

While I was a graduate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I was privileged—in more ways than one—to sit in on a class critique with Helen Molesworth, former director of Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the current chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. During the discussion, she told a student in the most loving way possible that she doesn’t give a fuck about the artist’s intentions or process.

I laughed, as did everyone else in the room, but her point was well taken. She cared solely about the art object.

Generally speaking, most art lovers tend to follow suit on this belief. The success of the work comes from whether or not the viewer can relate to the exhibiting object independent of its creator. Does the object remind the viewer of his or her own life or family or struggles? Does it spark something in them that will allow a change, whether in the way they see or the way they think?

In 1967 Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled “Death of the Author,” which was essentially a call for critics to stop considering the artists’ intentions, feelings, and biography when (re)viewing their work—in the case of this specific essay, literary works.

“In this type of criticism, the experiences and biases of the author serve as a definitive ‘explanation’ of the text… To give a text an Author and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it is to impose a limit on that text,” he said.

The reason I am resurrecting this conversation at this moment in time is due to a series of questions that was raised after I took my photography students on a field trip to see the Perpetual Revolution exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City.

As aspiring artists, they feared a true death of their occupation, not in the hypothetical or theoretical sense, but in a physical one—a death of the refined artistic skill, which was evident in the show, as it showcased just as many Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds as it did photographic prints (which were mostly reproductions of previously-published images).

Though I think the multi-themed show was successful in the organization of material—the exhibition was grouped into five main topics: climate change, the refugee crisis, transgendered people, the Black Lives Matter Movement and terrorism—I do understand their concern.

In the refugee section, for example, there was a video that was taken directly from the Twitter account of refugee Thair Damascus; the selfie-aesthetic of the footage was both hopeful, exhausting and, for lack of a better term, sad. Damascus, viewed in selfie mode, asked his accompanying refugees—who were all squished into a boat the size of a matchstick box—to say hello to his followers in a boisterous tone that made me want to rip the veil of happiness off his face.

As telling as this piece was of the “reality” (or lack thereof) of social media, representation, and trauma, my students were still squirmish about the fact that a Twitter feed was considered a work of art by the reputable institution that is the ICP.

Similar works were viewed in the transgender section, which housed multiple tablets that acted as interactive self-portraits via the form of celebrity and non-celebrity transgender people’s Instagram accounts.

It was kind of foreign (albeit refreshing) to see a mass of photographic representations depicting single topics, given the age in which we live, where we are so saturated with disconnected images, often due to the industry’s need to cover any and every topic on page one to appeal to consumers’ varying tastes and interests.

On broadcast news, for example, we see a vomit of images ranging from a refugee toddler lying belly down in the ocean’s tide, a close up photograph of a pharmaceutical product that may or may not make you fat or constipated or dead, a swish of Colgate, a golden retriever frolicking through fields of gold, a house fire, a murder, a wanted black man, and a home security system all within 23 minutes.

In this show, though, there was a clear navigation through the otherwise abundant material.

My students, as informed as they promised me they became, were nervous. Not so much about the state of our world as exemplified in the content of the images, but in the production value of the image-based works.

“What is the need for art school?” asked one of my students, who pays close to $25,000/year for his college education at a public university. (Note: Private school costs tend to exceed $60,000 per year).

I told him that was a great question, and asked the rest of the students about their thoughts.

The conversation took many turns: We spoke about social media and how it changed our chosen medium. We agreed that it has placed a cloak of confidence over the world, convincing most users that they are in fact photographers and artists. We also agreed that an artistic skill set is not required to “make it” in the art world.

Artists like Damian Hearst—who outsources all of his labor and then sells his pieces for millions of dollars—and, dare I say it, most artists that I see while gallery hopping in NYC, are comfortable members of the art world without having to be able to paint a horse that looks like a horse.

Most people these days, I assume, can do without that gallant, patriotic horse painting.

What I stressed to my students, though, is that art school is geared towards much more than simply learning the skills to make a thing look like the thing that you want to make; it trains artists to view the world in a way that most people prefer to neglect. It teaches individuals to see the veil of deceit, corruption and inequality, while encouraging artists to speak out against it in whatever creative form fits their personality.

Unfortunately, most other occupations prefer the status quo, for reasons of keeping the powerful powerful and the rich rich. Artists, despite being seen as the rebellious, anti-capitalist underdogs of society, are needed. Without them, history—which is nothing more than stories—would not exist.

What then would we learn from?