Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #35: Auteur


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

This week, we’re looking at terms that have to do with artists themselves. Most of these words will be ones that actual practicing contemporary artists think are off-limits. So buckle up for a sacrilegious week!

Terms of Art #35:


Classic auteur director Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane [source]

Pronunciation: aw-TUR or oh-TUR (or aw/oh-TOOR)

Definition: Auteur is one of those words that people use and overuse but most people don’t really know what it means.

It’s just the French word for author. It basically means author. But with some baggage.

Paintings and sculptures and novels – these all have a clear author. (Okay, well, clear-ish. It’s actually super complicated if you think hard about this.)

But movies? They’re made by a large team of people. So who’s the author of a movie? We typically think it’s the director, right? Well, that’s because of the influence of auteur theory.

Auteur theory says that the author of the film is the director. Lots of people are involved in making a film (actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, producers…), but they’re all working in service of the director’s vision.

Lots of people deny this theory because they think it’s too narrow to just zoom in on film directors as the super-special, ultimate author of the movie.


Even if you deny the theory in general, you can still use “auteur” to refer to an auteur-ish filmmaker, one who you know exerts a lot of control over different aspects of a film.

People also extend “auteur” to other artistic domains, like contemporary pop music, video games, or restaurants.

In a McDonald’s, the owner doesn’t control very much; but in a one-off, non-chain restaurant, the owner might control a lot, from the menu to the interior design to the way the staff present themselves. Such a restaurateur might be called an auteur (it’s sort of right there in the name even!).

Key figures:
Three main people made auteurs and auteur theory a thing: film critic and director François Truffaut, film critic Andrew Sarris, and film theorist André Bazin.

Related terms:
1) uh, author

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