Monday, July 03, 2006

Author or Forger? Sherrie Levine and the Shackles of Innovation

I have received several e-mails challenging my very project: the search for the relation of works of art to artistic truth. I was surprised to find that on a few occasions, the specter of appropriation art was invoked, apparently in the hope that I would reject the artist’s role as author and look elsewhere for an explanation of an artwork’s ontological status. I must admit that appropriation has tempted me to draw this conclusion numerous times before and it was only from fear of its consequences that I resisted. For this reason, I was happy to run across Sherri Irvin’s article in the April 2005 issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics entitled “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art.”

First of all, I should explain my previous position vis a vis appropriation. Let us distinguish (as is conventionally done) between the use of readymades (as with Duchamp’s Fountain) and the creation of appropriation works such as Sherrie Levine’s photographic reproductions of works by Walter Evans. In order to avoid the odious consequences of death-of-the-author-ism, I once simply concluded that the latter kind of appropriation is a form of charlatanism and, at best, second-rate work. In other words, I held that it didn’t really qualify as art at all. But Irvin quickly disabused me of this quaint notion:

“One common-sense reaction to this work would be to deny that it is, in any meaningful sense, Levine’s work and thus to deny that she is, by virtue of making it, an artist. But it’s a bit late for that. The work of the most radical appropriation artists has been accepted as art, and they have been accepted as artists, receiving every form of recognition for which artists and artworks are eligible: Levine has works in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Glenn Brown has been short-listed for the Turner Prize, the appropriation artists have been discussed in Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art and other major art criticism venues, and so on. Moreover, the kind of recognition the artists have received suggests that the art world takes them seriously as the authors of their work. If Brown were not considered responsible for his works, however derivative from Dali and John Martin, what would be the point of considering him for a prestigious award? If Levine were not taken seriously as an author, what would be the point of interviewing her in major art magazines?”1

In my muddled thinking, constrained by the fear that art might turn out to be little more than an empty concept, I had overlooked these undeniable facts. But Irvin does not leave us with an authorless world. Rather, she goes quite far in establishing the surprising claim that even in appropriation (which we must now accept as genuine art), the artist is author. If I were an artist, then if I were to take a photograph of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, it would not be a mere forgery. Indeed, the process by which I produced my work (let’s call it The Persistence of Dali’s Persistence of Memory) would be quite different from that of Dali himself. But these considerations are not sufficient to establish my authorship, as they apply equally to forgery. Irvin solves the puzzle by turning to the appropriation artist’s relationship to the conventional understanding of innovation in art:

“While they have often been seen as challenging or undermining notions of artistic authorship, the appropriation artists in fact accomplished something quite different, wittingly or not. By refusing the demands of originality and innovation that had come to seem criterial for art by the mid-twentieth century, these artists demonstrated that even originality and innovation are expendable: there is nothing in the nature of art or of the artist’s role that obligates the artist to produce innovative works. The demand for originality is an extrinsic pressure directed at the artist by society, rather than a constraint that is internal to the very concept of art. As a result, it is up to the artist to decide whether to acquiesce in this demand or not. By revealing this, far from throwing off the mantle of authorship, these artists have actually reaffirmed the artist’s
ultimate authorial status.”2

From this, we are forced to conclude that The Persistence of Dali’s Persistence of Memory is no work of art at all. I had hypothetically set out to create a generic work of appropriation art and had never considered challenging the indispensability of originality and innovation. Nor had I considered society’s role in forcing these criteria upon the artist from without. But then, I never claimed to actually be an artist. The fact that I apparently cannot even create art hypothetically underscores the wisdom of my reluctance in doing so in reality. Let us leave art to actual artists like Sherrie Levine and rest assured that the artist can still legitimately lay claim to the authorship of his or her work.

1-2: Irvin, Sherri, “Appropriation and Authorship in Contemporary Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 45, No. 2, April 2005.

15 Comments:

Blogger George said...

The demand for originality is an extrinsic pressure directed at the artist by society, rather than a constraint that is internal to the very concept of art.

Is this statement true or just partially true?

As a result, it is up to the artist to decide whether to acquiesce in this demand or not.

Doesn't this statement presuppose the "artist" has no internal interest in "originality" outside of what she may feel is imposed by society?

4:13 PM  
Anonymous J said...

Copernicus acted nobly when he claimed the Earth revolved around the Sun. Too bad it was already too late for that. The Church had by that time accepted the geocentric view as correct. If they hadn't accepted it as correct, what would the point have been in condemning the heliocentric model?

4:39 PM  
Blogger M. Cameron Boyd said...

Mr. Silverthorne: Ideas of appropriation have everything to do with “the odious consequences of death-of-the-author-ism,” which you admittedly are attempting to avoid in this post. However, the risk of manifesting disinformation about current art theory will not serve this particular “art practice” or your readers well.

Douglas Crimp has suggested that appropriation establishes a “presence” through the “structures of absence.” John Welchman has written extensively on appropriation and one of his insights refers to the “cut-out anonymity of re-photographed media images.” Both of these views would prompt us to take in a deeper reading of the “absence” of “originality” with reference to artists using appropriative tactics in their work, and certainly to question the viability of Ms. Irvin’s simplistic contention that an artist who appropriates has “actually reaffirmed the artist’s ultimate authorial status.”

Essentially, the “style,” or “practice,” of appropriation yields to “the linguistic turn” that influenced art from the late ‘70s onwards, as it re-forms a quoted sign as referent, wherein an origin-less in-authenticity becomes an “aura of absence.” Ms. Levine’s work is meant to function within an art world system of “signs.” She distances her “self” (subject) from her appropriated imagery (Weston and Malevich) by dissipating their content as originary and testing the definition of “meaning” through a subjective approach to mediation. Or, as Crimp points out in his characterization of Levine’s work, “representation takes place because it is always already there in the world as representation.”

8:48 AM  
Blogger George said...

Whatever, it's a cul de sac.

9:23 AM  
Blogger George said...

Both of these views would prompt us to take in a deeper reading of the "absence" of "originality" with reference to artists using appropriative tactics in their work, and certainly to question the viability of Ms. Irvin’s simplistic contention that an artist who appropriates has "actually reaffirmed the artist’s ultimate authorial status."

MCB, your conclusion doesn't square with the facts. A closer examination of Ms. Levine's body of work would suggest that she has indeed made an effort to distinguish her "appropriations" from the original. Authorship.

10:15 AM  
Blogger M. Cameron Boyd said...

George: As I said, it is "Ms. Irvin’s simplistic contention that an artist who appropriates has "actually reaffirmed the artist’s ultimate authorial status." Irvin’s speculation does not convey Levine's intention. Authorship is indeed what is “suspect” here, the very “point” of appropriation. It is not, as Irvin's "quaint" opinion suggests, another way to broach "originality."

10:35 AM  
Blogger George said...

Irvin’s speculation does not convey Levine's intention. Authorship is indeed what is "suspect" here, the very "point" of appropriation.

Regardless of Ms Levine's intention, the inescapable fact is that the path of her work assumes authorship. Whether it's by the "aura of absence" or not.

11:07 AM  
Blogger M. Cameron Boyd said...

Regardless of Ms Levine's intention, the inescapable fact is that the path of her work assumes authorship.

Obviously, I agree, if “path” refers to the fact that Levine chose a reproductive mechanism of making, i.e. photography. Still, we could assume that “authorship” is coupled with “originality” if we "buy in” to this historic and tendentious exaltation of authorship, that a work is uniquely one's own, free of influence, citation, reference. This was the putative "voice" of the author /artist that Barthes questioned in Death of the Author. And before we go on a tangent about that, let me clarify that Roland himself wasn’t foolish enough to deny that a human wrote or made these things, so I won't either. What we question is that "voice" issue, preferring instead to wrest back authority for a work's "meaning" from the maker.

1:24 PM  
Blogger Marcus Silverthorne said...

I'll attempt to provide a brief apology for Dr. Irvin:

The main thrust of her argument is that the appropriation artist is responsible for the choice of which works are appropriated, and that this choice takes place within a broader set of intentions (conscious or unconscious) which are not (as in the case of the forger) restricted by default to some set of objective rules for what constitutes a work of art (a forgery on the other hand, is defined very narrowly as an attempt to pass off an imitation as an original for profit). The point is not whether or not we have access to the artist's actual intentions. Even if we do not, the question "Why did Levine choose this image?" nevertheless remains a meaningful one. And, unlike the case of the forger (where the question is implicitly answered already), the answer to this question is bound up with the artist's status of author. Even if we do not have the answer, we can still claim that there is an answer. Or, what is the same, even if the artist's authorial status is ambiguous, we can still claim that there is an author.

As to the matter of conventions, influences, and citations, it has traditionally been the case that the artist as author is considered in terms of these factors. It is the existence of these things that make the question mentioned above meaningful in the first place. For if we conceived of the artist as existing in free isolation, it would be difficult if not impossible to imagine any aesthetic choices that were not wholly arbitrary and impervious to interpretation.

2:36 PM  
Blogger George said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:36 PM  
Blogger George said...

MCB: Even if one considers Ms Levine's work just an intellectual enterprise, to disconnect Ms Levine from her status as author fails to take into account her as a person, acting with intent and a degree of passion for her artwork. Her artwork exists because she forcefully willed them into existence.

2:51 PM  
Blogger George said...

Still, we could assume that "authorship" is coupled with "originality" if we "buy in" to this historic and tendentious exaltation of authorship, that a work is uniquely one's own, free of influence, citation, reference.

Over history artists have been influenced and made references to prior artists. Picasso's cycle of works, the Algerian Women A-O (1955) are influenced by, and make a direct reference to two paintings by Delacroix "The Woman of Algiers" from 1834 and 1839.

There is a danger in citing references as if they are the final authority on the issue. Historically one finds the frame of reference is continually shifting along with the assumed authority of the argument. If one were to approach a similar theoretical issue (not this one but one suitable for the period) in say 1950 one side could be arguing that Greenberg had the answer, and it would be just as dubious.

You go on to suggest What we question is that "voice" issue, preferring instead to wrest back authority for a work's "meaning" from the maker.

What is the "voice" issue? I suspect that most artists realize, regardless of their intentions for an artworks "meaning", once it leaves the studio it is out of their control. At any given moment in time, the culture finds what "meaning" it can, sometimes incorporating the artists intentionality and sometimes not.

3:11 PM  
Blogger George said...

Still, we could assume that "authorship" is coupled with "originality" if we "buy in" to this historic and tendentious exaltation of authorship, that a work is uniquely one's own, free of influence, citation, reference.

Over history artists have been influenced and made references to prior artists. Picasso's cycle of works, the Algerian Women A-O (1955) are influenced by, and make a direct reference to two paintings by Delacroix "The Woman of Algiers" from 1834 and 1839.

There is a danger in citing references as if they are the final authority on the issue. Historically one finds the frame of reference is continually shifting along with the assumed authority of the argument. If one were to approach a similar theoretical issue (not this one but one suitable for the period) in say 1950 one side could be arguing that Greenberg had the answer, and it would be just as dubious.

You go on to suggest What we question is that "voice" issue, preferring instead to wrest back authority for a work's "meaning" from the maker.

What is the "voice" issue? I suspect that most artists realize, regardless of their intentions for an artworks "meaning", once it leaves the studio it is out of their control. At any given moment in time, the culture finds what "meaning" it can, sometimes incorporating the artists intentionality and sometimes not.

5:32 PM  
Blogger George said...

Even if one considers Ms Levine's work just an intellectual enterprise, to disconnect Ms Levine from her status as author fails to take into account her as a person, acting with intent and a degree of passion for her artwork. Her artwork exists because she willed it into existence.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Jonh Neo said...

Great Work!!!
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8:02 AM  

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