[FICTION] The Making of an Author

[The following text was written in October 2017 for the exhibition "The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists IV" presented at S.Y.P Art Space in Tokyo, between October 26 and November 5, 2017]

According to what the literary author Jorge Luis Borges [1899-1986] taught through his predecessor Franz Kafka [1883-1924], all authors create their predecessors. That is why we should not be surprised to find inside The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists a reference to its predecessor, The Lives of the Artists. This latter book, which was written by Giorgio Vasari [1511-1574] in 1550, recorded the biographies of 133 Renaissance-era artists and thereby established the very notion of the “author” as the sole agent who creates an artwork. Recent studies have revealed, however, a curious fact: Vasari, who is usually regarded as having authored the work, was himself a fabricated author. In particular, the second edition published 18 years after the first edition is known to have been written extensively by ghostwriters, despite preserving Vasari’s name on the cover.

The true author of “Giorgio Vasari, the author” appears to have been his friend and advisor Vincenzo Borghini [1515-1580], who effectively directed the production process of the second edition. From around 1563, in between the publication of the first and the second version, Vasari and Borghini both became involved in starting Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, the very first art school in the world. The basic principle of the academy had emerged from a radical idea conceived by Borghini: art is all about systems and methods that are irreducible to the individual and can be taught to many. As the means for spreading this anti-author ideology, Borghini outrageously conspired to use The Lives of the Artists, which had already become a bestseller by then. He proceeded to interfere in the revision process, fundamentally transforming the nature of the book in the second edition: instead of celebrating the blossom of the era of authors, the primary focus of the book became demarking the end of such era, symbolically announced by the then-recent death of Michelangelo [1475-1564]. In other words, the second edition of The Lives of the Artists was published in order to dismiss the ideology of the author as an already completed paradigm, a done idea—it was, essentially, The Lives of Past Artists. 400 years before Roland Barthes’ [1915-1980] famous declaration, the era of authors had already started with the death of its primary subject.

However, this mechanism of establishing authors through their death or completion is in itself a truism. For an “artwork” is always something “completed” by someone. In other words, what summons the author (as a function) is not the question of “who made the work?” but that of “who completed the work?” (even an idea like Marcel Duchamp’s [1887-1968] “art coefficient,” which divides the task of this completion between the artist and the audience, is only possible within the frame of such question). In this sense, it was a matter of course that the agency of the author was fabricated through the format of “biography”—documentation of completed lives. That is to say, what the author who went by the name of “Vasari” had fabricated was a way to account for “artworks” and “artist’s life” on the same level. Consequently, the life of the artist who created the work turns itself into a work of sorts, as something already completed in the past. Borghini, who initially hated this mechanism so much that he sent many letters to Vasari asking him to keep his act together and focus not in the description of artist’s life but of the artwork, ended up inserting his authority in the project in a rather twisted manner: he fed Vasari’s mechanism back to Vasari himself and turned this living author into a work. If the establishment of authors is conditioned by the death of the author, what foregrounds as a corollary is a possibility for the fabrication (virtualization) of the author. Needless to say, this is something that literature has always done well since antiquity. For literature must always start by authoring the author of the story to be told. This means that as far as literature goes, the work, no matter how complete it appears to be, can never be detached from the act of telling and re-telling the story. In other words, when the work titled The Lives of the Artists managed to establish the completed agency of “authors,” fine art was turned into literary performance.

The sudden spark of interest in the early 21st century for this 16th-century paradigm shift was obviously conditioned by the contemporary rapid expansion of the internet. In particular, the social network services (SNS) such as Facebook or Twitter which had popularized exponentially in the 2000s, redefined countable units of human agency as “accounts.” It thereby established, technologically, the dual mechanism of visible yet virtual “author(s)” who are disseminated socially, and the invisible “user(s)” who constantly produce and enact this “work” from behind the curtain, so to speak. Although only a few people realized at the time, in hindsight it is clear that the resulting proliferation of the idea of “author-as-work” provided the necessary ideological platform for the parallel resurgence of interest in “performance art” that was also witnessed in the 2000s. However, such “performance art” in the narrow sense tended again towards individualism, the old format of a single individual performing a single and singular “author.” In contrast, what emerged simultaneously in different parts of the world, in sync with the naturalization of SNS and its technological environment, was the tendency to regard artworks as being created by a network of various agents, extending beyond the traditional category of humans to including virtual beings and non-human objects.

As a development of this basic idea, two theoretical positions arose to prominence in the mid-2000s. The first camp, usually known as Dividualism, claimed that the “author” is always imagined as an “objective correlative” of the “observer/audience,” and therefore, in order to multiply the former, it was also necessary to pluralize the latter. Luckily for them, molecular biology, parasitology, and speculative philosophy of the times had all revealed that one’s own body, which had heretofore been regarded as an in-dividual unit, was itself a composition of multiple bodies and different organisms―many bestsellers were written about the fact that 90% of the human body is microbial, for instance. In addition to this revelation about the dividualized body, the views of this camp also aligned well with other contemporary social trends (such as the increase of multiple personality disorders, or the proliferation of big-data) and enjoyed wide popularity.

The second position which countered the first claimed instead that no matter how much an author became decomposed into a network of plural agencies, it was impossible to take into account every single agent involved since the poor computational abilities of humans were too ill-equipped to process such an extensive amount of information. Hence, a multiplicity that is incredibly vast and complex nonetheless becomes inevitably “corpo-realized” into a single body in human communication. In other words, no matter how pluralized and dispersed authors became in principle, the entirety of this authorial network would always be re-framed as “the author.” Since a “corporation” was deemed to be a prime example of such “corpo-realization” triggered by the limitations of the human cognitive ability, this view became known as Corporationism. And true to its name, they received wide support from corporations and corporate people, thus exerting a strong cultural influence despite its proponents being fewer.

After a decade or so of more or less productive opposition between these dividualists and corporationists, a third theoretical position appeared which synthesized the problem from an entirely different angle. According to this camp, what was undergoing transformation was not so much the notion of the author but the notion of the work. The “author-as-work” needs constant maintenance through repetitive performance, which means that what is critical is not so much the product but the process. This seemingly worn-out claim that had been repeated by so many authors since at least the early Twentieth century (composer like John Cage and post-minimalist sculptors like Robert Morris being some of its famous proponents), however, gained a new conviction around this time fueled by a trivial yet uncanny observation: people were using the names of “corporations/authors” as a verb. Nobody could quite remember exactly when it had started, but expressions such as “to tweet,” “to google,” or “youtuber” began appearing in conversations here and there, and before long such peculiar verbalization of names, which essentially turned authors into acts, had completely permeated common speech. By turning this observation into a theoretical model, the group which became known later as Verbalism radicalized the idea that art created not things but authors who complete things, arriving at the logical conclusion that an artwork is ultimately an apparatus to install specific algorithms of acts (on various scales, from perception to bodily movement to thought) within another life/body to enable reenactment. The author-as-work, in this view, was therefore not something to be perceived; it was rather an algorithm that regulated the act of perception. In other words, the process of art may be endless, but the format of the process was always established as already completed. The world that Verbalism depicted was a mild dystopia in which the verbalization of the author had become popularized as the fictional installment of oneself in the lives of others or other things. VR had just appeared on the market causing a subtle craze, and conceptual art was in bloom with artists asking questions such as “what would I have thought if I were the author of The Lives of Artists?”―an utterly literary mechanism, which Sigmund Freud had once analyzed under the rubric of “transference.”

Now, let us fictionally revive this bygone theory from circa 2018 and delve ourselves into the repetitive mechanism of literary transference: let us simulate what Borghini would have done, and feed all these theoretical positions on the “author” as documented in The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists back to The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists itself. While this confirms the fact that a work indeed creates its own predecessors, it also reveals that a work is always under the strong influence of the same predecessors it claims to have created. The very choice to re-enact the format Vasari/Borghini authored in the 16th century has regulated The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists in a fundamental way. According to the basic teachings of Vasari/Borghini, no matter how far in the future it is written, a Lives & Opinions of Artists cannot help but be Past Lives & Opinions of Artists. The problem then becomes not only that there are two authors in the past—Vasari and Borghini—but that those two are fundamentally incompatible since holding one to be the author prevents the other from being one—the two agents can neither be dividualized nor corpo-realized. If this is the case, what remains is only the third position―Verbalism. And this brings us to our final question: Was The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists vasari-ed or borghini-ed? In other words, did/does/will the authors of The Lives & Opinions of Future Artists, who yet again celebrate the end of the era of authors, also have an author?