Thursday, April 30, 2015

Follow-up on the death of the author

In a recent post, I wrote about the idea of the "death of the author."  In a different recent post here, I mentioned that Roger Reed's review of Deborah Solomon's book on Rockwell put Solomon in the death of the author camp of art criticism, and I mentioned in passing that I wanted to address this claim in a later post.  This is that later post.

A central point of Reed's review is here:

"In an interview, Solomon avers: 'I'm not a shrink, and I really don't speculate about a life and a person's psychology as a writer.  As a critic, I discern enormous homoeroticism as well as a desire to distance himself from his own desires'....   This disavowal takes the reader aback, since speculations about Rockwell's psychology seem to comprise the bulk of her book.  She's admitting that she's not qualified to make those dozens of psychological speculations based on the life of the artist.  Instead, she wants to be seen as a critic, who is qualified to make psychological speculations based on the works of art, claiming that 'whatever was on the canvas was the true Rockwell'....  This is the crux of Solomon's misstep: she attempts to impose a sort of analysis frequently used in death-of-the-author art history methodology onto illustration, without regard for illustration's unique contingencies and modes of production."  ("American fun-house mirror," in Journal of Illustration, volume 1, issue 2, 2014, pp 321-332, at 324.)

Now the notion of the death of the author has to do principally with separating the interpretation of an artwork from the intentions or life of its creator.  As such, if she were a critic of that school, it would be a mistake for Solomon to turn her attention to Rockwell himself.  For such critics, the only thing that matters is the words on the page, or the paint on the canvas, and the creator himself is a mere distraction once the work is made.

I think Reed's main point here is correct, but put a little misleadingly, probably more because in this place he gives too much credit to Solomon's own account of herself.  In the interview he quotes from, Solomon does indeed claim to not speculate about Rockwell's life, but rather to base her sexual (and other) psychological speculations on the art.  But this is simply false.  She speculates about his life constantly.  In an earlier passage, Reed wrote:

"...Solomon is constructing a theory strand by strand, but it is the scientific method backwards: the conclusions don't emerge from the life and work, they are imposed from outside and the biography is selected to back them up."  (322)

Now this, I think, is the real story: Solomon decided for whatever reason that there was going to be a certain narrative, and everything--the life and the art--was made subject to that, using whatever force or fraud necessary.  A critic engaged in serious work along the lines of the New Critics or the death of the author approach, will be docile to the artwork.  A critic who (like me) thinks that artistic intentions or life experiences are essential to the meanings of artworks will need to be docile to the artist's life and writings and so on, as well.  Solomon's approach is simply non-docile all the way around.  There's no honest attempt to understand the art or life.  That's why she obscures rather than reveals.  

This may all just be an unimportant terminological dispute over the "death-of-the-author," and I wouldn't bother about it except that I think it shows that Reed's admirable attempts to take Solomon seriously, and criticize her work carefully and even respectfully, have led him somewhat astray on this point: he attributes to her a respectable approach to art criticism--not one that is never abused, to be sure, but nevertheless a respectable one in itself--when there's no such method to her madness.  She's just making it all up out of whole cloth.  

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