I copied this exercise from my learning blog, which I since changed to a WordPress Website. The exercise is part of Part Two, Meaning.

QUESTION:Compare the two essays by Sontag and Barthes. This is an opportunity to clarify your thoughts on both these essays and make links and comparisons between them. What do you think the two writers agree and disagree about? The learning material suggests the following: Using the OCA student forums, find other students undertaking UVC2 to discuss the essays, focusing on what you think the two writers agree and disagree about. Your discussion can take place over time through a series of comments on the forum or a live face-to-face chat. Summarise the dialogue on your learning log.

I arranged with a fellow student, Stephan Schaffeld, that we critique each other’s views for this exercise. After reading his blog on this exercise, I shared my comments with him and he replied to my comments.

My comments to Stephan, as shared on September 7, 2020, at 1:01 pm
A comment in the beginning paragraphs of your discussion intrigued me:”Is this not quite paradox as to how could we understand what they want to tell us?” and later you write that you think understanding is more important than interpretation? I think that both these critics found themselves at the time of their writing of mentioned essays in an ambiguous situation where their discourse against interpretation and hidden meaning became bestsellers as a theory to the literary world, hence I agree with your effort to first understand where they come from to arrive at their statements, thus to put them into context. ( did a lot of reading myself, and still not sure…)I read them both as urging the reader to connect with art as the thing itself, the form as in the work of art, the written story as words in the book, and not to rely on the art critic to search for more meaning. Too much emphasis was placed on trying to retrace the author’s intentions and original meaning. The function of the text is to be read and valued, the author is irrelevant. Can it be so simple as that in the work of art as well, can we find meaningful art by simply looking at it? Both authors view that the seeing/reading of art/book (in the attention the viewer give to details of the work, by spending time looking at it), an opportunity arises which brings meaning, which can be better than the (prescriptive) interpretation of the art critic in the newspaper or the gallery catalog. This meaning will be different to all for reasons which we both agree, as it can be rewritten/deferred and will keep changing. In order to find meaning, will it ever bring us to understanding? Is understanding meaning ever possible? Does understanding equal interpretation, meaning= understanding + interpretation.In Afrikaans, the word, begripshorison describes very well the idea of understanding our world from our own perspective (search for meaning?) (Wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein?) as well as a place into which we move when we meet that same “begripshorison” of the artist/author. As we come to the conclusion that we will never be able to understand everything, we almost know our/universal shortcomings, due to our own experience of our limited perspective(horizon?). So: I think this is it….that place of understanding, like a meeting place when one feels you ‘’get” a work of art and for that matter the artist. ( you talked about language and difficulty and getting a joke). Sontag argues in that way ‘the thing itself will be seen. I do appreciate the value placed on the work/text, (the writing process described as crafting a narrative”)…. to be experienced. It opens/free wide multiple meanings to art as well as an opportunity to be touched by, or have an encounter with art itself..here the senses come to play and we have interaction between the author/artist, the viewer/reader, and the work/text.
Now going back to your statement, is this understanding or interpreting? Is the author not sending ‘warning signals’ to viewers/readers that we should be wary of trusting one truth and rather trust and challenge our intuition and own idea of what we think we can understand? I agree when you say: “ I would rather say: please, give us a multiplicity of interpretations and intentions. But leave the ‘inexinexpressible’ (L.Wittgenstein, in Âhlberg, 1991:26), the free play of imagination, the space of unrestricted engagement to the beholder, the viewer, the reader. And the artist-self as the ‘creator’, the author would be the reader in the first place.
Sontag suggests interpretation should be descriptive in the sense that we rely on what we see, more than content. The fact that people prefer to read the brochures or the wall note next to the artwork, could it have everything to do with understanding or interpretation. When we keep in mind how little time people spend in front of artworks. I would argue that in a contemporary gallery the curator or even artist could be more readily available and will the experience of interpretation be more interactive and less prescriptive?
I do think it is important to spend time with the ideas on the author as being dead, as I feel Barthes and Sontag agree on the importance of the work and less the biographical or content. The moment we read the text, the author dies, as we are free to interpret this text in potentially many ways, as readers and the moment in time the reading happens also differs. So this “death” is that of losing control. It seems meaning comes from the reader himself, his/her personal experiences….and this means we could have potentially infinite numbers of meaning. In my research, I came upon work done by TS Eliot, which seems close to the ideas of Barthes when it comes around the person/self/artist/writer/poet. In 1919 he publishes his manifesto as a poet and critic, “Tradition and the Individual Talent “. The essay appeared in the September and December 1919, issues of The Egoist, the London-based magazine, and was proposed as a challenge to the conventions of early twentieth-century literary criticism. The role of the myth of a universal human nature and self is addressed by Barthes in his title. Elliot writes, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality……..But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”, Elliot also writes of the poet having a medium (being the catalytic agent of the writing/poem)), and not a “personality” if one keeps in mind that a catalyst isn’t affected by the reaction, no trace of it appears in the new compound—but without it, the reaction does not take place. This explains I think where Barthes’s Death of the Author was inspired(appropriated) from. Then another important idea from Barthes is the intertextuality, which takes nothing away from creativity, but acknowledges the knowledge that came before us, when states, the text is a “tissue of quotations . . . a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”. I think that space lies in the text….in the work of art. According to Barthes, the writer is not the autonomous creator. In 1978, Roland Barthes published an essay named ‘The Death of the Author’. The ideas of Barthes’ text have sparked off a wide array of discussions. The notion of the death of the author has influenced the art world just as much as literary theory. ‘The Death of the Author’ is less bleak than it sounds. The notion suggests that the author does not control the meaning of their text. Instead, at the expense of the death of the author, we are experiencing the birth of the reader. What Barthes is trying to show us is that texts can exist in countless different times, places, and contexts that the author may not have foreseen. In the text’s travels through history, cultures, and time, the author’s original meanings are likely to be experienced differently. Put very simply, the death of the author explains that each reader experiences texts contextually and subjectively; therefore the author does not control the reader’s experience of the text.
Ps ( I understand very little German, just loved the words I used…..I do have genetic German roots, my maiden name being Kühn, and had childhood German friends due to the neighborhood
I stayed in. I think it is necessary to have conversations about how we think about art and how we behave around art. I think I should challenge myself much more in terms of who I think I am.

Reply from Stephan on September 10, 2020 at 9:42 am
Thanks greatly for your engaging and deep comment on my post and the ambiguous view on authorship and meaning. You mentioned that I placed understanding as more important than interpretation. What I wrote was ‘Understanding is more than interpretation’, i.e. (side comment on ‘i.e.’ = this intrinsically assuming that something can have a meaning). But I was thinking of was that one can understand ‘something’ without interpretation. If one assumes that interpretation is based on and through language. I can have a bodily, sensual, gestural understanding, a ‘felt sense’ without being able to verbalize it through language. Or words do not grasp my understanding fully.You are right when stating that context can be relevant for reception of texts.I believe that there is a difference between written texts and oral narratives, between writing and speaking, between reading and hearing. An aspect that Sontag pointed out in the interview with Berger. As Sontag critiqued her early essay (‘on interpretation’ is one her earliest one) and acknowledged that she saw or understood with some time passing, certain subjects differently. I assume, she would have written the same text quite differently.The same is true in my case and my learning path through this course and now at the end of it. I would write my post differently now. What does this ‘mean’? Context (space and time and development) has an impact. What happened in between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’? Perhaps, I got some ‘understanding’ that informs theses changes? Or what else would make the difference? Actually, it is also you, your commentary, your invitation to me to reflect on your and my words. An iteration, as my visual works are constant iterations, informed by my understanding (experience) and by collaborative interactions (shared experience). Or as Barthes described it as ‘tissue’ – what actually comes close to my art practice of ‘skin sculptures’ and skin as tissue. One difference occurring, and I am still struggling with, are art as work (e.g. painting, sculpture, installation, performance) that can be ‘understood’ or received as such and/or with additional textual information (e.g. title, artist statement and motivation, artist interview, exhibition text, curator’s text). At the end of this course dealing more with social, participatory and collaborative practices it raises question of intervention and dialogue, of authorship and art as object. If art as social practice is a temporal activity to gain knowledge and understanding, then it would possibly through a space of shared experience. There are no authors only participants in an aesthetic relationship.
Afrikaans feels so familiar to me, because so close to Dutch. I understand (ik begrijp) ‘meaning’ of words, without understanding of context or culture. Do I understand truly?
I do thank you for this opportunity!

Considering my thoughts:

I think it is important to say that both have writers evolved over time, since these early essays. I came to discover that Barthes at a stage of his life sustained a practice of drawing and painting, to which he apparently referred to as a process of production, and not being caught in the trap of language.

Within the Postmodern stance, Barthes placed importance on the reader as he sees the reader as creating narratives, just like the artist. The ambiguous status of the postmodern author is questioned when Barthes discusses how this construct has come to outstrip its condition of freedom and paradoxically now faces the disintegration of its autonomy. The function of the text is that it is(exists) to be read. I understand this, as that language/art speaks through an impersonality. One now has the unknown/ghostwriter in the same standing as the ‘famous’, on the same ground…..does it make a difference? The viewer/reader knows a writer/artist did the work. Barthes sees that the image of literature is too connected to the author as a person when the work is critiqued.

I am aware that Foucault also challenged authorship, and understand that we should see ‘text’ as coming from many sources within our culture, which can only come together in the mind of the reader and that the author reworked already existing forms and ideas, which also shaped the author as well. It made me more aware of how our ways of seeing become distorted on the one hand, if we attach cult status to a person and the possibility of losing sight of the truth. I do think it is important and sensible to debunk and re-balance the value placed on the person – with regard to his reference to Van Gogh’s work being his madness, we know there was much more in his works (a letter) as to how other artist and his contemporaries, and his changing environment over time, influenced this style and use of colour. In this regard I do think that more recent exhibitions have done a great favour to the viewers of art by also showing the sanity behind it…..it seems there is now more understanding that his mental illness actually kept him from painting, more of an impediment. I do believe there is something of a tyranny centred in the idea of the author in his person being central to the voice confiding in the reader. There should be some understanding of impersonality in order for any work of art to reach a point where it is about the work, and not ‘me’/I……that removal opens up the work.

Sontag calls it a transcendental power. In a blog I read the opinion that “Death of the Author is an attack on traditional literary criticism that focused too much on trying to retrace the author’s intentions and original meaning”.((Sontag does the same with the interpretation of art.) The essay became a discourse on the rules of author and reader as mediated by the text. Form in this context is characters using words and narrative which the reader actively reads. Barthes is against the myth of a universal human nature, influenced by Marxism and the capitalist idea of created/constructed the ‘person’ or self of the artist/author, he says that ‘author’ is a modern figure and linked to the prestige of the individual. He was also anti-colonialism and supported the American Civil rights movement. Barthes talks about the modern writer as a scriptor and says: “The modern writer (scriptor) is born simultaneously with his text; he is in no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends his writing” (Barthes 1967b:4). The text becomes the autority/autominity/ , the still owns the freedom of doing it. Is it merely a change in emphasis? Barthes argues that the author has no sovereignty over his own words, as that belong to the reader who interprets them. When we read a book, we need not ask ourselves what the author intended in his words but ask ourselves what the words actually say: Text employ symbols which the reader can decipher. For Barthes, the death of the “author” notion means that meaning is not something to be discovered… meaning is something which is spontaneously generated in the process of reading a text. I like the active, it is not passive or as Sontag states deductive and prescriptive. Barthes does not intend to suggest that the death of the author lets the reader read all text any way he or she likes; he suggested that reading always involves at least a little bit of writing or rewriting of the text’s meaning. He suggests readers adopt a more text-oriented meaning when he places the writing of the author above the importance of the author.

How to I make a link to art with regards to the above notes? How do I defend it with words/discussion… I say art it is about creating/ working/doing life as I can understand and translate it -can be figurative or abstract images/ideas. Shiff (2003) reminds his readers, in the chapter about originality, and of Gaugin, who complained in a writing to his dealer that nobody wanted his work, because it was different to that of others, and then goes on….”strange, illogical public which demands the greatest possible originality  from a painter and yet will not accept him unless he resembles all the others – [but] I do resemble those who resemble me, that is, those who imitate me.”  The viewer of art searches for signs of originality, when art is viewed,  but the artist should understand this (my work as being original, my ‘creation) as also a communal entity and not private property. For me, it links to The Death of the Author. In a way the work of Celmins, To fix the image in Memory, 1977-82 shows how an artist deals with the process of seeing and interpretation.

Sontag is not against interpretation in the broadest sense, she mainly argues against critics who took the transcendental power of art for granted by constructing their intellectual readings. She writes about interpretation being “summoned as a form of reconcilement between the ancient text to modern demands”, furthermore, she laments, that by the time of her writing, it is even more complex. She sees the task of interpretation the same as translation and argues it has become ‘open aggressiveness, an overt contempt for appearances. She refers to Freud:”becomes occasions for interpretation.” Interpretation itself must be evaluated she writes, ‘but within a historical view of human consciousness”. She sees the value that it helps to “revise and escaping the dead past, whereas in other cultural contexts it could be seen as cowardly.” I do think she agrees with Barthes and the ideas of structuralist criticism in that the interpreter/reader/viewer alters the text. She is more concerned with the critic who in her words “diminishes the value of the work”: she underlined that the modern style of interpretation (criticism) lost sensitivity due to intent to excavate or destroy a piece of art.” According to Sontag “interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable”; and by “reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art.” It made me think of words I read somewhere……..could it be that art puts us in front of an unbearable question, which we consider to reject as it affirms things we dare not say we have seen ( society could incur madness upon us?). She suggests that the critic should pay more attention to “form in art” (to the appearance of a work of art), and to “experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself”. She laments almost when she writes ..”our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content ( rules of out thinking, theory?) so that we (again the critic) can interact with creativity, that which is an art and indicates to the artist as a creative. Here I think she acknowledges the creative work process of the artists. I viewed a video made by MIT during a panel discussion on Images and Meaning.  Sontag is part of the panel and her views on how we attach meaning through viewing images gave insight into her later ideas about visual information and how we communicate about it.  She says that to look at images as representative is shallow,  they are aids and trigger responses, have to be seen within a context to really understand them.  We remember through images, but we understand through words.  She is questioning the short-circuiting of the laborious process, conducting words and arguing how much we understand outside of context, a form of pleasure, information. Imagemaking can be instructive/useful……. a shorthand, visual soundbite……can have associations if we can. remember/relate/identify

This was a great opportunity to reflect theoretically the question , WHAT IS ART? I am thinking about meaning as significance/value, which will be different for everyone, the artist as well as the viewer in trying to understand the intent or meaning behind a work. Sontag’s words at the beginning of the essay still sit with me – I can either long for the “earlier in time” when art was a magical experience, or now try to make art which the viewer will find as having significance/meaning/value.

A social media comment, which I find apt for this discussion is placed here: “..no matter how you describe the Mona Lisa, your words will only be a vague shadow of what you have experienced”. It also leaves me with questions about words we use to describe meaning and art: Words has the power to make paintings mean many different things and, words can make paintings look and perceived different Too much of the literature about art is often so obscure that it is hard and at times confusing to know what I am supposed to think or even see. Words can point to things you should look out for, like suggest questions about if and how the artwork is trying to communicate something to you or about the artist. A painting can appear to change before our eyes as we try to visualize the descriptions of what the ‘interpreter’ /wall note/critic tells us is there to be seen. 

Do we ever allow for things to be just what it is? If we encourage analysis merely as the excess of digging, what is significant becomes simply what is underneath? Do artists accept that they do not own the meaning of their work? Many artists do not reflect reality, but rather give expression to their inner world and feelings: how should the viewer understand that by merely looking/seeing/viewing at a work of art. How does one take this idea of Barthes, language is everything in literature to the art world? How do I make a link to art? How do I defend it with words/discussion… I say art is about creating/ working with a (chosen) visual form of the description …or visual language is everything in art? Dettmers (2007) wrote in her essay that she thinks artists fear the consequences of words….” like the reflection on the glass of the display cabinets – obscure the view of the object itself. Locked up and anaesthetized,….”

Could interpretation be locked by academia and or theory….? But then, art is about thinking.

Testing my learning in the real world:

I had a WhatsApp interview with a writer friend who published her debut book as recently ,July 2019. ( The book has since been shortlisted and nominated for a book award for a best debut novel, which will take place on 19 September 2020.) The book is written in Afrikaans, a local South African language, developed by the Dutch settlers, and mostly spoken by white and colored communities.

I asked her 3 questions and she left me voice message answers on WA. (It is in Afrikaans, so I will translate these questions and give a short summary of her answers,as well as notate where possible:

  • what importance do you as a writer place on yourself and what your audience should know about you?
  • how important are your readers to you?
  • in your writing process, do you think the reader’s interpretation differed from your intent?

Answers: “This was a debut novel, so I was not known as a writer before this book.” She feels strongly that the book is not about her, but would like that her integrity should be known by her readers. Her writing process aims to be truthful, historically, and culturally well researched. Her words: “Without readers, I do not exist as a writer, they are very important…my books need to be read. I must keep cognizance of the wide diversity of readers who read my book, stay honest in my writing, to meet me in that space where they find their own meaning, whether it is with new ideas or emotions they relate. I write about that which is my truth, I am not a messenger. I attempt to write with sincerity and truth. I had a wide/diverse reader reaction who felt identifiable with the lifestyle I was writing about..brought nostalgic memories to life, felt it brought self-worth to the characters.

Her interest in the culture and lifestyle of people and she felt she moved with her characters as they developed. She described the characters as that she followed them in her work/writing process… she talked about ‘ I helped them think, I gave them different scenarios….they became real…I became upset with them, felt like crying with them as things unfolded in their lives and the storyline.

About her intent she answers: “I think I have a love for observation.”

This conversation left me with the impression that the artist/writer can not afford to undervalue the reader/viewer/audience in the power to assign or/of finding meaning in art. I could also see how my writer friend used narrative to index a certain atmosphere – she talks about herself becoming upset with the characters. One understands her writing characters into action within the narrative form she uses. The story carried…….Thinking about Barthes’s ideas that knowing more about the artist would not influence the meaning of the book in terms of interpreting the words and ideas she presented within her storyline, is not as easy. I do not think the author’s intention is to convince the audience that her story is real, she presents signs which can or do not stand for reality, it is for the reader to decide. The main characters in the narrative are farmworkers, from a different cultural group as the writer and they can be viewed as a marginalized group from a social and economic perspective. Knowing that the writer is a White Afrikaans female can influence the reader and critique’s perspective on cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Barthes mentioned that the audience, author all know the story is fiction It could also be viewed as being critical/biased or taking a political, ideology, social and economic viewpoint. On the other hand, only Afrikaans readers can easily access the book as a hardcopy or Kindle e-book version. The book has not been translated from the original writing in Afrikaans. The author is not absent in the book, her love for and ideas about culture and lifestyle gave the story meaning.

Reading and Research list

  1. Barthes Roland The Death of the Author Onlne access through UbuWeb, translated by Richard Howard. http://www.monoskop.org (accessed on 2 August 2020)
  2. Barthes, R (1986) “Deathof the Author”In:The Rustle of Language. Berkeley and Los Angeles:University of California Press.pp.45 -55 [online]At:http::/tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf(Accessed on 2 August 2020)
  3. Cultural reader, 2017, Death of the Author – Roland Barthes, short summary :
  4. Dettmers, Silke. (2007). On the Necessity of Wonder. Papers of Surrealism  Issue 6 Autumn 2007, p 11 – 12.  Available at: http://www/research.uca.ac.uk/815/1/dettmers_complete/pdf  [Accessed on 10 Sept. 2020]
  5. Gallix, Andrew, 2010 In theory: The Death of the Author, online published in The Guardian.com on Wed 13 January 15.36 GMT (Accessed on 4 August 2020)
  6. Manghani, Sunil,2020 Neutral Life/Late Barthes Theory Culture & Society (Vol.27, No.4) Published online on June 25, 2020 (accessed on 4 August 2020)
  7. McLaverty-Robinson, Andy, 2011, An A to Z of Theory Roland Barthes: Death of the Author, Ceasefire Magazine, Posted on Friday 14 October 2011 14:00 (Accessed on 10 August 2020)
  8. Schaffeld, Stefan,(2020)Blogpost on Part Two, Exercise 2.5 on 10 September 2020.
  9. Schiff, Richard, 2003, Originality in Critical Terms for Art History, SecondEdition, KindleVersion
  10. Sontag, Susan (1964) ‘Against Interpretation” In:Sontag,S AgainstInterpretation.London:Vintage. pp 3-14[online]At: http://www.stccenglish.com/stccenglish/Year_11_files/Sontag-Against%20Interpretation.pdf.(Accessed on 2 August 2020)

My website is : www.karenstanderart.com

This work is under the heading, OCA Studies, UVC2

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