Authenticity is not a look

When I studied philosophy, authenticity was an important concept to me. In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which one remains true to oneself, despite external pressures. It's about choosing to follow your own conscious self rather than give way to pressures of others and of our material world.

When I first started writing as a journalist, and later blogging, authenticity was a notion I leaned on again. I wouldn't write about a company just because they sent me free stuff. I would tell those stories I really wanted to tell, even if they weren't always going to be the most popular, even - in the case of my blog - if they were only meaningful for me.

The problem with putting authenticity on a computer screen, though, is that people begin to reduce it to the supporting visuals. And then it becomes a buzzword for that certain kind of look. The look of distressed tables and rustic meals, for example. Of patina 'til kingdom come, whether it's beards or boats, blankets or peeling paint, candle wax or the slow decay of roses. These things can, of course, be authentic. But authenticity is really about intention not manifestation. A luxe pad, even a distastefully blingerific pad, can be as authentic to its owner as a humble, rustic or sparse one.

We make a significant mistake when we simply equate a certain look alone with authenticity, or when we think that authenticity is a quality that can be managed or instilled top-down, like an outfit planned or decor scheme, rather than fostered bottom-up in a very personal way.

I understand why we're a generation craving the uber-tactile: We sit at screens for hours every day so those images that most conjure a life with deep seams and layered storytelling call to us. I too have got lost in blogs that give me a taste of something that seems more sensual than my monitor or cubicle walls. And I also think the aesthetic of our moment is a beautiful one — I like slab dining tables and wabi-sabi dinnerware as much as the next person.

But there's a tipping point. A moment when it becomes coiffed and constructed in a manner that betrays and torments its original, humble appeal. And it's not the coiffing and construction alone that makes it dishonest. It's the dissonance between the down-to-earthness portrayed and the time, money, effort that went into creating it. As Felicia said in her Kinfolk cookbook review, "They drive miles for mussels and set a formidable table in their outdoor barns. Theirs is a life of cultivated beauty that carries its own disquiet, giving the illusion of simplicity when it’s nothing more than understated affluence and luxury" (See more from Felicia here).

Authenticity is mostly about being honest with yourself and that can't be judged by an aesthetic alone. What you naturally do for yourself (I would add, "by yourself") is probably the most authentic "you". Authenticity can be captured by a photograph taken in a certain moment, but it can't be constructed for a photograph. Still, I wince a little when people get bitchy about photographs — vitriol about twine and Mason jars is a red herring. It's not the aesthetic that's the problem but what that aesthetic purports to be, especially when it isn't natural at all, but over-contemplated and complicated, convoluted to extremes.

Personally, I don't have a vendetta against boys with beards or Mason jars or twine or canoes. I easily pass over things that aren't to my taste without fuss. But I do want objects and events in my world to arise in a certain way. Not planned painstakingly and stripped of spontaneous connections. Not sponsored by West Elm, Terrain, Anthropologie or any of those usual suspects. But simply occurring in the world when a certain moment arises. And being felt deeply rather than method-acted through. Not a scene to be set and stepped into and self-congratulated on. But a moment of spontaneous synchronicity that gives rise to magical connections with others or is simply enjoyed for oneself.

I've been wondering a lot lately why authenticity has been confused with an aesthetic. And if the perpetrators even think about the language they're using, the dissonance they're creating, or if they're just capitalizing on this economic moment, packaging a product with a deep and visceral need (a spiritual one, even).

I occasionally worry that we desire some conveniently canned version of authenticity more than we're willing to step back and be critical and build it for ourselves. That we let marketing people co-opt the concept and apply it to PR stints and celebrity endorsements and other greedy voices. That we invest in the superficial look we associate with our need instead of simply following our own conscious selves and blocking out the noise and pressure of this material world.

Authenticity used to be a word I reached for, but now it makes me recoil. It has become the language of business transactions, profitable relationships, merchandising. It's become much more of visual and tactile concept, than a visceral, individual or ethical one. But being authentic really begins in a much more subjective place, a place deeper down - that doesn't throw shapes, but just does what feels right.
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