One Thousand Cranes Can’t Be Wrong

This appeared in the winter 2009 issue of Flux magazine (issue 71, p. 14):

One Thousand Cranes Can’t Be Wrong

An introduction to Matthew Coleman’s “action painting of the heart”

Matthew Coleman had always been an artist — even when he saw himself as a writer or a filmmaker — but it took the mother of all depressions to open up his eyes. “The intensity, the violence of what I went through completely changed me,” he explains. Coleman’s work is the product of “heightened states of feelings”: the canvas is a “battleground” on which the artist squares up to his demons, wielding the palette knife like “a sword”.

The (noble) savage beauty of the Hand Bursts series — which culminates in a bloody mess that could incarnadine the multitudinous seas — conjures up the fleeting patterns Coleman creates on sundry beaches and then captures on camera. The Lines You Should Not Cross are vicious red pencil renditions of the artist’s bouts of self-harming, but they are also reminiscent of those lines literally drawn in the sand that will be, as it were, littorally washed away. The vibrancy of Coleman’s works often comes from this tension between the compulsion to freeze moments in time and the desire to dissolve into an eternal here and now.

The Cry of a Thousand Cranes — red, blue and yellow origami birds hanging in the Saatchi Gallery or from a tree in the artist’s back garden — was inspired by the old Japanese legend according to which whoever folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted a wish. When I ask him if he believes in this legend, Matthew Coleman just smiles. Then he says, “I want yellows and blues and reds, I want to see them everywhere I walk, all exploding like fireworks”. We both stare in silence at the cranes gently swaying in the breeze.

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Leaving Things Out

From Paul Morley, “On Gospel, Abba and the Death of the Record: an Audience with Brian Eno,” The Observer 17 January 2010 (Features section, p.10)

“A way to make new music is to imagine looking back at the past from a future and imagine music that could have existed but didn’t. […] One of the innovations of ambient music was leaving out the idea that there should be melody or words or a beat… so in a way that was music designed by leaving things out — that can be a form of innovation, knowing what to leave out.”

In Theory: The Death of the Author

This appeared on the Guardian Books Blog on 13 January 2010:

In Theory: The Death of the Author

Kicking off a new occasional series about the most influential literary theory, Andrew Gallix revisits a classic essay by Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes in 1979. Photograph: Fabian Cevallos/Corbis

Ecclesiastes famously warns us that “Of making many books there is no end” — the same, of course, applies to book commentaries. George Steiner has long denounced the “mandarin madness of secondary discourse” which increasingly interposes itself between readers and works of fiction. For better or worse, the internet — with its myriad book sites — has taken this phenomenon to a whole new level. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, literature has always given rise to its exegesis, but now that no scrap of literary gossip goes untweeted, it may be time to reflect a little on the activity of literary criticism.

I have chosen to inaugurate this series with a few considerations on “The Death of the Author” because of its truly iconic nature: it symbolises the rise of what would come to be known as “theory“. Even if he never names them, Roland Barthes (like Proust before him) launches an attack on the traditional biography-based criticism à la Sainte-Beuve or Lanson which still dominated French academia in the sixties. The paradox, of course, is that this essay — with its symbolic slaying of the paternal “Author-God” — could lend itself to a textbook psychological reading given that Barthes lost his own father before his first birthday. The “Death of the Author” theme itself takes on added meaning, in hindsight, when you consider that Barthes’s critical career was, at least in part, a displacement activity to avoid writing the novel he dreamed of. Does any of this invalidate his theories? I’ll let you be the judge of that…

In 2002, the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris devoted a major exhibition, not to an artist, philosopher, scientist or novelist, but a literary critic: Roland Barthes. Now that the “theory wars” — which had once torn apart literature departments on both sides of the Atlantic — were largely over, it served as a reminder of a time when a posse of structuralists and post-structuralists superseded the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre as France’s premier intellectual icons. Many of them were primarily philosophers, anthropologists, historians, linguists or psychoanalysts — Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva et al. — but the locus of this intellectual revolution was undoubtedly literary criticism.

La nouvelle critique was flavour of the month, much like its culinary counterpart, nouvelle cuisine, albeit more of a mouthful. Critics-cum-thinkers such as Barthes himself — who was equally at home at the lofty Collège de France or down the trendy Le Palace nightclub — achieved bona fide celebrity status. Their works often became bestsellers in spite of their demanding and iconoclastic nature. Soon, NME journalists were peppering their articles with arcane references to Baudrillard while Scritti Politti dedicated a postmodern ditty to Jacques Derrida. The whole movement seemed as provocative, and indeed exciting, as Brigitte Bardot in her slinky, sex kitten heyday. Its defining moment was the publication of a racy little number called “The Death of the Author“.

As if mimicking one of its central themes, Roland Barthes’s article first featured in an American journal in 1967: the original (an English translation of a French text) was thus, in effect, already a copy. With a nice sense of historical timing, it appeared in the critic’s homeland in the quasi-insurrectionary context of the 1968 student protests. As it was only anthologised much later (first in Image-Music-Text in 1977 and then in The Rustle of Language in 1984), the essay was photocopied and distributed samizdat-fashion on campuses all over the world, which enhanced its subversive appeal.

Subversive, it certainly was. In France, perhaps more than anywhere else, the secularisation of society (compounded by the Republic’s struggle against the Roman Catholic Church) had led to the adoption of art and literature as substitute religions. Nietzsche had announced the death of God only to see Him replaced by the “Author-God”. Enter Roland Barthes.

His starting-point is a sentence lifted from Sarrasine (1830), a little-known Balzac novella about an artist who falls in love with a young castrato he believes to be a woman. Barthes (who was gay) was so taken with this gender-bending tale of mistaken identity that he would study it at length in S/Z (1970). Here, he draws a parallel between the ambiguity of Sarrasine’s feelings and the ambiguous identity of the speaker who, ironically, describes the castrato as the essence of womanhood. Is it the deluded, love-struck protagonist? The narrator? Balzac the writer? Balzac the man?… Having exhausted all possibilities, the critic draws the conclusion that it is impossible to say for sure who the sentence should be attributed to. He goes on to describe literature as a space “where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes”. The death of the author marks the birth of literature, defined, precisely, as “the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin”.

Indeed, the “modern writer” — or “scriptor” as Barthes calls him — can only mimic “a gesture forever anterior, never original” by recombining what has already been written. Whereas the “Author-God” maintained with his work “the same relation of antecedence a father maintains with his child,” the scriptor “is born simultaneously with his text”: for him, “there is no other time than that of the utterance, and every text is eternally written here and now”. As Barthes puts it, apropos of Mallarmé, “it is language which speaks, not the author” — or the scriptor for that matter. Works of fiction are palimpsests and as such are devoid of any “single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God)”. The key to a text is not to be found in its “origin” but in its “destination”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Next time, I’m planning to investigate the notion of mimetic desire — unless there’s anywhere else you’d rather visit first. Suggestions on future topics are most welcome…

All the Latest

I’m doing a series of blogs on literary criticism (called “In Theory”) for the Guardian‘s website. The first one, about “The Death of the Author,” was published today.

A short piece on Matthew Coleman‘s artwork appears in the Winter issue of the excellent Flux magazine.

On 30 December 2009, Susan Tomaselli devoted her first 3:AM Cult Hero feature to a piece I’d written about Arthur Cravan for the Guardian Books Blog. You’ll find the full text here.

Burn Baby Burn

Leo Benedictus, “Brian Duffy: ‘Photography was dead by 1972′” The Guardian 12 January 2010

One morning in 1979, Brian Duffy, then one of the most famous photographers in the world, came into work. One of his assistants told him they had run out of toilet paper. His memory is hazy, he admits, but what happened next became an ­episode of snapper folklore.

“I realised,” he recalls in a documentary that airs on BBC4 ­tonight, “that I was making decisions about toilet ­paper. And I thought, ‘This has got to end.’ Either by me murdering my staff, killing myself, or setting fire to the whole fucking thing.” So he gathered every negative and transparency he had ever shot and burned them on a fire in his back garden. After that, he never took another picture.

Except, as it turns out, negatives do not easily catch fire. And when they do, they produce an acrid black smoke: this bonfire ended when an official from Camden council peered over the fence and insisted Duffy put it out. Duffy packed what remained away in shoeboxes in his attic and turned to painting and furniture-restoring. It was only in 2007, when his son Chris went through the boxes, that he reluctantly agreed that they were worth another look. This led to a show in London last year – the first, anywhere, of his career.

To devotees of photography, these surviving pictures were like a salvaged stack from the library at Alexandria.

…So when did it cease to be interesting? Duffy offers some clues in the BBC’s documentary. Talking with Bailey, he says he feels the US photographers ­Irving Penn and Richard Avedon “fucked photography for us”. What does he mean? “They got there,” he says, ­referring to their revolutionary work, which pushed at the boundaries of photography. “You’re a bit annoyed when someone does something and you go, ‘Shit! I was just about to do that!'”

The result, says Duffy, was that “photography was dead by 1972”. He takes a rare pause, then explains: ­”Everything had been resolved between 1839 and 1972. Every picture after 72, I have seen pre-72. Nothing new. But it took me some time to detect its death. The first person who twigged was Henri Cartier-Bresson. He just stopped – and started painting and drawing. God, he was useless.”…

…So Duffy experimented, until he felt the scope for experimentation had ran out. By the 1970s, he was doing most of his work in advertising — with people he didn’t like, on briefs that bored him. “The more I got into it, the more I ­realised I was hanging out with things I was diametrically opposed to. And they wanted me to keep a civil tongue up their rectum.”

So he burned everything….