On its face, the concept of authenticity is a simple one. A thing or a person is authentic if they emerge from a source of originality. The source might be a unique way of making, in the case of a thing; or it might be from a unique nature of being, in the case of a person. Because things are made by persons– individuals who employ in some manner the ways of making—the character of things and persons are often closely related. The point is that in any case the source of the authentic will be comprised of unique properties and qualities, and not merely those imitated from another source or adopted for effect.

We are all well familiar with the inauthentic, with things that are imitations of something else, and with people who pretend to be what they are not. There are fake Picassos—forgeries of Picasso paintings—just as there are fake Picassos in another sense—persons who pretend to be an original painter by imitating his paintings, sometimes without being aware of doing so. In the case of Giorgio de Chirico, who late in his life imitated his own earlier paintings, there are fake de Chiricos by de Chirico himself. This would also be the case with an architect who makes design sketches for a building he or she has already fully designed. It does not matter what the motive is (often it is to fill out a publication or an exhibition), such sketches are inauthentic, fake, because they were not made in the original struggle to formulate an idea, but rather after the struggle is over.

I realize that by now the ostensibly simple concept of authenticity is beginning to get a bit murky. Is the fake Picasso authentically fake? Is a posturing bore authentically posturing or boring?  I suppose so, in a vernacular sort of way. But the idea of the authentically inauthentic is not useful because it reduces to a game of words dependent on the absence of a ‘source of originality.’ The source of a fake is the faker, who by definition is not original. Without originality, authenticity does not exist.

In the present age of artistic appropriation, remixes, and what Walter Benjamin called “mechanical reproduction,” the concept of authenticity is pushed close to the edge of extinction. Indeed, Benjamin argued for the virtue of the inauthentic, art that was mass produced by industrial means and wholly without originality. Prime examples would be mechanically copied prints of paintings, movies, recorded music, as well as the digital images and performances that today flood the internet. In a literal sense these things are only copies of other, original things that they may strongly resemble (depending on the skillfulness of the copy), but which lack authenticity—that belongs only to the thing copied. However, Benjamin argued for the shattering of art’s “aura” inspiring awe and reverence for its originality, in order that art could truly belong to the masses of people and no longer to intellectual and social elites who owned it, controlled it, and used its authenticity to claim and to exercise political power. Benjamin’s reasoned objection to the concept of authenticity has greatly influenced intellectuals, theoreticians and academics right up to the present. But there is more to the story.

Benjamin’s viewpoint was radically socialist or communist. He hoped for the advent of an egalitarian society where the people would control the means of production and each would benefit accordingly. In such a society, everyone would have equal access to art, that is, the art made common by mass production—it would be woven into the everyday fabric of living. The Bauhaus had a similar idea and goal. However, Benjamin, and the Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, overestimated the ability of socialism and communism to create such a society, but also underestimated the adaptability of capitalism—its ability to co-opt any idea, including radical egalitarianism, for its own purposes. What Benjamin foresaw without knowing it, and inadvertently contributed to bringing about, was a capitalist society of mass culture that we call consumer society, where everyone who plays the capitalist game has access to products of every kind, including art. The public museum of today is a retail store of art for consumption by the masses of consumers, as much as movie theaters, television, and the internet. The irony is, of course, that elites remain in power, still brandishing their control of original art, not least through the museums (“look but don’t touch”). Capitalism has succeeded in creating radical egalitarianism of its particular kind and at the same time reinforced the power of ruling elites.

Architecture has become more popular today than ever before. Its popularity does not come from the ways it improves the everyday lives of most people—as modernists like Gropius once hoped it would—but rather because of the ‘brand names’ now associated with its status as a consumer product. In New York City, for example, long the bastion of anonymous, bluntly commercial building ‘boxes,’ designer buildings are sprouting everywhere. Tourism, grown to international proportions, has turned the streets of the city into a public museum in which are displayed the works of the most renowned architects. While the masses cannot afford to live or shop in them, their facades—shaped with signature originality—are free for anyone in the streets to see and regard as reverently as they choose, or with whatever awe their brands demand.

Authenticity survives today in a vast landscape of the inauthentic, one largely drained of originality by mass production, mass media, and mass marketing. Authenticity has, as never before, become the luxury of the few.


A related post, dealing with the form of inauthenticity called “bad faith”:

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