Thursday, May 28, 2009

Authenticity

I once had a professor who wrote a presentation on the idea of authenticity in art. It was an important moment for me, because it opened my eyes--made me conscious of an important force that I'd only felt instinctively. I'd never though about authenticity out in the open air, where the idea could not hide in the shadows.

The presentation itself was for some sort of professional organization, I think, but it was given to us in class in some form, after quite a bit of begging. The irony is that I don't remember anything about it because the presentation was so inauthentic.

Perhaps it did the job better than any authentic presentation could have. It put the concept of authenticity in art into my head, and then showed me the pitfalls of not being authentic in one motion. If I squeeze my brain, I seem to remember some of the presentation interpreted authenticity as not so much a personal virtue that comes through the art, but a force of culture that can be played with to create pithy commentary on experience. My definition is much more clear--it is the aspect of art that communicates the artist's genuine joy and belief in what he or she is doing.

It is one thing to lay out a clear line of words to define what authenticity in art means to me, but another entirely to feel it, like I think we all instinctively do, even people who know little about art. Being involved and knowledgeable about art sharpens one's 'authenticity radar' in general, but this fact can be overplayed. A great pitfall of contemporary art comes from art people not listening to their authenticity instincts despite their experience in the field. Or perhaps it is just not the hip thing to be--genuine, joyful, passionate. That complicates things. In theory it would be possible to do work that is sardonic, silly, witty, sarcastic, light-hearted, miserable or ironic and still be genuine about it (at least on some level). I think this kind of complexity highlights the usefulness of following instincts.

Of course, a moment after I started thinking sharply about authenticity in art, I began to apply it to other creative fields. I think most of us know what an authentic person is like, and when someone is being 'fake' but it is a more difficult task to apply this to creations. When I think about Pop music, especially rock 'n' roll, I can come up with the clearest examples of the power of creative authenticity.

A guy like Buddy Holly was musical pioneer, a songwriter, a great vocalist and guitarist and a restless, experimental artist who also tried to please his audience. All these factors make him a legend, but he has a special quality above what other artists with all these skills seem to posses. I'd argue that it was the fact that Buddy's authenticity was off the charts added to all his skills that made him a timeless legend. Compare him to Elvis. For all the greatness and earnestness Elvis possessed, he became less and less authentic with his music. From almost the moment he made it, a gradual trickle started and began growing exponentially, leaking out his authenticity. Since he lived well beyond 1959 we were unfortunate enough to see the terminus of this process in Las Vegas, an ugly mix with his personal and health problems. Elvis oozed talent, sweated charisma and, at first, had an bit of conviction, musically. But all of this added up to very little, because he ended up not being very authentic. One could argue that he believed in every musical decision he ever made passionately, and was thus authentic, but something deep down in his soul was an endless compromiser, bending over backwards to stay away from the edge. Buddy has been described as earnest, but he could be playful, ironic and mercurial, so I'd rather call him genuine or authentic. With this gift he could make the simplest gesture endlessly entertaining and meaningful.

Credence Clearwater Revival is a great example of the complexity of creative authenticity. On paper they are very fake. They sing and play songs about the bayou country of the south obsessively, but they were from the bay area of California. Further, John Foggerty and his band didn't go to the south and seek out what the authentic south sounds were. They just played the way they though southern music might be, mixing gospel with early rock sounds and using bits of modern sixties rock to fill things out. They created a whole idealized and romantic view of the rural south with their lyrics, where poverty is a wholesome, simple existence, like a refreshing breeze and where people are "always happy to give". They create their own, rather arbitrary utopia out of the south. What could be more fake? Fake is synonymous with inauthentic, right?

Wrong! Credence's commitment to their musical-geographical fabrication is very authentic. It becomes only a point of style aesthetics and mimicking reality. Perhaps one could question Credence's deviation from the sound of real southern music, but it is hard to question their commitment to their vision of it. It is true that their music does not accurately copy true southern music, but that was never their point. They believe in the dream, even if they know it is not real. The idealized web they weave is fascinating and highly entertaining. They benefit from authenticity despite obvious outward signs. And so it is with a lot of art.

For a long time I thought that authenticity was more important and prominent in music. I no longer believe this--I think it is easier to illustrate the concepts related to creative authenticity with music, but it is at least as important to visual art. One problem with authenticity and art is that their is often a dearth of it in art. Old painters, for instance, were hampered by practicality and society, and had to work over the centuries to free themselves and allow for full authenticity. Does that mean that realism and illustrative styles that were dominate in the times of older painters were less authentic? Not at all, but society wanted certain things from artists and in the past viewed artists more like we see artisans today. This certainly hampered the spirit of the individual, and made authenticity difficult. Even when it existed it was rarely as obvious as it is today. Perhaps Baroque greats like Rembrandt and Frans Hals are the exception, oozing authenticity in an era when it was under the radar in painting. In fact most famous artists, the guys we know today, had way more authenticity than was normal for their times. One could argue that Rembrandt is one of the most authentic artists ever.

When one looks at an artist like Van Gogh, one can see how far the process evolved over time. Van Gogh was ahead of his time, expressive, and stylistically unique and brilliant, plus he had a sympathetic (and pathetic) biography. All these things add to his greatness, but his massive authenticity is what makes him one of the most popular artists of all time. One feels like one can look into his soul by viewing a single Van Gogh painting. What could be more authentic?

Despite an open playing field, so to speak, for authenticity in art, their seems to be an ironic backlash in today's contemporary scene. Ironic and contrived are in. Can something be ironic and contrived and also highly authentic? Certainly, but it is probably quite difficult, (I don't see it a lot) especially because no value is placed on authenticity lately. Crack open a copy of New American Paintings, a contemporary art exhibition in print, and I think you'll see what I mean. There are interesting (although somewhat homogeneous) styles, great virtuosity, high ambition, and topical intellect, but is is very easy to flip by most of the work and set the magazine down quickly. Being jaded has become the easiest of things. With everyone painting to 'make the scene' authenticity goes out the window, and as an insurance policy for such sellouts, authenticity is for squares right now. Proposing that authenticity in visual art is undesirable or somehow not as intellectual or meaningful as irony and contrived conceptual matrices is a dangerous game.

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