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Roland Barthes Photo

Roland Barthes

French Philosopher, Social Theorist, and Semiotician

Born: November 12, 1915 - Cherbourg, France
Died: March 26, 1980 - Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Postmodernism
"Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire."
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"I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me."
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"I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds, I love only one."
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"We know that the war against intelligence is always waged in the name of common sense."
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"How does meaning get into the image? Where does it end? And if it ends, what is there beyond?"
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"Language is legislation, speech is its code. We do not see the power which is in speech because we forget that all speech is a classification, and that all classifications are oppressive."
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"Man does not exist prior to language, either as a species or as an individual."
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"I am simultaneously and contradictorily both happy and unhappy: 'to succeed' or 'to fail' have for me only ephemeral, contingent meanings (this does not stop my desires and sorrows from being violent ones); what impels me, secretly and obstinately, is not tactical: I accept and I affirm, irrespective of the true and the false, of success and failure; I am withdrawn from all finality, I live according to chance."
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Summary of Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes is France's best-known essayist and literary critic. Although he only rarely turned his critical attention towards fine art (despite being a committed "Sunday painter" himself), his ideas have been wide-reaching and have had a profound impact on how we interpret artworks. Recognized initially for his use of semiology (the "science of signs") to dismantle the myths of mass culture, his position shifted in step with the anti-authoritarian mood of the sixties, and his short, but seminal, essay, "The Death of the Author", amounted to his fiercest assault on the rigid scholarly literary traditions he deplored. Barthes's ideas, expressed always through his own love of fragmented narratives and poetic language, gave rise to a malleable approach to cultural analysis that fitted perfectly with the new age of postmodernism and its attendant identity politics.

Accomplishments

  • Barthes's single most significant essay was "The Death of the Author" (1967). Challenging the idea that what the author/artist said about their art was the definitive word on its meaning, he proposed rather that the individual viewer should be regarded as the author of the text and that it is she or he who brings their own - legitimate - meaning to the text (artwork). It gave rise to the idea of many credible "truths" (plural) over one "truth" (singular) and ushered in a period of critical analysis called post-structuralism.
  • Barthes made his name initially as a semiologist and was instrumental in the rise of French structuralism through the publication of his most famous single collection of essays, Mythologies (1957). In it he brought together a disparate collection of examples from mass culture and used semiological analysis to deconstruct the chosen object/image/performance. By this means he claimed to have exposed the hidden ideological structures that were necessary to maintain the interests of the ruling (bourgeois) classes.
  • "The Death of the Author" provided impetus for many post-modernists, including Jeff Koons, and a group of New York based artists who became known as The Pictures Generation. Emerging in the mid-1970s, they were a loose affiliation, including the likes of Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, and John Baldessari, who, having taken their lead from Pop Art and Conceptual Art, reworked (or even just copied) existing imagery as a way of asking the viewer to call into question the two great cornerstones of modernist ideology: authenticity and artistic genius.
  • Barthes's so-called "new criticism" rankled with many of France's top literary scholars who discounted his writing as self-absorbed, deliberately opaque, and (therefore) lacking academic credibility. It was a reproach Barthes would have worn with pride given that his goal was to dismantle what he saw as the staid and unadventurous bourgeois conventions of "official" literary criticism.
  • Although he only rarely focused his critical attentions on art, Barthes did reserve praise for Pop Art, and the work of Cy Twombly because, in his view, both existed for-and-of themselves. Barthes was drawn to the idea that the aim of Pop Art was to rid the work of any meaning and, as such, it represented, in his words, a "revolutionary force which contests art". Similarly, Barthes liked the idea that Twombly's work was all about "gesture" (over content) and that Twombly's hand was guided, not by the intellect, but rather by "gestures", that being "the infant [in him] who does not speak".

Biography of Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes Photo

Barthes crusade was to bring about a revolution in literary and cultural criticism: "Language is legislation, speech is its code", he wrote, and "We do not see the power which is in speech because we forget that all speech is a classification, and that all classifications are oppressive".

Roland Barthes and Important Artists and Artworks

The New Citroën (1957)

Artist: Roland Barthes

Barthes's book, Mythologies (1957), is a collection of previously published essays (in journals such as Théâtre Populaire and Lettres nouvelles) on items, images and performances from mass culture and was prefaced by his introductory essay to semiotics, "Myth Today". Put simply, Barthes argued that seemingly innocent objects and images carry a literal - denotative - meaning, and a non-literal - connotative - meaning. By deconstructing the connotative meaning one can then expose the ideological structures on which consumer society is built and maintained. One of the best-known essays form Mythologies is "The New Citroën" in which Barthes uses semiotic analysis to de-mythologize the "futuristic" Citroën DS 19 motor car. The essay stands as an exemplar of how consumer society could be approached with a critical reverence that had been reserved hitherto only for the fine arts and the great novels of literature.

Barthes likened all modern motor cars to "the great Gothic cathedrals" in the sense that they were "the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as purely magical objects". Referring to the experience of those members of the public who did encounter the car firsthand (at motor-shows or in showrooms) Barthes wrote, we are "dealing here with a humanized art, and it is possible that the [Citroën DS 19] marks a change in the mythology of cars. Until now, the ultimate in cars belonged rather to the bestiary of power; here it becomes at once more spiritual [the] object here is totally prostituted, appropriated: originating from the heaven of Metropolis, the Goddess is in a quarter of an hour mediatized, actualizing through this exorcism the very essence of petit-bourgeois advancement".

It is not without its own irony, however, that, rather than "de-mystify" the Citroën DS 19, Barthes's essay in fact did much to confirm and secure the vehicle's mythological status. As the American journal Open Culture pointed out: "at the 1955 Paris Auto Show the world first beheld a car that, aesthetically speaking, might as well have been a spacecraft: the Citroën DS. Pronounced in French like déesse, that language's word for 'goddess,' the car received 80,000 order deposits during the show, a record that stood for six decades until the debut of Tesla's Model 3 - which, whatever its respectability as a feat of design and engineering, will never have Roland Barthes to extol its beauty".

Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962)

Artist: Andy Warhol

This image is a reproduction of the same publicity still (from the 1953 film Niagara) that Warhol used for most of his Marilyn works. He altered the colours or the ink content for each piece with this edition covered in a bright gold block colour. Marilyn's surroundings glamorise her, while also making her smaller - almost swallowing her up. The idea of image repetition of icons of mass culture presented a direct challenge to the lofty high art principles so recently evidenced in the art of the New York School. But with every repetition - "Pop Art [...] repeats spectacularly. Warhol proposes a series of identical images [...] which differ only by some slight variation of color (Flowers, Marilyn)" wrote Barthes - Warhol's Marilyn became further removed from the woman herself and brought to light the ambivalent feeling we have to the overexposure of certain images and icons.

In his 1980 essay, "That Old Thing Art", Barthes was drawn to discuss Pop Art because it "wants to desymbolize the object". By this he meant that Pop Art wanted to rid the work of any deeper (connotative) meaning. But that observation was not intended as any sort of criticism. Barthes liked the idea that an artwork could exist as nothing more than a sign. He wrote: "Crossing the Atlantic [Pop] products forced the barrier of art; accommodated by certain American artists, they became works of art, of which culture no longer constituted the being, merely the reference: origin was displaced by citation [...] Pop Art as we know it is the permanent theater of [a] tension: on one hand the mass culture of the period is present in it as revolutionary force which contests art; and on the other , art is present in it as a very old force which irresistibly returns in the economy of societies. There are two voices, as in a fugue - one says: 'This is not Art', the other says, at the same time: 'I am Art'.

Commenting on the Pop artist, meanwhile, Barthes argued that a figure like Warhol "does not stand behind his work ... and he himself has no depth: he is merely the surface of his pictures, no signified, no intention, anywhere". It would have been a sentiment endorsed by Warhol himself who memorably declared: "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it".

No. 159, 15 Dec '71 (1971)

Artist: Roland Barthes

During his lifetime Barthes produced over 700 (going by the number that remain in storage) artworks, although he very much considered himself a "Sunday painter" and never intended the pieces to be exhibited. The paintings/sketches/doodlings are all numbered and dated and range from 1971-78. Professor of art theory, Sunil Manghani, notes that there "is very little variation" between the works with Barthes restricting himself to a palette of "three or four colours" arranged on paper using "the same interleaving lines and marks". Manghani adds that, "[Barthes] appears to have considered the paintings a body of work of sorts, however modestly. Almost all of the drawings are dated, and he also numbered each piece in a continuous sequence, often using a different pen or pencil, which might suggest an operation undertaken at the end of a painting session. Perhaps this was the moment in which he reflected on the works, discarding those that had not 'worked'".

As an artist, Barthes described himself as a "marginal", and likened himself in fact to two painters. The first was the famous J. D. Ingres who was a passionate, but strictly amateur, violin player (Ingres passion for the violin was immortalized in one of Man Ray's most iconic photographs, Le Violon d'Ingres, 1924). The second was Bernard Réquichot of whom Barthes wrote: "He is the one who does not exhibit, the one who does not make himself heard ... the amateur seeks to produce only his own enjoyment (but nothing forbids it to become ours in addition, without his knowing it)".

In 1978 Barthes published a short essay entitled "Colouring, Year Zero" in the literary/arts newspaper Les Nouvelles Littéraires. In it, he said the following about his art: "From time to time, I like to do ... but here the difficulty begins - to do what? Drawing, painting, graphic art...? What I do barely has a name. It's more of the order of colouring, of graffiti. It's not, assuredly, a second-rate thing but it is a by-product, a spin-off, even though it's always subject, more or less, to cultural values that I derive, without thinking, from all the paintings or forms of handwriting I've seen [...] There are no doubt many reasons for this amateur practice. Perhaps it's the dream of being a complete artist, a painter and writer, as certain men of the Renaissance were [But more likely it is] the relief (the restfulness) of being able to create something that isn't directly caught in the trap of language and dodges the responsibility each sentence inevitably carries with it - in short, a sort of innocence that writing denies me."

Influences and Connections

Influences on Roland Barthes
Roland Barthes
Influenced by Roland Barthes
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Michel Foucault
    Michel Foucault
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    Paul Valéry
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    Maurice Nadeau
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    A. J. Greimas
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    Julia Kristeva
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Michel Foucault
    Michel Foucault
  • No image available
    Paul Valéry
  • No image available
    Maurice Nadeau
  • No image available
    A. J. Greimas
  • No image available
    Julia Kristeva
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Esme Blair

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Roland Barthes Influencer Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Esme Blair
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 19 Dec 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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