Death of the Author doesn’t work for me. It’s not even the concept, or what I understand of it, anyway. It’s the presentation—so pretentious, I hate it. It’s like a title in search of a concept. It’s an attempt to sound saucy and controversial. It’s Death of the Author, so let’s go murder us some authors.
Yeah, don’t mind me. I just really, truly hate the presentation, like knives on chalkboards.
Moving on before I get distracted by that audio-visual aid, making less and less sense the more I try to picture it. Knives on . . . how would that work exactly?
It’s not the concept. Death of the Author, I get it. The kind of thing I would torture my poor performers with. They were only my fellow students, after all, and it’s not like I knew what I was doing scribbling out the score. I used inappropriate key signatures, for god’s sake. That drove them mad, right there.
So they would turn to me, mid rehearsal, and ask me to explain whatever unrealistically unreasonable chicken scratches I had scrawled on the page. What did I mean? How did I want them to interpret this or otherwise perform that?
My response was always the same: “Don’t look at me. I’ve been dead for two hundreds years.”
Death of the Author—oh yeah, they hated that.
So that’s all I know about the Death of the Author literary criticism—um—thing, whatever. There could be more to it, but I don’t know, and I have very little desire to find out—that title, again. Death of the Author, I really hate it.
Death of the Author is about . . . the audience interpreting the thing . . . I guess. I don’t know.
Anyway, I am a big fan of the audience’s experience of the thing being the important part. I’m with the literary criticism thingummy there, but it still doesn’t work for me. It’s only half the story. There’s so much more going on.
The creation of the work matters, starting with what the artistically creative type was thinking, feeling, not thinking, otherwise had in mind when they created the stupid thing in the first place. And then it hits the audience.
I blame Debussy.
No, seriously, I blame Debussy and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn. I had to write about it for my Twentieth Century Music class back in my misty old college days. Memory tells me I chose the topic, but I remain convinced it was not entirely my choice. A list of acceptable composers and compositions may have been in evidence and handed out to the class. Chose one, suckers.
Debussy hated being called an Impressionist, first thing I learned in those books I checked out of the library for my research paper. He hated it. He wanted to be called a Symbolist and considered himself part of the French Symbolist poetry movement. So then I had to learn about the Symbolist poets, and that’s when shit got real interesting. Grabbed hold of my worldview and started smacking it around—okay, focused and crystallized it. I was already on this path.
Also learned this great anecdote about Debussy’s break with the whole classical and romantic music scene. I love this story. I really hope it’s true.
Debussy was this pure theory guy. He had gone into university as a seriously focused classical music nerd, even scored insanely highly on the school’s music theory exam. He beat Berlioz’s score. The school kept the test like some crazy top-ten list. Number one on the test had been Berlioz for something close to a hundred years, and then Debussy knocked him down to number two.
And I appear to be drifting way the hell off target, turning into quite the double tangent. Okay, getting back to tangent number one.
Debussy knew all the greats. He could play the Beethoven and the Bach and the Brahms, and he knew chapter and verse on all the theory cold. He was the shit. I was also seriously about the theory. I knew that shit cold. I couldn’t play worth shit, but that’s quite another digression without a purpose, so getting back to the original anecdote.
One night, all the students were hanging out, as they were wont to do. They were drinking, goofing off, hanging out, and our boy Debussy was at the piano holding court. Then there’s a moment—a pause—music stops. He’s just sitting there at the keys, not playing, and then he starts. He plays—plays fast—too fast, all the greatest hits, pounding the keys like he’s trying to break the piano, and then he sits there stunned, everyone looking at him.
And then he announces that he’s done with classical theory. He’s done with Bach and Beethoven and Brahms. He’s done with classical and romantic music. He wants to do something new, something crazy, something that’s never been done before.
And he did. His music was never the same, turned all trippy and surreal with lots of focus on mediants and submediants, lots of seventh chords, ninth chords, pentatonic scales, whole-tone scales, very little interest in a functional pull toward dominant and tonic harmony.
Great story, I love that anecdote.
Okay, getting back to Debussy, Symbolist poetry, and what Death of the Author ignores.
Debussy and the Symbolist poets were all about getting to the heart and the essence of the thing. They wanted the true Platonic ideal of the thing, not the shadow version of it cast upon the wall, and they knew the way to get at that ideal, invoke that essence, was to hint at the thing. It wasn’t about voicing an example. It was about evoking the thing through reference and teasing and hinting—I said hinting already.
The thing that happens when you tease, when you reference, when you hint at the thing and strike a glancing blow that barely grazes the surface, the audience fills in the blanks. You evoke a feeling. You hint at details, and the audience associates that gossamer thread with experiences, thoughts, feelings, memories from their own life. The invocation becomes the pure experience of the thing because the audience pulls it from their own heart, their own life, their very soul.
It’s fucking brilliant.
The experience is unique to each person because the poem, story, music, sound, painting, artwork—whatever—strikes each person differently. The net is cast. The lure, the hook, plunges through the ether and catches—latches onto—some facet of unique experience within each person who hears, sees, reads, experiences the thing.
This means the artist—the creatively minded person who made the thing—has absolutely no way of knowing how the creation, the artwork, will strike each person. It could be good. It could be bad. It could be transcendentally wonderful. It could be soul-wrenchingly awful.
All the artist knows is what they were thinking, feeling, hoping, not thinking, not feeling, denying, when they made the thing—the artwork. They had something in mind. They were trying to do something, and they were very likely aiming at a target—hoping to evoke something in the audience.
That’s the intent.
And there’s two parts to intent. Seriously, there are two.
The first part—yes, this is actually first—is what the artist felt creating the artwork. This is a thing onto itself—how the work struck the artist in the very act of creation. This experience is unique to each artist and each and every work that the artist creates. The evocation within the artist is the first expression of the work being created.
The second part—yes, this follows after the artist’s own experience of the thing—is what the artist, artistically minded creative person, hopes the audience will experience. A thought is planned. A feeling is sought. A sensation of sight, sound, taste, touch, and possibly even smell for the audience to experience is desired.
That’s the plan.
I blame sexual harassment training.
No, seriously, hear me out. I’ve worked for public institutions of higher education for many—many—years in administrative capacities that have nothing to do with my schooling or degree. There’s another digression without a purpose buried in here, which I will avoid. The thing about those public institutions of higher education is they are really understandably worried about the power imbalance between teachers and students, between leadership, educators and administrators. So I’ve attended many—many—sexual harassment seminars and trainings over those years.
And the training is big on intent—what person A intended when they said or did something and how person B took that intent. This has evolved over the years into intent and impact, which I love. It makes things so much clearer when the word “intent” doesn’t have to pull double duty. There’s intent, and there’s impact.
This is great for harassment training—intent and impact—but there’s something missing when we’re dealing with the intent and impact of a creative work. There’s something in the middle.
There’s the creative work itself, or as I like to call it, there’s the execution of the artist’s intent.
The artist can have the greatest idea. They can have the best intent. They can want to convey the most transcendentally wonderful thing . . . but they still have to do it.
They still have to create the work of wonderfully transcendent art.
And—well—have you ever heard the old saying that no plan ever survives contact with reality?
So much can happen between intent and execution. I could go on for days, site examples, tell stories, drift through so many anecdotes and digressions that I completely and utterly forget whatever in the world I was trying to accomplish with this little soliloquy in the first place.
The artist just has to go for it and hope for the best. The artist executes their intent.
And maybe it’s good. And maybe it’s horrible. Maybe the work expresses the artist’s intent in its clearest and purest form. And maybe the work is a dreadful abomination that should be smothered in its bed before being burned at the stake.
That’s the execution.
That’s the work of art itself.
And then it hits the audience like a smelly, rotting haddock to the face . . . or possibly something better—something less fishy—more pleasant, but we’re going with haddock purely because it amuses me.
The audience experiences the execution of the artistically minded person’s intent, which I’ve already talked about as part of the digression about Debussy.
The work hits the audience. It strikes them. It impacts.
And they feel—they experience—and this experience is unique to each and every single individual person.
Some will have good experiences. They will have pleasant, happy feelings. Some will come away energized or charged. They will feel moved. The experience will have altered the very fabric of their souls.
Some will have truly godawful experiences. It will evoke horrible thoughts and feelings. It will be triggering. They will feel awful. They will be horrified. It won’t be good, and your heart goes out to these people because the experience was so bad.
And here’s the worst part: the artist has absolutely no control and zero say over how the art impacts each person. It simply does not matter what the artist intended or even how well they executed that intent. The artwork will strike each person differently and uniquely.
And the most we can hope for—as artists—is that the work helps more people than it hurts.
And we have to be prepared to apologize to the people that we hurt with our art. Through no intent of our own, we have still hurt people, and we have to own that. We have to let them know—hope they can hear us when we say that we did not set out to hurt them, and we have to hope that it helps them process their hurt, their anger, their grief that we are sorry for having hurt them with our art.
And that’s another digression, but an incredibly important one. Sorry about that.
So that’s what I think of art—what rumbles about in the back of my mind when I’m being creative.
We create, and people experience, and the two can be completely and utterly different. It’s fascinating and wondrous strange.