Scholars and critics, John Berger, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Rancière all attempt to elucidate the relationship between art and audience. They proceed from very distinct starting points, through different paradigms, to arrive at the general conclusion that meaning is produced in the encounter between art and audience. But what that means and how it means, is a matter of ongoing contention (between the texts, if not the authors).
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes that, when we look at something, it is brought within our reach (8). Yet, we cannot see an entire work at once, so our vision is always moving, it is always “constituting what is present” (9); and so we’re always already creating a relationship between ourselves and the work (9). This “confrontation,” mediated by outdated assumptions, results in distance between us and the work that obscures or “mystifies” it (11). A work seen in person “maintains its own authority” (26), which is to say it speaks for itself; yet because the meaning of a work is mediated by context, its authority is distributed over the context in which it is seen (29). When we “confront” a work, we assess it and come to possess it—as a unit of meaning in our language of images, that we can then deploy for ourselves.

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“The Death of an Author” [TDA] by Roland Barthes arrives at a similar destination as Ways of Seeing but via a different route. While Berger finds everything about the “Author” relevant to the original confrontation between artist and what was seen, and further argues that a work is, in fact, a record of that confrontation, TDA rather says that the act of writing destroys the voice and point of origin (142). It eradicates everything but the text and locates its “unity” in its destination, not its origination (147). Works then are multi-dimensional spaces, sites of multiple meanings. Thus, TDA opines the text speaks for itself not its author and the reader supplies meaning. Each act of reading creates the text, providing both context and interpretation.

In “What is an Author”, Michel Foucault is concerned with the relationship between the text and the author. By contrast to TDA which puts forward the proposition that text, to some extent, kills its author, Foucault rather argues that works produces an author (or an author is a function of a work). What this means for an encounter with a work by a reader is muddy. A work is its own “unfolded exteriority” (n.p.), but the author function for us here and now, limits its meanings. So that in the encounter between reader and text, an author is produced and produces a reading. Here, the text does speak for itself, and bespeaks its author, but the reader who might otherwise generate a profligacy of meanings seems almost superfluous.

Rancière, in “The Emancipated Spectator” departs from a “truism”, that there is no theatre without a spectator (1), travels through the problem of spectatorship being bad because “viewing is the opposite of knowing” and “viewing is the opposite of acting” (2), and the idea that “theatre invites the audience to confront itself as a collective” (5), to arrive at the position that “distance is not an evil to be abolished but the normal condition of any communication” (10). Thus the problem is not that theatre requires a spectator but the artificial category constructions that oppose viewing and acting. Per Rancire “the spectator observes, selects, compares, interprets”; she creates links between what she sees and other things. This is a long step away from Foucault’s nearly absent reader. Rancire’s spectator doesn’t encounter and then anything, but rather encounters, where this encounter is viewing, comparing, interpreting, performing all at once. The “art” she sees does not transmit a singular meaning, but rather its meaning is a mediation between itself and the reader. In this, Rancire most closely aligns with Berger in what is seen becoming part of the language/knowledge of the seer, but Berger’s concern with mystification would, probably, be seen as a product of the artificial opposition between viewing and ‘acting’.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes revisits the question of the work, in this case with respect to photography. He reflects that the Photograph is hard to focus on because “the referent adheres” (6). That is, if you show someone a photograph, it is common to say “that’s my sister” rather than “this is a photograph of my sister.” That it’s a photograph is self-evident, it’s the referent that requires identification and defines the photograph. He proceeds, however, to draw out two elements: the studiumwhich he defines as “general enthusiastic commitment” (25) or “liking” (27); and the punctum which he defines as the thing that rises out of a particular photograph to prick, puncture, bruise the viewer. He seems to be arguing that it is for the viewer to like the photograph or photographs or subject of photographs, and for the photograph to prick or wound both the studiumand the viewer: or raise liking to something more (27). So photographs, it seems, do speak and defy interpretation because they are always already the thing itself.

Contrary to the usual connotations of “audience” and “spectator,” these five texts instantiate “audience” as a verb. This is a return to an older use, such as in granting an audience, in which the “audience” is actively offering the speaker an opportunity to be heard. Yet, it is the audience who determines the ultimate fate of the speaker’s message and sometimes of the speaker. The “meaning” the speaker brings to the audience is not, of necessity, the one the audience takes away or relays to some other audience. By extension and application, in breaking down the barriers between viewing and acting, encountering art becomes creating it.

  • Barthes, Roland. “The death of the author.” Image – Music – Text. Ed. and trans. S. Heath. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. 42-48. Print.
  • —-. “Studium and Punctum.” Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1981. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel. “What is an author?” Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Ed. Josue V. Harari. London: Methuen, 1979. 101-20. PDF.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2009. Print.