“Authenticity” as preached by today’s critics is an idealist concept. The concept of “art” is an era of mechanical, industrial production frequently comes under fire by critics, who insist that the “passion” and “talent” of the art of old is all but lost on today’s youth culture, that Shakespeare is somehow more worthy of praise than modern writers, that the Rolling Stones had more “depth” and “character” than modern bands. While this notion may in some ways be right, it is wrong about quite a few of its major accounts.
The critics’ reactions to changes in the production of art-such as the fact that Van Gogh’s starry night piece now adorns many bedrooms throughout the US-are quite typical of intellectuals seeking the “real” in all things art-related. It makes me wonder how these same intellectuals feel about their books and essays being continuously reproduced, cited and read the world over due to the means of production-the publishing company-upon which they are dependant. Does that fact undermine their work’s “realness?” Does the mechanically reproduced plethora of copies diminish the “aura” of an original work of art, or do they increase it? Familiarity with copies of a painting will enhance response to the original when it is finally encountered. The work’s uniqueness is emphasized by reproduction. The only way this does not happen is if some of the original work’s revolutionary fervor is watered down by the other, copying works, in which case it is not the original work at all.
Beyond this though, there is another criticism, a more Marxist one, about the quest for realness that I think is worth expressing. Not only do they fail to realize that art in of itself is a mere side-effect of mans’ consciousness and his need to be a producer, and that such things are dependant on the prevailing social forces of the time (capitalism, feudalism, etc.), but also they fail to realize what this conclusion means: that the culture of any given age is determined by its ruling class. Think about it: nothing is shown on TV, nothing is heard by radio listeners, nothing is promoted as “truth” without the consent of the bourgeoisie and their puppet state. Reactionary art pays lips service to authenticity but their works then depend on deliberately manufactured falsehoods.
In light of this, quite few critics nowadays realize that their dear friends Shakespeare and Chaucer were equally pawns of the royalty as much as the Backstreet Boys are of big record companies. If they were not, the population of the time would never have known about them and certainly we would not know about them. If this fact does not diminish the “realness” of their art, why does it do so in the modern age?
While the hardcore punk bands on the stage may speak to others about “selling out,” if they are famous their music serves the interests of capitalism every inch as much as that of Britney Spears and is no more or less “authentic.” Authenticity is only one of several standards by which to judge a work of art and should not be the be-all, end-all of any such criticism. It is at heart a conservative notion that says what has been is what should be.