The Author is Dead: Why it’s Your Meaning That Matters

A man stands in an art gallery, forming his own personal interpretation.

“The author is always right.”

“It doesn’t matter what you think if the author says otherwise.”

“That’s not what the author meant… don’t you think you’re reading too much into this?”

There are few things that piss me off more than this strange, resilient, mistaken idea. It’s very popular at the moment, particularly in certain communities on the internet. Sometimes it’s so prevalent that I find it an uphill struggle to even try and argue against it. So, in the interest of playing unfair, I’m going to lay out my full argument here — where nobody can counter me and I have the length of a full blog post to do so in peace.

Here’s the idea I hate:

When it comes to their own art, the author is always right about everything forever. You’re not.

(I’m going to use the word ‘author’ throughout the post, but this can mean any creator of any kind of art form.)

Let me be honest with you. My dislike of this idea is partly selfish. The world of criticism naturally shrinks if we decide we should assess every piece of art only according to the meaning of the author, setting aside our own personal meanings and the meanings of others.

(And it makes me look a bit foolish if I spend my time adding to a universally panned style of art critique. Or maybe it makes me look like a hipster badass. I’ll let you decide.)

But my motivation is also not selfish: I genuinely believe this approach to criticism, if depended on too completely, in fact limits art. It limits ourselves. It limits the things we create, what they can represent and what they can mean and what they can be. And worst of all it tells people they’re stupid and wrong for engaging with art and welcoming it into their lives, which I can never believe is a good thing.

Like many others, I think authors are really interesting people. I enjoy listening to their thoughts on characterisation, narrative, symbolism and the deeper meaning they were trying to impart in specific works. More often than not I do find this illuminating, and yes, this has definitely opened up books, movies, music, paintings and video games to me in new and exciting ways.

Just look at how fans — myself included — hang on J. K. Rowling’s every word, even ten years after the last Harry Potter book was released. Millions of people find her continued commentary spellbinding (excuse the pun) and meaningful.

But I don’t believe that authors ever have the final, unquestionable say on anything they’ve created. What I believe is that our own readings of a piece of art are every bit as important as what the author had in mind when creating it.

Expressing ourselves through art is, after all, a collaborative process. Authors struggle valiantly to get thoughts and ideas and subtle meanings out of their brains and transmute them into some other form, something that can be accessed even when they’re not there and will outlast them long after they’re gone.

But that’s only half of the story of art.

Art can’t come alive until you perceive it, experience it, and try to unravel it. Until you open up your mind and your heart and say: yes, I will try to understand the meaning that has been imparted here. A piece of art is nothing without you, the receiver. It doesn’t truly exist until you come along to try and understand it.

The death of the author

In 1967 the philosopher and critic Roland Barthes wrote an essay called The Death of the Author. In it he argued that a piece of art (specifically writing, but his argument can be extrapolated to virtually any medium) is necessarily separate from the author who created it.

His essay was a response to the habit of literary criticism of using an author’s religion, biography, psychology, politics, etc. to give a definitive “explanation” of a text. Instead, Barthes says that there can only ever be pluralistic readings of any text. To assign just one true meaning to a piece of art is to arbitrarily limit it.

It’s called The Death of the Author because Barthes believed art is an entirely separate entity from the author. As soon as an author releases their art into the world, their task is done and their input is no longer needed — as far as the reader is concerned, they might as well be dead. All a person should need to understand a piece of art is the art itself.

(Fun sidenote: it’s also called The Death of the Author because Barthes was French. The French title is La Mort de l’Auteur, a play on words referencing the famous medieval King Arthur story.)

The separateness of art and artist is why we can apply criticism to the former without necessarily commenting on the latter. Just because an author creates bad art, that doesn’t make them a bad person. It also explains how we can appreciate and admire art created by troubling authors — Roman Polanski comes most easily to mind.

Let’s take an example. Say we discover a beautiful manuscript written by an ancient hand. Though we can translate its symbols and understand the story it tells, it’s deemed impossible to find any meaning in it — because we cannot speak to the original author. This is of course nonsense. We have found meaning in everything from The Iliad to Beowulf to The Epic of Gilgamesh, even separated as we are by thousands of years from the individuals and cultures that created them.

You might argue that we can find meaning in ancient pieces of art, but this may not necessarily be the correct meaning. Even if that were true, would it reduce the impact these works have had on us and our own culture? Would it lessen how relevant a modern reader might find them? Does art cease to be meaningful just because we cannot be sure of its true meaning?

I believe not. In fact, I want to show that the very idea of a “true”, “correct” or “ultimate” meaning for a piece of art is nonsensical.

Barthes says that every work, no matter when it was created, is “eternally written here and now” whenever anyone attempts to understand it. Its meaning lies exclusively in the messages and ideas encoded into it, the piece of art itself, and how these impact the reader. The meaning of the work is available to decode no matter how much time goes by. The author becomes separate from this equation as soon as the work is completed, as we can see from the ancient writer example.

Perhaps we go a little far to say that the author has no place in the meaning of a piece of art. But I certainly believe the author is not the only source of authority for a work — or as Barthes puts it, they are not an all-knowing “Author-God”.

The all-knowing author

Barthes’ big issue with the argument that the true meaning of a piece of art is determined by its author is that we can never know exactly what that author intended (unless they tell us directly — I’ll get to that in a moment).

When we experience and interpret a work of art, it is impossible to say which interpretation of many is correct, because the author has not laid their intended meaning down clearly. Rather than writing a plain letter, they have decided to communicate their thoughts and ideas through art. This is the artist’s choice and the artist’s burden to bear. Art by its very nature is slippery and imprecise. In fact, it defies a single simple interpretation.

This raises the example of the artist who refuses to leave their art alone. Many artists like to explain their art, to answer questions and make certain points or ideas clearer. They are not wrong for doing so, but it’s an interesting exercise. It can certainly bring joy to fans, as well as continued relevance for authors and relief for their marketing departments. At the same time, for some it prolongs the idea that criticism and interpretation of a work is pointless unless specifically endorsed by the author themselves. We hear so much from some authors (I think again of J. K. Rowling) that it seems silly to indulge in any reading unless it comes straight from “the mouth of God”.

Creating art is a humbling process. It teaches us how imprecise we are in thought and word and action; how much we think we have to say and how little that might turn out to be in execution.

Many artists set out to create a piece of art with a certain idea or message in mind, only to find those who experience it have their own opinions. This happened to Ray Bradbury, who was repeatedly told that Fahrenheit 451 is actually about censorship, not the destruction of literature by television as he intended.

Ray Bradbury wasn’t wrong any more than the readers of his book are right. They simply have their own interpretations of the work and what it means to them.

To drive this point home even further, imagine an author who writes a sci-fi novel about a society in the far future. He intends it as an allegory for our current world. Many hundreds of years pass and eventually, by chance, a society arises that is almost exactly as he described in his book. Its inhabitants rediscover the novel and, when they read it, find it powerful and full of personal meaning. The way they interpret the book cannot be what the author intended when he wrote it — but does that make their reading any less valid?

Finally, I can’t end this section without referring to those artists who prefer their art to speak for itself, and who refuse to elucidate on their creations. The greatest example comes from Don McLean, and his famous answer to the question of what his song American Pie meant: “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.”

Art is subjective

The point, of course, is that art is subjective. We each understand art based on our own personal experiences, perspectives, and opinions. That’s why we cannot say any one reading is “correct”, because every individual will have their own subtly different interpretation.

Imagine two people are looking at a painting in a museum. They are both appreciating the work in their own way; each of them has a different opinion as to what the painting means, through the lens of their own life. How can we say only one of them is right? How can we say they both might be wrong, if their readings do not align with the meaning chosen by the painter? This seems ridiculous. After all, why should an individual’s subjective understanding of a work be incorrect just because it isn’t exactly what the author intended? Who cares what the author thinks if that’s how their work affected someone at that moment in time?

Art simply cannot be objective. It will always be subjective by some measure, because a person cannot judge art without being coloured by their own influences. This is why it’s nonsensical to speak of any subjective reading as correct or incorrect: a subjective opinion simply is.

And so there is no one final, universal, true meaning for any piece of art. Art is flexible. It belongs to every person that experiences it, in their own unique way. It has as many meanings as there are people on the planet. We are each permitted our own understanding of every work we come across, and these can be as different as we all are as individuals.

I understand where the desire comes from to treat art like a science. We want there to be an ultimate meaning that can be discovered with enough careful examination, because it is comforting to think that all the myriad mysteries of human existence contained in artistic work can be solved with enough effort. But art is not a science. It cannot be trapped in the neat box of scientific rigour, and it has no correct answers.

There is one thing art has in common with science: it flourishes not from the lone author sitting in her study writing for herself, but from collaboration. Art is nothing until it is experienced, shared, and discussed. Art is a magical process between people in an effort to communicate the ideas beating so strongly in our breasts that we can find no other way to express.

It’s about opening up different opinions and viewpoints, not closing them down. There is room for both author and reader, as long as no one meaning is inherently placed above any other.

So when you hear someone say, “You’re wrong — that’s not what the author meant,” stop for a moment. Because just maybe it doesn’t matter what the author thinks: they’ve had their time to speak. It matters what you think.

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