Postmodernism and the death of the author


Cindy Sherman

Postmodernism in the art world began in the 1960s and was initiated by the political, cultural and social changes taking place at the time and coincided with photography’s progressive acceptance as an art form and a highly relevant medium of the times.

Postmodernism questioned the authority of art collapsing the difference between high art/culture of modernism and mass/popular culture. As seen in the pop art movement artists began to experiment outside of medium specific conditions instead focussing upon their new ideas in transforming previously held modern view.

Artists began to use photography as a reference to a modern consumer society founded on the use of the photographic image as it’s ubiquitous code of language. Liz Wells (2009, p.286) comments that this was because, “photography then was still seen as inherently different (commercial, popular, documentary) from more established art forms such as painting and sculpture. This was no doubt in part because, to echo Roland Barthes, many elements within their pictures were deja-lu (already read). But this was the whole point.”

Roland Barthes’ highly influential poststructuralist essay Death of the author (1967) focussed on the written text but his viewpoint effectively questions the authority of the artist as well the author when he writes, “the text is a tissue of citations, resulting from the thousand sources of culture”. Barthes argues for the liberation from the control and influence of the author’s (and critic’s) history, knowledge and interpretation on the basis that their work is the result of a cumulative and collective understanding and knowledge and not original in any case. And in order for us the reader to be born then the author must be sacrificed.

An excellent example of postmodern photography is Sherrie Levine’s 1981 landmark series After Walker Evans where Levine photographed and reproduced famous Walker Evans photographs from an exhibition catalogue. Levine’s work according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was

“both praised and attacked as a feminist hijacking of patriarchal authority, a critique of the commodification of art, and an elegy on the death of modernism. Far from a high-concept cheap shot, Levine’s works from this series tell the story of our perpetually dashed hopes to create meaning, the inability to recapture the past, and our own lost illusions.”

(Quoted from the Metropolitan of Art website and accessed 01/05/2016)

Reference list  

Barthes, R 1967 Death of the author (accessed 26/04/2016)

Bull, S (2010). Photography. Abingdon: Routledge

Wells,L. (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge

Cindy Sherman image can be seen at:

(accessed 01/04/2016)

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