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The Myth of Authenticity

THE MYTH OF AUTHENTICITY

By Adam De Gree

It’s ironic that populism is primarily a moral proposition: the people are pure, the elites are corrupt. If it weren’t for the fact that populist leaders tend to personify corruption, the idea might be more palatable. As it is, it’s just another cynical attempt to capitalize on the emptiest of ideas: the myth of authenticity.

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According to the American mythological narrative, there’s something rotten about the present, and something pure about the past. For some strange reason, the early 20th century seems to have been branded as America’s most authentic era, a time when, in the words of Gil Scott-Heron, “the buck stopped, and you could buy something with it.” It’s painted as if all that people needed in America was their baseball team to win and some cracker jacks with a prize inside every time. Everything was fine and dandy and there were apple pies on every kitchen table. Yet, it’s hard to see how segregation, wars to end all wars, the polio epidemic, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and even the arrival of mass media made life any more authentic back then than it is now, but that’s neither here nor there.

This doesn’t just happen in politics. Listen closely to Christmas carols (as if anyone has a choice) and it’s clear that they’re just a kitschy attempt to represent a simpler time. As Randall Munroe has pointed out, those songs playing non-stop from Thanksgiving to the New Year are one part of “a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ childhoods.” America has found its comforting narratives, and it’s doing its best to stick with them, no matter how cold it gets outside.

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Authenticity taps into the aesthetics of kitsch in part because it is built into our understanding of history. Billion-dollar agribusiness subsidies would be impossible to maintain if people didn’t cherish the image of the poor farm town. But while poor farmers are still around, they’re no longer typical – in fact, the average farm household income is $120,000. Don’t tell Congress, though. They’re busy putting billions of taxpayer dollars to good use in cornfield country. It’s pretty ironic that once again we are told to revere the mighty coal miner as having fueled the whole nation, yet no word on how to heal a black lung. So yes, while the masculine Marlboro Man was an American icon, he was just as much a myth as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Authenticity clearly still has the power to bring in votes – to say nothing of dollars. A quick scan of health fads reveals a host of half-baked regimens that rely on the idea that there is only one authentic way to eat as a healthy, well-developed human. The Paleo Diet – which is branded as a “prehistoric” diet and requires the impossible act of eating meat and vegetables as the cavepeople did (what came first, the caveman’s unvaccinated chicken or its egg?) – is a case in point.

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Yet so is raw veganism, the anti-dairy movement, and a good portion of the gluten-free fad. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to avoiding factory-farmed animal products, or that Celiac Disease isn’t real. It’s the assumption that one recipe is correct for everyone because of an imagined evolutionary narrative of the authentic way to eat.

The same oversimplification drives current American thinking about the land itself. We might sing about spacious skies and amber waves of grain and we might even long for a home where the buffalo roam, but the authentic version of nature doesn’t allow for humans to hunt in our story, unless, of course, they happen to be Native Americans. Why is it that Americans find the teepee to be more authentic than a brick home? It’s just architecture. Of course, the answer has as much to do with racism as it does with a certain kind of Western anxiety that gave rise to the idea of authenticity in the first place.

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That anxiety reached fever pitch during America’s Progressive Era over 100 years ago. When people moved en masse to cities for the first time, middle-class families started to fret that Tom, Dick, and Harry would be corrupted by the urban environment. The solution: a quasi-military institution that took boys into the forest and brought them back as manly as men could be – the Scouts. What could possibly go wrong?

The military wasn’t immune to the myth, either. While Robert Baden-Powell was honing the structure of the Scouts in the last days of the 1800s, Teddy Roosevelt sat steaming over the pampered state of the American character in other words, he found that the comfort and convenience that modernity and technology brought into the daily lives of Americans, specifically American men, made them lose their grit. In Roosevelt’s mind, the American people could only be a great nation through the time-tested challenge of battle. Inspired perhaps by notions of Medieval chivalry, Roosevelt looked at the quiet progress of domestic industry and saw the same corruption that Trump attributes to Washington, D.C.

“I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one,” Roosevelt put it, and he got one: with Spain, in Cuba and the Philippines. After putting any question of America’s imperial status to rest at last, Roosevelt went on to found the National Parks not to preserve nature, but to ensure the preservation of an ‘authentic’ American character out in the wilderness.

While the stated mission of the park service has changed, it’s impossible to escape the feeling that those khaki-clad rangers are just tour guides in the Federal government’s version of Disneyland. And while the Parks do what they can to remove traces of human activity, they’re happy to leave Native American artifacts intact. Apparently, indigenous tribes are authentic enough to be presented at one with nature. After all, they form an integral part of the American brand.

But now, as people crowd out number animals, it’s time to re-think what the obsession of authenticity can tell us about life in the 21st century. Much of our current understanding of authenticity can be traced back to the arrival of modern art. When Charles Baudelaire defined ‘modernity’ in 1863, he described it as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the-eternal and the immovable.” This articulation strikes at the core of the myth of authenticity – the belief that before modern times, change was not a part of life. Instead, people lived in changeless simplicity, and enjoyed the luxury of being able to trust that what they know today, will be true tomorrow. After all, change was a seductive stranger in the Garden of Eden, where humanity once lived in harmony with nature.

Though the truth is change has always surrounded us. And while we in the present are looking back, luckily artists and intellectuals have a different relationship with time. Take Baudelaire, who challenged artists to find eternal truth and beauty in the fleeting world of the present. That way, art could be a refuge for people tossed about by the dynamism of life, a window into the timeless qualities of the everyday.

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Rising to that challenge is, of course, no easy task. Judging by the succession of Primitivist painters, from Picasso to O’Keefe, that defined much of 20th century art, many of Baudelaire’s heirs struggle to speak to the human soul using the ingredients of their day. Instead, they call on the perceived aesthetics of simpler times, sampling beats from indigenous peoples in order to express that special feeling of timelessness which great art offers. It was a move that sparked an entire generation of teepee-toting hippies and festival goers from Woodstock to the Coachella valley, and it continues to shape our culture today.

Yet the irony is that authenticity, whether its farm to table, grass fed, or free range, is far from being an essential quality and is primarily an aesthetic: it’s merely a way to produce a feeling. So, while Native Americans have always been considered an authentic part of the American brand, they have rarely been treated as people. Indeed, the National Parks were happy to preserve their artifacts even as indigenous children were being torn from families and shipped to assimilationist schools.

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Similarly, few practitioners of the Paleo diet are willing to give up electricity, and few raw vegans care to go without indoor plumbing. When push comes to shove, authenticity is an image game – people simply want some way to hold on to the familiar as the world around them moves on. The alternative of finding the eternal in the everyday is just too much work. 

Yet as 2019 rushes on, Baudelaire’s writing on modernity is increasingly timely. He speaks to all when he says, “You have no right to despise this transitory fleeting element, the metamorphoses of which are so frequent, nor to dispense with it.” Change is the very heart of existence – any greatness that can be found lies in welcoming it.