N.N., untitled


Schirn-Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Catalogue Anonym

The Law of the Proper Name in the Art World

N.N., Nomen nominandum. Name to be named. The abbreviation holds a place free. The name to be entered here is not yet known. This position cannot, however, remain blank indefinitely. If no one can be found to fill it, then it will be deleted. The abbreviation N.N. makes no provision for Odysseus’s stratagem of calling himself Nobody to escape from Polyphemus’s cave. The name governs the space; for without the name, the space cannot exist.

‘Untitled.” Here, too, a position remains blank. There is no title. And yet, in contrast to the previous example, it need not be deleted. Even when not filled by a word or set of words, it exists independently of the naming of the thing.

The two placeholders, thus, have an antithetical relationship to the things to which they refer. Sometimes the position governs, sometimes the name. In the case of “untitled”, the lack of a name does not prevent its object – the artwork – from existing. There is a work, even if it remains unnamed. This is not the case with the abbreviation N.N.; there is no such thing as a nameless subject, especially not among artists and authors. “Anonymous” is the closest we get to namelessness – which could also been seen as a different way of reading N.N. as “nomen nescio” for “the person whose name I do not (yet) know.” The latter is a weaker form of “nomen nominandum”, which also presupposes that the name exists, just as “anonymous” implies someone who has a name but would rather not divulge it.

Imagine things were the other way around. Imagine that the letters N.N. in an exhibition list would refer to a person who exists but has no name (untitled); not because this person denied the naming of his or her name, but because s/he is one of those people who has never possessed a name. Conversely, imagine a work called “untitled” should not exist without a title (name). The space on the wall marked “untitled” would remain blank (N.N.), should there be no name to fill it.

Names are metadata. They upload objects with additional information. Metadata can be found in data (files, card catalogues) containing names, length, times, and often a lot of other information, but metadata can also be found in descriptions of commodities and even humans.1 Art clearly expresses its metadata via a fixed format. It is usually conveyed on a label next to the work in question. It tells you the name of the artist, the title of the work, when it was created; occasionally it will tell you the size, the material, the medium, duration, when it was acquired, who loaned it, and more information on the subject. Metadata can transmute with the passage of time. Using the example of books, the literary theorist Gérard Genette has investigated how paratexts – and by that he means all kinds of texts surrounding the actual text of the book itself – are varied. “The pathways and means of paratexts are constantly changing depending upon the given epoch, culture, author, works, and the editions of the same work and, up to now, with considerable fluctuation.”2 Genette does not go into the reasons why certain details are sometimes named and others concealed.

Metadata is not an ornament. It does not just occupy its position for no reason, and its position is not held open without cause. Metadata is directed at authorities beyond the object. Conversely, institutions beyond the artist determine which details are obligatory and which are optional. They enforce a structure of conventions that have arisen through history whose rules and constraints are so well coordinated that they are hardly noticeable anymore. Metadata reflects classifications to which an object is assigned, the series in which it is slotted, the legal relationships to which it is subject; the functions it must fulfill. It is, thus, part of a process that Michel Foucault has described in its function in controlling a discourse. “I presume that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and redistributed.”3 Behind metadata are the relationships of power. There is no clearer expression of this than the situation at state borders, where individuals are obliged to show the metadata listed in their passports in order to cross.

The naming of an artist’s name has its own specific history and is closely linked with the development of the artist as a profession. Its inception can be located at the historical transition that introduced the profession of the artist by requiring the signature of a name. In the fourteenth century, neither painting nor sculpture was considered an art. The liberal arts, the seven artes liberales, were taught by the faculties of the arts at universities. Anyone who acquired advanced knowledge of languages, reading, and arithmetic or in subjects like rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, or even music was permitted to progress to higher subjects. The decisive quality that made art attractive was not described by the term “art” but by “liberal”. The subjects were deemed “liberal” because those who studied art were not obliged to join a guild. They eluded the restrictive trade organizations and tariffs of the municipal guilds of craftsmen.4 Between 1400 and 1500, painters and sculptors – who bore the self-chosen title “artist” – entered a liberalized market that, rather than introducing collective safeguards, demanded unique prices for equally unique works instead.

In the course of this minor neo-liberal reform, the name of the artist grew in significance alongside the profession of being an artist: each and every “liberal” artist had to market himself in the free and precarious marketplace. This fact alone, however, was not enough to give the artist’s name the significance it has enjoyed ever since. Even in the supposedly “dark” early Middle Ages, the names of sculptors and fresco painters were known. Yet their names were isolated – familiar only to a few. As long as the metadata of the “name” is not embedded in a larger context, its effect is limited.

A dinner held in 1546 inaugurated a new epoch in the history of the artist’s name. Cardinal Farnese had employed the painter Giorgio Vasari to paint the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. During an evening meal together, the Cardinal came up with the idea that one could catalog the lives of contemporary artists in a similar way to the lives of the brilliant men from classical period. Vasari took four years to complete the task. In 1550, the first edition of Le vite delle piu eccellenti architetti, pittori et scultori italiani, da Cimabue insino ai tempi nostri [the lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters, and sculptors from Cimabue to the present day] was published. The name of the artist had suddenly entered a new order. No longer simply the brand for paintings, it had found a place in history through the story of the artist’s life, for biography records more than just one’s private destiny. It embeds the artist’s name, along with the series of works attributed to him or her, in a historical context, from the date of birth to that of death. From this point onwards, names could be introduced into art history as fundamental historical unities that sort works according to influence, sequence, and style.

One might argue that the role of the name goes without saying, since – after all – it is one and the same person who produced the work. But the argument is circular – it starts with a name in order prove its importance. If we do not know to whom a work should be attributed, we would be incapable of appreciating his/her fame as a creator and might also plainly deny that the artist exists as an identifiable person.

No one has recognized more clearly than Michel Foucault that the figure of the author does not represent any evident necessity but instead fulfills a series functions. He considers “the author as the unifying principle in a particular group of writings or statements, lying at the origins of their significance, at the seat of their coherence.”5 The figure of the author fulfils the function of discursive control. Naming his/her name is anything but necessary. “All around us there are sayings and texts whose meanings or effectiveness have nothing to do with any author to whom they might be attributed: mundane remarks, quickly forgotten; orders and contracts that are signed but have no recognizable author; technical prescriptions anonymously transmitted.”6 Foucault’s list can be supplemented by examples from the field of culture: the early history of film, for example, where the different types of production led to the naming of different names. At first it was the cameraman’s name that was foremost in promoting a film – but only the cinema owners knew his name. For the audience, the plot of the brief films sufficed as a title. Around 1900, individual companies tried to establish their own style and, to that end, began to market studio names. From 1905 onward, the role and name of the director began to gain significance. Then, with the introduction of the close-up, the actor became the star, and soon his or her name alone would grace the billboards.7 The power of the production and the attention of the audience intersected in a name. Another more recent example is the advent of computer games in which both the title and the manufacturer are generally known, but the authorial position remains largely unknown.

In the case of artworks, however, one might argue that the author exists, in that he or she invents things and produces them. However, does this imply the necessity to name names? And conversely, can the author function actually exist if we do not actually name or know the name? Does the artist develop into a function together with the name, which gives him/her the power retrospectively over the work?

“The author is not an endless source of meanings which charge or inform a work; the author does not precede the works; rather, the author is a part of a functioning principle in our culture by which one limits, excludes, and chooses.”8 Foucault distinguished four places where authorship is constructed: in the name, which is more than an ordinary proper name; in the act of appropriation that claims the work as their own; in the attribution of texts to him/her; and in the position particular statements grant to him/her.9 In his study, Foucault refers to the debate surrounding proper names, to which the philosophy of language has paid particular attention. For if one assumes that philosophy is primarily devoted to the relationship between speaking and doing, or words and phenomena, then the special case, in which an expression refers to an object, accrues fundamental significance.

Foucault refers to the supposition that the proper name can be understood as a set of descriptions. In the case of the author’s name, this proves to be unhelpful. It does not take the special circumstances into consideration which the naming of names demands. In the same year that Foucault gave the lecture “What Is an Author?” in Buffalo, the philosopher Saul Kripke in Princeton put forward a different solution for the problem of the proper name: “names are rigid designators.”10 This means that a name “in every possible world designates the same object.”11 Kripke moves closer to Foucault’s position here, for the concept of a meaning, which spans different possible worlds, makes provision for special treatment in the case of the author’s name. Kripke states: “A possible world is given by the descriptive conditions we associate with it.”12 He connects the name with the conditions for its naming. The name of the author becomes a special case in a world that gives the name a discursive power.

Artists’ biographers pursue strategic targets from the outset in serving the author function. In order to present the attribution of work and name as an exclusive one, other contexts are weakened. The life of the artist is stylized as something as singular as is his/her work. In their study Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist, Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz show how individual motifs of exclusivity are grouped into a biographical form. Their abbreviated form of the discovery of Giotto demonstrates this in exemplary fashion:
1. Cimabue meets Giotto via a chance encounter. 2. This accidental event paves the way for Giotto, a shepherd boy, to rise on the social ladder. 3. Cimabue becomes Giotto’s teacher. 4. Even in his childhood, Giotto’s drawings of animals revealed a miraculous talent and a rigorous striving towards artistic expression.13
They read the figure of the shepherd boy as a mythical motif, which paves the way for the divinity of the genius. The apprenticeship does nothing more than bring out the talent of a genius that was discovered by chance but was always inherent in him. The artist’s career here is not explained in terms of education, conformity, and socialization. It is ordained by God.

The rhetorical formulas of artist biographies influence the contemporary discourse as well. Art criticism and commentaries about artists obey a completely different set of rules from those in the fields of design and advertising, for example. Art likes to be read as the inscrutable expression of the author and not as the result of a market demand or a museum-oriented service. Generally, one could say that artists’ careers are celebrated more readily as a fact, rather than as the result of clever strategies of self-representation within the art industry. The individual work is questioned more for its meaning than for the consideration of other, perhaps better solutions. The discursive rules of the industry surround both the name and the products attributed to it – exactly as Kris and Kurz have shown to be the case of Renaissance biography—with a zone of rhetorical immunity.

Not only the pattern of biography but also the functions of the name have changed substantially, for there are two equally forceful authorities that make demands on the names of artists: the market and museums. The name serves the museum as a connection between the number of works and the historical order that they introduced around 1800 – based on the model of Winckelmann’s art history.14 Neither modernism nor postmodernism has overcome the power of the historical on the realm of art. Literally, the reverse is true: for modernism promotes the continuously new, the modern in the etymological sense, in an evolving present, and the prefix “post” simply confirms the sense of temporal sequence. In this way, the avant-garde can be read as a strategy desiring nothing more than to continuously produce the “new” that the institution of art demands. The fact that modernism actually avails itself of a historical series of fixed data processes is frequently suppressed, for it would reduce the myth of authorship to a mere act of conformity.

The name serves the market as a brand, and prices are formed around these names. Since around 1880 – the inception of modernism along with the industrial revolution – the same branding strategies that also characterize the present-day commodity world were made manifest in the name of the artist.15 The preeminence of the author’s name can be clearly seen in the fact that collectors commission new works by famous artists in advance, sight unseen. The specific nature or kind of work it might be is largely irrelevant, for its value depends largely upon the name rather than any other characteristic.

In the age of scholastic philosophy, a realist was thought to be someone who supported the proposition that ideas -or (universal) words – are more real than the things to which they refer. In this sense of realism – precisely the opposite of what we understand realism to be nowadays – the function of the name precedes the work and life of the artist. The phrase “to make a name for oneself” articulates this plain truth perfectly. For the ordinary name first has to be transferred to the realm of art in order for it to be effective as an author’s name. Its power is expressed immediately and on a practical level. Only under this name can a person be granted all the functions that the world of art intends for the artist.

Both the abbreviation N.N. and the title “untitled” do more than say something about the relationship between positions and names; they also indicate the power behind this relationship, for “untitled” does nothing more than announce that something is (intentionally) missing. The position “title” is routinely accessed as an item of metadata, but leaving the position empty bears no consequences. “Nomen nominandum”, by contrast, contains a hidden imperative in the Latin gerundive. The name is to be named! Whosoever fails to name the name is breaking a law.


1 See Lev Manovich, “Die Metadatierung’ des Bildes: Metadata, mon amour: in Black Box White Cube (Berlin: Merve, 2004), pp. 29 – 51.
2 Gérard Genette, Paratexte: Das Buch vom Beiwerk des Buches, (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 1989), p. 11.
3 Michel Foucault, The Discourse on Language trans. Rupert Swyer, in Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 216.
4 See Martin Warnke, Hofkünstler: Zur Vorgeschichte des modernen Künstlers, 2nd ed. (Cologne: DuMont, 1996), pp. 16 – 28.
5 Foucault The Discourse on Language (see note 3), p. 221.
6 Ibid.
7 See Janet Staiger, The Hollywood Mode of Production to 1930, in David Bordwell and Thompson Staiger, eds., The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 85 – 153.
8 Michel Foucault, What Is an Author? trans. Josua V. Harari, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), pp.118-19.
9 Ibid., pp. 105 -113.
10 Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), p. 48.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid., p. 44.
13 Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz, Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist: A Historical Experiment (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), p. 25. (As the logic seemed out-of-order, the choronology has been rearranged; hence, this quote is at variance with the German version of this essay. Ed.)
14 See Stefan Heidenreich, Was verspricht die Kunst? (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 1998), pp. 53 – 54.
15 See Naomi Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs (New York: Picador, 2000), p. 6.