Sunday 30 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Henry Moore Gallery Lunchtime Debates
More than a generation ago in 1967, Roland Barthes announced ‘The Death of the Author’, arguing among other things in his famous essay that the meaning of a literary text is open to interpretation from a variety of perspectives, and ultimately independent of the intentions of its author. This idea has long been widespread, and not only among literary theorists influenced by Barthes. Many readers come up with their own, sometimes odd and idiosyncratic, sometimes fresh and original takes on familiar novels, poems and plays, as well as other works of art. But are all interpretations equally valid? Even those who reject such extreme relativism do not all agree that the ‘correct’ or even the best interpretation is the one intended by the author. And while some authors insist they know exactly what they meant to say in a work, and dismiss alternative interpretations, others are open to the idea that their work might have meanings they hadn’t thought of, perhaps revealing something about the social or political context in which they were written. Nevertheless, the proliferation, especially in academic cultural studies, of deconstructionist, feminist, Marxist, queer, postcolonial and other ideological readings of books and art has led some to protest that the work itself is forgotten when it is interpreted in terms of whatever pet theory the reader happens to favour. So is it time to disinter the author and read his – or her – work as it was intended?
The recently-established Intentist movement comprises writers, artists and thinkers who ‘share the belief that the meaning of the work is the outworking of intention’. Arguing that the rejection of authorship and intention has had a detrimental effect on creative work itself, the Intentists celebrate intention, ‘by leaving a creative trail of the editorial process behind in the finished piece’. Should readers and audiences welcome this approach as offering an authoritative guide to interpretation? Or is it impertinent of artists to impose particular meanings on their publics? And are we as readers in danger of fetishising the author, obsessing over biographical details such as childhood traumas or moral lapses, rather than letting the work speak for itself?
Traditionally, critics have mediated between writers and artists and their audiences, often establishing a consensus, at least for a time, about the meaning of a particular work. How objective can criticism be, or is it irredeemably subjective and open to dispute? Does a work of art or a text change its meaning over time, or does it have one fixed meaning immanent within it - and if so, is the author the only reliable guide to it? Where does that leave atheists reading the Bible or Koran? And what about more abstract art or music with no clear meaning at all? Should the author always have the last word?
associate fellow, Institute of Ideas; editor, Culture Wars; editor, Debating Humanism; co-founder, Manifesto Club
artist; founding Intentist; author, Intentism: resurrection of the artist
Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Literature, University College London; author, The Lives of the Novelists
|Dr George Szirtes|
reader in creative writing, UEA; poet; editor; translator; author, The Burning of the Books and Other Poems
head of external relations, Institute of Ideas; convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination (forthcoming)
The beginning of a new movement in art and literature?Vittorio Pelosi, Culture Wars, 30 January 2009
In an age of book clubs, celebrity endorsements and Internet bloggers, what role is there now for the professional critic as an arbiter of artistic value? Are literature and the arts only a question of personal taste?
Ronan McDonald, Continuum, 23 October 2008
'Since critics condemn me in the name of literature without ever saying what they mean by that, the best answer to give them is to examine the art of writing without prejudice. What is writing? Why does one write? For whom? The fact is, it seems that nobody has ever asked himself these questions.' - Jean-Paul Sartre
Jean-Paul Sartre, Routledge, 18 May 2001
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the 'message' of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.
Roland Barthes, Fontana, 13 September 1993