In the modern aesthetic regime, the artwork usually comes with an identifiable author in the form of a single person—a supercharged subject who has created an exceptional object, which in turn can overwhelm and rework the viewer’s (or reader’s, or listener’s) own subjectivity.footnote1 Clearly, artistic volition is not that of some pure philosophical cogito or self-constituting idealist subject, which becomes self-identical by positing external objects. Artistic subjects self-objectify through the construction of social and/or artistic masks. Yet as Deleuze has argued, the same in fact goes for philosophers: Plato used Socrates as a conceptual persona, Nietzsche used Zarathustra and Dionysus, while the Cartesian system depends on the persona of ‘the Idiot who says “I” and sets up the cogito’.footnote2
The etymological root of ‘person’ is the Latin persona, denoting a theatrical mask, or character—the character being visually articulated by the mask worn by the actor. In Rome the term also underwent a legal turn, referring to persons in law—either ‘natural’ or juridical persons, corporate bodies. In modern philosophy, as Charles Taylor has noted, insofar as it is ‘a being with consciousness, where consciousness is seen as a power to frame representations of things’, the concept of the person is closely connected to ‘the seventeenth-century, epistemologically grounded notion of the subject’.footnote3 But in contrast to the philosophical subject from Descartes to the German idealists (the subject as cogito or self-consciousness and as the negation of objecthood), the notion of the person has always been more entangled in legal theory. The ‘person’ thus appears more socially grounded and constructed than the ‘subject’:
Where it is more than simply a synonym for ‘human being’, ‘person’ features primarily in moral and legal discourse. A person is a being with a certain status, or a bearer of rights. But underlying the moral status, as its condition, are certain capacities. A person is a being who has a sense of self, has a notion of the future and past, can hold values, make choices . . . footnote4
Personhood therefore seems to be relatively factual and down-to-earth, compared to philosophical subjecthood. This is where Deleuze intervenes, reintroducing the person(a) into the realm of philosophical cognition; arguing that the philosophical subject is in fact dependent on conceptual masks, such as the ‘idiot I’ of Descartes; or, one might add, Hegel’s Spirit itself, as well as its dialectical manifestations, such as Master and Slave:
The conceptual persona is not the philosopher’s representative, but rather the reverse: the philosopher is only the envelope of his principal persona and all the other personae who are the intercessors [intercesseurs], the real subjects of his philosophy. Conceptual personae are the philosopher’s ‘heteronyms’, and the philosopher’s name is the simple pseudonym of his persona.footnote5
One could name artistic heteronyms such as the Machine (Warhol) or the Shaman (Beuys), yet genealogies of such conceptual personae of artists—which can be traced back at least to the Renaissance—should steer clear of oversimplifying typological excess.
Foucault proposed to historicize and denaturalize the author by thinking in terms of specific author functions: an abstract painting has a different author function to a scientific article, and a painter talking or writing about his work again differs from the painting, just as a personal introduction to a scientific article has a different author function than the main text.footnote6 What interests us here is a historical shift in the author function which involved a personafication of art. If the artist’s persona was once an intercession between author and work, a public projection of artistic subjectivity that was used to frame and interpret the work while remaining external to it, this distinction between ergon and parergon broke down as the persona became the primary artistic material and focus of the artistic practice. The result is a set of performative strategies at the fraying outer edge of contemporary subjecthood and subjectivity.