On Authenticity: 50 ways to -not- understand it

As I spent the summer on one of those extremely touristy islands of the Mediterranean, I could not help but notice that stores and vendors would assail visitors from all sides with “local” “authentic” and “made here” slogans. It seems then that the tourists’ biggest concern is to leave with goods made by the proper hands of the locals. But is this really an authentic truth of one people whose memory we are trying to preserve, or is it a concentration of clichés corresponding to the idea we have of them? Are we being sold the “authentic” or a subterfuge? The question has been bothering me and led me to initiate a reflection on the notion of authenticity in art, a concept in permanent debate.

Desperately seeking for authentic

The debate on the notion of “authentic” has crystallized many issues in recent years. We want to avoid the “made in China”, to consume local products and food, to buy “authentic” souvenirs that are made by the artists of a community. On the art market, especially in the sector of antiquities, we are witnessing a tenfold increase in certificates of authenticity—whether they are geographical, historical (the famous provenance) or chronological (the equally famous carbon 14 dating). As a consumer, especially an Occidental one, since the notion is quite Western-centered, what is it about the idea of authenticity that is so exciting?

1a: worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact
b: conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features
c: made or done the same way as an original
2: not false or imitation: real, actual
3: true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character”

Definition from the Merriam-Webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authenticity

Art is not for sale

When we discuss products that are intended for sale, manufactured with a commercial purpose, we are talking about commercial goods. However, there is the feeling that, in art, any connection to a commercial endeavor is immediately violently rejected. This is totally contradictory to the very essence of the notion of a market. I have always found quite useless to deny the relation between art and sales. Yet, one feels as if they were blaspheming as soon as they speaks of selling artworks, when it can, in fact, simply be a commercial transaction. Let us keep in mind that the production of artworks for sale allows artists to practice their craft. It has always been done, in fact. Artistic decisions have more to do with freedom than authenticity. What choice does an artist have–and we will not distinguish here the artist from the artisan—if their production is meant to be sold? What does an authentic artwork mean in that scenario? Something made by the artist’s hand, or something that would fit certain criteria according to prospective buyers?

Authentic for whom?

The question of authenticity in African art has been much discussed. Most artworks from West Africa to have entered Euro-American museum collections and art markets had been recently made. Nevertheless, colonizers wanted to grant them the status of archaeological works, given the thinking that they had to be distant in both time and space. We consider that a Greek statue or a Nasca ceramic is authentic because it was produced at a certain time. To assess the supposed authenticity of non-European artworks, many questions are raised: Who made it? For what purpose? Was this object really used? Was it carved “for Europeans”? Hence, one can wonder if a statue, carved for the European market, looses its authenticity compared to one made by the same artist, but for their own community?

© Geneviève Marot in “L’expertise au défi de l’éthique”, Vincent Noce, Gazette Drouot, 28 mars 2019

Let’s push that thinking a little further. If an “authentic” artwork is one which was not produced for the market, then why did greedy explorers and collectors feel the desire to possess an object which was, by definition, no made for them? They wanted to take what was “authentic” to a community, instead of being satisfied with an artwork made by the same artists, but for them? Making by extend, the concept of authenticity universal, but should it be? To what extent is the authenticity of an artwork influenced by its patron or intended audience? What is authenticity when it is forced? Isn’t authenticity subjective, in the end? I wonder, then, what makes an ancient Moche pot more or less authentic than a ceramic made by one of the descendants of this culture? Is it the hand of its maker? Is it its style? Is it its user? I remember how, once, a friend of mine was shocked by the flashy colors of the regalia made and worn by Native Americans today. Is their art less authentic because it is produced with imported materials? Where, then, is the authenticity of artworks made in colonial contexts: they should be of European inspiration, but of indigenous hand?

Shades of grey

Some of these questions have answers, but the purpose here is humbly to try to push our reflection further on what an authentic artwork is. To be quite honest, I have no conclusion to bring to this article. I do not believe that there is a universal answer that would close this debate once and for all. Even then, I would not be the one to find it. The notion of authenticity is so complex and has so many nodes that I think we should simply remember that, sometimes, things are just not black or white. Some arguments require more nuance than a clear-cut answer that we often tend to rush towards for comfort. The notion of authenticity, perhaps, should simply made less preponderant in the artworld, and not presented as an objective criterion that can be tested and certified. So that other intrinsic qualities of artworks can be emphasized. But this is just another idea that is up for debate.

More information

Errington, Shelly. The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress, University of California Press, 1998.

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