The Assassination of J. D. Salinger by the Coward Richard Prince

Richard Prince’s The Catcher in the Rye is a facsimile of the first edition of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, except it has Prince’s name in place of Salinger’s, and is thus a work of ‘appropriation art’ billed as a ‘sculpture book’. The appropriateness of such appropriation is uncontested if the bill can be footed for any legal infringement protestation, of course. Is this what Barthes had in mind when he foresaw ‘the death of the author’, or what Foucault envisaged the disappearance of the ‘author function’ looking like, at the end of ‘What is an Author?’

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The very opposite. Roland Barthes’ manifestoed summative statement in ‘The Death of the Author’ is: ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’. The author of The Catcher in the Rye may well be dead, but the notion of authoriality Prince sees it appropriate to force to remain obscenely and tortuously alive, and this at the cost of an abortion of the reader. This ‘sculpture book’ – which, incidentally, was ironically promoted by James Frey, a master of appropriation ex nihilo – may as well be as unread by Prince (and its $40 purchasers) as the author-function is made undead by him. There’s something ‘fascististic’ – to coin a word – about the ‘work’: its implications of a moneyed lack of work (l’absence d’œuvre); its murder of the author,and subsequent disavowist, fraudulent identity-theft of the authored material. It fails as art precisely due to its disallowance of dialecticality; it represents a ‘self-alienation [that] has reached the point where it can experience its own’ – and not only its own, but the enforcement of others’ – ‘annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure’, to put it in the words Benjamin uses at the end of ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’. And this failure occurs in Prince’s piece in precisely the way it doesn’t in Banksy’s ‘Stolen Picasso Quote’.

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