I just finished a Creative Writing course here in Exeter, which was lovely. It doesn’t make me art, or an artist, but it did make me create things and pore over them religiously. The last week of the course was entirely dedicated to the art of editing and raising awareness of the weirdness and clumsiness of our own writing. This was going really well for me, removing dodgy rhymes and stabilising my characters until I read this advice: avoid self-parody.
The artist might not be their art, but they do own their art
Everything I’d ever written flashed past my eyes. Weird anecdotes from my childhood. Slagging off my friends in crude word-puppets. The male narrator: everywhere, the male narrator. At week twelve, this crisis couldn’t have come at a better time. Is all writing either self-parody or appropriation?
Yes, it probably is both, but there are ways to navigate this little problem without being cringey or a dick. Published author Kamila Shamsie came to lecture at the university, and spoke eloquently on this exact topic. Shamsie explained how if no one explored other ways of life in art, every piece of writing would just be an autobiography. She suggested that if writers approach topics with research, empathy and respect, anyone can write about anything. And if anyone can write anything, then you can’t be your art, right?
Writing, [Barthes] says, is the destruction of voice and origin…Meaning, therefore, is only created during reading
The questions of author identity and appropriation overlap in strange ways, but I think with enough research, everyone can be kept happy. Although, is thinking about the link between art and artist in this way responsible, or realistic? English students may remember an answer to this question from a cooky little text by Roland Barthes called ‘The Death of the Author’, which maintained that we should kill off the idea of the author in a text. Writing, he says, is the destruction of voice and origin. Obviously to us, writing is the creation and expression of voice, but Barthes suggests that at the point of expression, a text separates from its author. Meaning, therefore, is only created during reading. This is a cool way of looking at the production of art, but it has always seemed silly to me for Barthes to author something called ‘The Death of the Author’. Is it an authorial suicide note? How can we believe in an author who tells us not the believe in authors?
Is all writing either self-parody or appropriation?
Ultimately, its important to question the fixed identity of the artist, and keep Barthes’ ideas in mind. His assertions can get a bit convoluted and abstract though, to the same extent of Jaden Smith’s 2013 tweet ‘How can mirrors be real if our eyes aren’t real’. We take it for granted that art is actually tied to its artist in many ways, including stylistically, ideologically, and, in a crucial way, financially.
…if no one explored other ways of life in art, every piece of writing would just be an autobiography
Barthes criticises the idea of authorship as Capitalist ideology, but love it or not, we live in a Capitalist society. Zadie Smith may very well say ‘I am not my writing’, but her name is on the front cover of White Teeth, and it’s also on the fat checks she probably got from it. Barthes says that the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author, but in reality the writing costs money and it’s the reader who’s out of pocket. The artist might not be their art, but they do own their art.
if writers approach topics with research, empathy and respect, anyone can write about anything
This hits us today in the relationship between art and cancel culture. If someone does something bad enough, we cancel them, culturally. Art and entertainment is designed to draw our attention, and often that attention backfires on the artist when they do something wrong. When artists get cancelled, their art sometimes survives. Kill Bill is still a great film, even though we cringe when the word ‘Weinstein’ appears in the credits. I doubt any stadiums are booking Louis C.K. for stand-up, but R Kelly’s streaming figures have actually increased since the sexual misconduct allegations, which reflects pretty badly on society. The rapper, XXXtentacion, charged with abusing his girlfriend, received record streams and worldwide fame for his music.
You’re not funding a racist agenda if you buy the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a horrible racist
In some cases, artist’s actions can rewrite art. Kevin Spacey used to be my favourite actor. Even though his DVDs still play the same images, they’re not the same, really. The artist rewrites the page without changing the letters. I only feel comfortable watching Spacey films now where he’s the bad guy, like Seven or Horrible Bosses. Many consumers, including me, have taken a Barthesian ‘separate art from artist’ approach to excuse consuming good art made by dodgy, dodgy people. This, at best, is a moral grey area. By paying for art from scumbags, we essentially fund their lifestyle, whether they are their art or not. In a capitalist society, the financial connection between the two is more relevant than the philosophical separation.
This shifts slightly if the artist is dead, or not funded by consumption. You’re not funding a racist agenda if you buy the works of Edgar Allen Poe, a horrible racist. There is no financial connection, and according to Barthes, no authorial one either. However, the art could still be inadequate on an aesthetic level as well as a moral one: XXXtentacion’s music didn’t suddenly become listenable the moment he died.
The artist rewrites the page without changing the letters
Anyway, my stories for Creative Writing had bits of my life in them, but they weren’t all autobiographies. I think Barthes was right in saying the author isn’t in the text, and that writing is performative. However, the performances never stop: it changes every time it is read. The art and the artist are intertwined, rewriting each other with every reading and constantly hurling praise and accusations. You might not be your art, but if you sign your name under it, you’re tied to it forever.