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What Does it Mean to be an Author?

Sarah Rodriguez | 25 Nov 2022

Picabia, Francis. 1929. Self-Portrait. Gouache, pen and black ink, and black crayon on cream wove paper, 63 × 48.3 cm (24 13/16 × 19 1/16 in.). Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1921, the Spanish artist Francis Picabia (1879-1953) was sick in bed, at home in Paris, with an eye infection; doctors prescribed him cacodylate de sodium for treatment. As friends came to visit, Picabia told them to draw something on a canvas. Precisely what they drew and how would be a matter of circumstance, a rolling of the dice. Ezra Pound, Francis Poulenc, “Fatty” Arbuckle, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp were but a few of the participants. Signatures accumulated. So too collaged photos, messages, humour—remarks that ran from “I like salad” to “I have nothing to say to you.” The elements of the canvas that Picabia himself created amounted to a meagre trio. Block letters describing his condition on top in the centre; a scribbled signature in all capital letters, complete with a miniature face, in the bottom left; and a big brown eye—presumably his own—in the lower right quadrant. Picabia’s visitors’ contributions, by and large, filled the final work of art. It looks to me like a graffiti collage, or the signed cast of someone who’s broken their arm, and to critic Peter Schjeldahl, like an “epochal get-well card.” More importantly, though, The Cacodylic Eye, as it was titled, offers up a provocative premise on the nature of authorship—that the author is moreso someone who sets up a situation in which they and others are invited to contribute rather than a singular originator of meaning. It’s unlikely that Picabia intended to reconceptualize the role of the author with his canvas (nor incidentally to pave the way for postmodernist artwork). And yet, I think The Cacodylic Eye, gloriously bursting with chaos, accomplishes these things and more. Constituted by beige postcard-like material, the canvas was painted and scribbled on over the course of 1921 with oil, enamel, and ink, in a colour scheme of blacks, blues, and greens. The eye in the bottom right quadrant and in the title function as a synecdoche for Picabia’s whole being—a being that is represented, too, in the small smiling face at the bottom right and in the signature “FRANCIS PICABIA”, rendered in block letters that look almost as though they belong in an advertisement or on a prescription bottle. Unlike traditional portraits, The Cacodylic Eye is composed mostly of words: messages and signatures. Most of these marks were made by members of the Parisian Dada contingent. The canvas, then, amounts to something of a group portrait, if one attributable above all to Picabia, of the early twentieth century avant-garde. Picabia entered The Cacodylic Eye, along with Hot Eyes and Danse de Saint-Guy (1919), in the Salon d’Automne, an exhibition held from November 1 to December 20, 1921. He attempted to enter these same artworks in the Salon des Indépendants, too, but President of the Society of Independent Artists, painter Paul Signac, wrote to Picabia rejecting both The Cacodylic Eye and Hot Eyes from this subsequent salon. No doubt The Cacodylic Eye, then, was considered wacky in Picabia’s time—flatly beyond the bounds of “acceptable art.” The only work by Picabia accepted was Danse de Saint-Guy; to the rejection of his two artworks, Picabia responded with an incendiary handbill, to be distributed at the doors of the Salon. Signac’s letter rejecting the two works was printed on one side; on the other, Picabia’s response: “The Salon des INDÉPENDANTS is no longer independent!!! It has refused two paintings by Francis PICABIA! The Salon des Artistes Français has become shit!!! The two rejected Paintings are exhibited at the bar MOYSèS [...] for the duration of the Indépendants exhibition.” Both artworks remained in Louis Moyse’s bar, Le Boeuf sur le toit, for decades. Although The Cacodylic Eye initially roused controversy, it upheld a lasting legacy, for its subversiveness, among Picabia’s French contemporaries. When I say that Picabia’s artwork is postmodern, perhaps the image of a brooding artist standing in a corner asking “Why? Why? Why?” comes to mind. Or thoughts of a corrosive movement—relativistic, nihilistic—one that wreaked particular havoc in various university disciplines. While there’s some merit to these associations, what “the postmodern” means in art is not precisely of this sort. To the extent that Picabia gestures toward “the postmodern,” he depriveleges the centrality of the author, says he’s no longer a skilled creator of original works—relegates him to the periphery and instead allows others to speak out and through him. His canvas: a conduit for larger personal and cultural forces. Of course, Picabia had to draw on other resources and people to create and complete his artwork—his sight, that distinguishing faculty of the artist, was compromised. Picabia’s idea of the artist-author closely aligns with the one Roland Barthes puts forward in “The Death of the Author,” his seminal essay from 1967. Although discussing authorship with respect to literature rather than visual art, in this essay—deemed paradigmatic of postmodernism—Barthes describes “the text” as “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture…”: in other words, a conduit for forces and voices extending beyond the author. By way of The Cacodylic Eye, Picabia withholds easily digestible meanings with his canvas, placing a greater onus on the viewer. The presence of the eye in the lower right quadrant brings to the fore these shifted author-viewer dynamics. How? Looking outward, the plainly-rendered eye seems to operate as a “gaze,” something which invites reciprocity: for the viewer to look back at the artwork puzzled and try to decipher what it might amount to. The postmodern idea that the responsibility of the spectator ought to grow can be found in an essay entitled “The Creative Act,” by that “father of postmodernism,” Mr. Marcel Duchamp. In a way, it is up to the viewer to confirm that The Cacodylic Eye even qualifies as art; the canvas seems to ask of them: “what is an artwork? What is beauty? Is this beautiful?” And no matter how much effort said viewer exerts in deciphering the artwork, they will never ascertain an “ultimate meaning” to it. The image of the brooding artist with his endless “Why’s” does strike a chord. The artwork presents itself as polysemous, all the way down—a feature that resembles how “the text” functions in Barthes. A feature that reflects a gesture toward the postmodern. “The reader,” Barthes writes, is the “one place where this multiplicity” of meanings “from many cultures” are focused. With the “death of the Author” comes “the birth of the reader.” The Cacodylic Eye subverts modernist expectations of authorship, too, in not requiring genius or great skill of “artists” (here, both Picabia and his friends). On the contrary, Picabia’s quasi-group portrait adheres to a logic such that if the artist(s) claim a work is art, it is art. In doing so, The Cacodylic Eye manifests an aesthetic revolution inextricably entwined with postmodernism, initiated by Marcel Duchamp with his readymades. It is a revolution that also diminishes, if not erases, the value of an artist’s originality. No matter how much “originality” always only amounts to a recombination of existing ideas and materials, some sense of artistic aspiration seems to be lost in doing away with the concept. Lost also, in my mind, is a certain capacity to differentiate the mere charlatan from the talented artist. The Van Gogh from the amateur meme producer. In describing The Cacodylic Eye, Picabia suggests the artist is endowed with a capacity to consecrate seemingly innocuous objects into works of art—no particular skill being necessary. “This canvas,” Picabia declares, “was finished when there was no more space on it, and I find this painting to be very beautiful and very pleasant to look at, and harmonious: it may be that all my friends have a bit of the artist in them!” The Cacodylic Eye implies a conception of the artist-author in which little to zero craftsmanship is demanded of him, in which his overall power in facilitating the artwork’s meaning(s) is greatly diminished. If anything is art, is nothing art? The move to the postmodern may indeed be a dangerous one—threatening to defile the dignity of artistry, of craft. Picabia’s canvas, though, does not wipe out the role of the artist-author full stop. The Cacodylic Eye—moderately ugly though it may be—can still be unambiguously attributed to Picabia. Not only did he initiate the co-creation of the canvas, it also most conspicuously bears his signature, in a bold font resembling that of the title. But does this preservation of some sense of the artist-author fend off the destructiveness born of devaluing originality and skill in works of art? Perhaps not. Whatever the case, the conception of the artist-author suggested by Picabia, moving as it does toward the postmodern, diverges from the “author” in Barthes’ theory. The latter goes so far as to say there is no author as such, only—at best—a “scriptor”; Picabia suggests, meanwhile, that just because the author is denied God-like status does not mean that the very concept of authorship is required to vanish.

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