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Authenticity

January 4, 2002

Authenticity. It is offered if not delivered. It is certainly desired; ostensibly sold.

There is a market for it in America, perhaps since much of modern culture is based on virtual or vicarious experience. Disneyland is the flagship.

The matter of “authentic experience” came to mind while listening to the “Hand Me Downs,” a bluegrass band, at the Salida Cafe. Are men from Gunnison and Crested Butte qualified to play authentic bluegrass? It sure sounded real.

People often seek authenticity in the folk arts, and bluegrass, although a quite developed and refined American musical form, retains its folk appeal.

Ignoring the philosophical implications of saying that any experience can be other than authentic, in and of itself, I will ask, “Is anything required for an audience to have an authentic musical experience other than a band of skilled, talented, enthusiastic performers who enjoy their work?”

You don’t have to answer. If music is a universal language, authenticity becomes a moot point. This is true for arts in general. What makes Indian jewelry, or Indian anything, authentic? Can a white man really play the blues?

Let’s face it … the authentic is talismanic. Otherwise, why would we value any particular thing for its authenticity alone, or even in part? What authenticity do we seek in the experience of anything beyond the experience of that thing alone?

The pursuit raises all kinds of philosophical questions. What could possibly be unreal about any experience? Really.

But of course, we do make the assessment according to various norms. Some mental illnesses cause people to misapprehend reality. Same for love. Also for hate. What should we say about, say, Monet’s perception of reality.

In our assessment of our world, we make certain judgements about what we perceive. We roughly agree on certain bounds. Disneyland, while certainly real, is not considered “real.” You’re not “really” in a castle or a quaint alpine village. It’s just sort of like it.

Or consider Enron stock, which was like real stocks in that you could buy it, although ultimately it didn’t have any real value. Was Enron an authentic stock?

People come to the library to use guidebooks about collectibles and antiques. They hope for two things: one, to identify the object they wish to buy or sell as authentic, and two, to find some indication of price. There is a market for authenticity.

That’s why many of the trinkets sold on cable channels come with a “Certificate of Authenticity.” It doesn’t make the trinket any more valuable, but the sellers hope to convince you to buy. Not you personally, of course. Others.

So, for some people, authenticity has a relative value. Something can be more valuable than another thing. But for some people, authenticity is an absolute value. They find delight in the truth of the object, what it implies, and what they can infer.

Authenticity brings information. It is especially valuable to historians. Salida has a perfect example of the difference between authenticity as relative vs. absolute value. Visit Jack Chivvis’s downtown shop museum, “The Salida Mercantile Museum.”

Jack evolved from a seller of authenticity to a collector. Few people valued what he had as much as he did. So he made a museum. It is set up as an old general store. Visits are by appointment only, but if you’re interested in Salida history, it would be worth your while.

Best wishes for a really, really good new year.

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