A few weeks ago I attended a concert by a band named Thinner Lizzy. They performed songs by the Irish hardrock band Thin Lizzy, but they were all just middle-aged fans of the band. Their drummer wasn’t the best I’ve ever heard, and their singer couldn’t always keep track of the lyrics. Nonetheless I had a wonderful time, because the people on the stage performing were visibly enjoying themselves so goddamned much. Perhaps their performance wasn’t exactly true to the material they were performing, but it was heartwarmingly joyful. This encounter made me think about the concept of authenticity in arts and culture, which I think is vastly overrated.
Then, as I was browsing Wikipedia in my free time (does anyone else do that?) this definition caught my attention:
“Authenticity in art is the different ways in which a work of art or an artistic performance may be considered authentic.”Wikipedia.
You may notice that this isn’t a definition at all. It doesn’t define anything; it is completely tautological. That’s absolutely fine, of course. We can’t expect Wikipedia to get things right 100% of the time. But what, then, is authenticity? A further search provided the following definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, which does not solve my problem one bit:
“With reference to a document, artefact, artwork, etc.: the fact or quality of being authentic; genuineness.”Online Oxford English Dictionary
Now I still don’t know what authenticity is. A quality of an artwork, that’s for sure, but not one that I can easily define or discern. This article sets out to define authenticity in art. And, perhaps more interestingly, to investigate how it functions in our world today.
My Wikipedia rabbit hole helped me distinguish different types of authenticity. There is something called authenticity of provenance, which relates to the authorship of a work of art. We use this when we identify a painting as an authentic Rembrandt, for example. In the modern era, this type of authenticity is becoming more and more difficult to ascertain. There are ways to date a painting or a work of art in the real world, but with art spread on the internet or written work disseminated digitally, the question of origin is often much more difficult to answer.
Cultural authenticity asks whether a work of art is a genuine expression of the cultural context in which it was made. Think of the difference, for example, between wooden shoes worn by a farmer in 16th century Holland and the wooden shoes manufactured today to be sold to tourists on the Bloemenmarkt. A type of footwear with a specific purpose within a specific cultural context has been repurposed into a souvenir sold in all of the most touristy parts of Amsterdam; the object’s original purpose has been lost. Yet there is something I dislike about describing things as culturally authentic. Firstly, I think it relies on an essentialist understanding of a culture, as though there is ever anything that purely belongs to one culture, something that is essential to a particular culture. I think this notion of essential cultural elements is an illusion; cultures are always shifting and although we might take some things to be emblematic of a specific culture, that is usually an oversimplification. Secondly, cultural authenticity is just a difficult thing to prove. Arguably, wooden shoes sold to tourists today are just as authentic to contemporary consumerist tourist culture as the original wooden shoes were to the rural life of the 16th century. There is no original clog, there is no clear place or time where the clog originated from.
Authenticity of performance asks whether the performance or reiteration of a work of art resembles the author’s intentions as closely as possible. A performance of The Taming Of The Shrew that you see at The Globe in London may be considered more authentically Shakespearian than watching Ten Things I Hate About You on TV, even though both are adaptations of the same source material. There is at least something objective about establishing this type of authenticity. We can safely say that there were no televisions in Shakespeare’s time, and thus we can assume he never intended for his work to be encountered in a televised context. This, however, seems to me like an entirely useless distinction. When encountering an artwork I care about what I get out of it, not what the artist (intended to) put in. This goes for the previously discussed types of authenticity as well. I don’t care about authenticity of provenance very much: I don’t care who did this painting, I care that it moves me. I also hardly care where something culturally originated or whether it is true to its heritage, as long as it is somehow moving to encounter. I do want to amend here that I disapprove of downright theft.
A type of authenticity that works somewhat differently is authenticity of expression. This type of authenticity relies on the existentialist notion that to be authentic is to be true to one’s inner self, and that doing so is the way to happiness. Authenticity of expression, then, asks whether an artist is expressing their own inner self, thoughts, emotions or experiences in their work or appropriating them from some other person or group, which would be considered inauthentic, not true to one’s self. In many cases I think this type of authenticity is irrelevant; the act of creativity relies on the ability to be emphatic and to imagine. It is perfectly fine to write a story about something you have never experienced or even felt, using only your imagination.
Authenticity of expression is mostly used as a measure for performance artists: a white, Dutch reggae musician may be questioned about his authenticity of expression when composing a song about the plight or poverty of the people of Jamaica. This type of authenticity raises complicated questions related to cultural appropriation and erasure. It is not necessarily wrong to direct attention to the difficulties of social groups to which one does not belong. On the contrary, oppressed groups need allies. But when this practice works to silence those belonging to minority groups, when, for example, a man preaching feminism is getting so much attention that women are silenced, inequality is being perpetuated under the guise of promoting equality. That is something we need to avoid, so I do think authenticity of expression is important.
Last but not least, I must devote a few words to authenticity of experience. This type of authenticity implies the possibility of encountering an artwork exactly in the context in which it was intended. In a sense, all the aforementioned types of authenticity boil down to this type: who was the artist? In what cultural context was this artwork produced? How was it intended? Does it represent something that is true to the maker’s experiences? If we could answer all of these questions and have all of their answers in our mind’s eye while encountering a work of art, perhaps authenticity of experience would be possible. Yet Wikipedia warns that authenticity of experience “may be impossible to achieve.” I think I agree.
And why would you seek authenticity of experience? What’s wrong with things changing, depending on their context? What’s wrong with interpreting things in new, surprising, innovative ways? I think actually we should move away from authenticity to make room for creativity and, most of all, for enjoyment.