Authenticity? What’s that?

Our conversation in class on Monday night got me thinking about things like authenticity and how we construct our reality within the world. In particular I’m speaking to those civilizations that might have at one time called themselves “The West” (or in some cases may still call themselves “the West”). After that conversation and our brief stint into Open-Access in our first class (which I will touch on more in the following weeks, I’m certain), I have a feeling that our topics will have me running to Gramsci far more than I thought I would this semester.  In focusing on any of these conceptions I think that it is somewhat wise to keep a semi-relativistic perspective on hand (when at all possible). There are numerous questions that are unanswered such as is it worth it to mitigate something’s authenticity via mass production or reproduction if it allows more people access to at least a simulacrum of the original – I’m sure Walter Benjamin would have had plenty to say.

To this I would reply by referring the reader to an article by Ross Bowden titled, “What is Wrong with Art Forgery?: An Anthropological Perspective,” published in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Summer, 1999): pgs 333-343 (available on JSTOR). Although our discussion did not consider forgery or its impact on authenticity, we approached authenticity as though we were essentialists acting as though it was some inherent truth possessed by the artifact in question. I would assert that we should be conscientious of the common-sensical nature of assertions such as these in the Gramscian sense (which is to say a truth that is readily accepted because it is never questioned rather than because it has some universal quality that imbibes it with “truth”). As Bowden points out in his article, the Kwoma People of New Guinea have a radically different conceptual approach to their “artworks” and structures (I use artworks in quotations only because that is how “the West” would qualify them, not how the Kwoma qualify them). Originality as it is perceived of in “the West” is completely foreign to them. Authenticity does not come from originality, but from a sort of use-value. In this way something new can be constructed to replace something old, and it inherits all of the “authenticity” of the original, while the “original” is consigned to the fire or the forest floor, devoid of meaning, a mere husk of what it once was.

That said, if we are prepared to recognize that our conceptions of notions like authenticity and originality are socially constructed, then how does our conversation about these things change? What questions become relevant? Even if we acknowledge the constructed nature of our interactions with the world, does that mean that they need to be altered? Should one construct be swapped out for another? In any event, I suppose these musings are more directly related to the fact that we seem to hone in on things that have been socially accepted without taking the time to recognize that just because they are conceptualized one way in a certain social consciousness does not mean that they hold true for another (more on that during the conversation on Open-Access).

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3 responses to “Authenticity? What’s that?

  1. Pingback: Authenticity? What’s that? | Clio Wired

  2. I agree that authenticity is largely a Western concept derived from an individual-centered society and perhaps overemphasized to drive up prices. As far as the sharing of information goes, I have no qualms about digitizing nearly any and every document or image so they can be available to a greater number of people. The information recorded is still the same. However, digitization (especially when handwritten documents are recorded only as typed text) sterilizes the connection with the creator of the source material whether it is text or image. I do not intend to stray too far into the nebulous cloud of an invisible emotional connection to the author, rather I am referencing the physical evidence of the creator. Digitization erases scale, materials, technique, and individual markers such as handwriting and brushstrokes that affect the reception or complete contextual understanding of a source. I believe this is especially true in art history. Although it is extremely helpful to have a large collection of images readily available through the web (indeed, it would be difficult to study art history without such resources), these images cannot truly convey the scale and fluid qualities of the Nike of Samothrace, the impasto of a Van Gogh painting, or layers of glazes required to create the sfumato of a Da Vinci. This is the reason why we still travel all over world to seek the “authentic” artifacts, even when we have images of them on our computers at home. Then again, perhaps even these qualities are valued only because the tradition of art history says they should be. Can there be an art history outside of an “authentic” object-based study?

  3. I would stipulate that the latter is a corollary to the former. If there existed no concern for the authentic, then why would the tactile quality of a Van Gogh appeal to us outside of personal aesthetic appeal? I don’t necessarily think that there is anything wrong with the world view that’s being perpetuated; as I alluded to in the original post, we can recognize our world-view as being something that is constructed and then we can alter/change/replace it, but what it becomes is still just as constructed as the world view that we have replaced. Perhaps in some instances a new world-view can help to shed light on problems that an old world-view could not. In mentioning this I am thinking in particular about Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and his conceptions about Old and New Science and the paradigm shift as it pertains to our recognition of reality.

    I just think that when we deal with these notions in an academic setting that we have to at least be aware of their highly situational and potentially transient nature. What is today an artifact or a work of art was yesterday a devotional icon – something entirely different on a contextual level. Tomorrow it could be conceived of as being something different entirely.

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