The Birth of the AuthorMarch 23, 2017
People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.1
—Florence Foster Jenkins
Your voice matters.
A desperate holler, a drunken song to the moon, a cold and broken hallelujah. A prisoner’s prayer.
The words take shape, the vision becomes a picture, a sculpture, a photograph. This is yours. And it really matters.
Wrapped in the word author of course is authority, who gets it and who doesn’t? Many doubt they have a voice at all.
We live in a frightening time of political crisis. Maybe this truth always depends on where you’re standing. Where does art fit into this, if at all? I have often heard art disparaged as useless frippery, as a distractive entertainment, as a commodity for the rich, or as useful only when hitched to a distinct political doctrine. Art in service of the revolution. Many think art is totally useless, a few even hold up art’s uselessness is its most important trait. An art that advances human rights and an “art for art’s sake” are not mutually exclusive. John Berger wrote in “The White Bird” (1985): “Several years ago, when considering the historical face of art, I wrote that I judged a work according to whether or not it helped men in the modern world claim their social rights. I hold to that.”2 But he goes on: “Art's other, transcendental, face raises the question of man's ontological right.” Or in other words, our social right to existence, our right to make and explore meaning for ourselves, our right to a consciousness and a voice, no matter what we might say with it.
I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it/ and that is poetry/ as I need it.3
So much can be taken from us. Illicit power will try to and will sometimes succeed in silencing individual voices, but our human need to have a voice is essential and that cannot be silenced. Our voices give shape and poetry to our lives. From the simplest utterance to the most prolix expression, our voices allow us to make meaning, to communicate, to connect, to cast spells for others, to feel our joys and our sorrows. Even if only spoken in our hearts, these voices allow us agency over our lives.
If it does nothing else, art gives us authorship of our experience. Layers of meaning and exchange, the nuances of aesthetics and economics, and the complexity of history and context all come later. The essential and fundamental importance of art emerges in that moment when we reflect on and give shape to what happens to us, in our response to our conditions.
Simple expression has a real and important power. This can be an ethereal abstract painting or an explicitly political tract, a cry for help or a midnight love whisper. Power inheres in this right to assert a voice. Guernica (1937) did not stop Franco, but it allowed Picasso to say with all the force and power he had as an artist, simply, loudly, beautifully, “No.” Frederick Douglass’s narrative of his time as a slave not only recounted the horrors of slavery to a wider audience, but also made Douglass’s voice heard. Someone whom the law had considered property mastered his own life through his words.
That title hanging above is a bit of a smart-alecky play on Roland Barthe's essay from 1967 "The Death of the Author" first published in Aspen (itself a pun in French on La morte d'Arthur by Malory).4 In one of the greatest hits of literary criticism, Barthes says that the reader and not the author defines the experience of a text. I don’t disagree with Barthes. When I sit down to read, I author my own experience with a work of literature. No matter how I might misinterpret it, I have the right to that experience. Barthes, a beautiful writer and author himself, dismisses the actual human who wrote as a mere “scriptor”. For me the scriptor is not a cipher, but a living breathing person with whom I get to commingle my experience as a reader. The author’s personhood, with attendant rights and hardships and hopes and something to say is utterly fundamental.
The birth of that voice, the expression shaping up, wetly coming into being, is a natural right and one of the sharpest tools we have. It is elemental, basic, easily glossed over and even forgotten for more sophisticated means, more artful modes.
The power that I fear the most is one that creeps inside. The one that strangles a voice before it speaks. It is a power that squats in your head, maybe it is even your own thoughts, your “conscience”, telling you your voice doesn’t matter. It can suppress all thought, direct all action, make you feel your truest feelings are empty, false, wrong. Turn every dream to shit.
In art I witnessed that other strange and diverse voices, wildly different and each unique, mattered. I knew that mine could to, that everybody’s should. I saw such bravery and it gave me enough heart to have the courage of my own voice.
I don’t know if a single painting ever stopped a bomb from dropping. I can’t say if any of the sculpture in all of the museums prevented a baton from cracking the head of a peaceful protester. I really do hope that Woody Guthrie’s guitar kills fascists, but I can’t be sure. The metrics of this are difficult to gauge. I do know that art taught me that I had a right to my voice, my expression, my actions. With anger or beauty, sadness or joy, I could author my experiences. Each of us has this right; each of us has value. This is a revolution in consciousness.
Against illicit power, we find a way to author. With poems and prayers, with codes and songs, with graffiti and stones, with our bodies, we find a way to speak and always will. And this art will help us to carry on, to have hope, to build our communities and, when and if the time comes, to fight.