Authenticity

The term “authenticity” refers to the many “truths” of an object or artwork [1]. In that an artwork can possess both authentic and inauthentic elements, the term is multidimensional. A forgery of a painting by Picasso is paradoxically an authentic “painting”. Because of shared perspective, history, culture, and experiences, truths coded within an artwork may be perceivable to some audiences but not to others. An artwork’s authenticity may be perceived differently by the artist, “insiders” belonging within the artist’s culture, or “outsiders.” Art may convey varying degrees of nominal, expressional, provenance, style, personal, existential, type and token authenticity.

Nominal authenticity coincides with the most literal definition of authenticity, and refers to the correct identification of an artwork’s origin, history, genre and artist; this is  termed provenance in Art History. Identifying the provenance of older artworks tends to be a difficult process within legal discourse because it requires imput from and cooperation between many parties including art historians, art appraisers and occassionally the courts. Courts, art collectors, and the public desire objective conclusions about an artwork’s origin and press art historians for it. Historians, however, can only offer their tentative opinion. If their final verdict turns out to be false, i.e. mistaking a forgery for an authentic painting, then lawsuits may ensue. Tension between historians, the government, and the public perpetuates a sense of mistrust. This may be alleviated if everyone involved in the process understood the underlying elements of determining nominal authenticity. While subjective conclusions can be drawn from interpretations of style, brushstrokes, colour palette and content, modern day advances in technology can in some cases make establishing authenticity easier.

If the public sphere was only concerned with aesthetics, disregarding the artist’s expression (imbued with personality, experience, understanding), then establishing nominal authenticity would be of marginal significance. Forgery and plagiarism, however, are concerns that plague the art market and museums. A painting will not have the same cultural significance if it is a copy, or if its origin, history, and artist are equivocal. Thus, the difficult process of discerning nominal authenticity is undertaken in the interest of pursuing expressional authenticity, which speaks to the piece’s success in connoting the artist’s intent, history, beliefs, and culture. This form of identification serves an intimate human cause, which is  to find the meaning and patterns behind the development of cultural beliefs and personal character within the context of history. After the Mexican Revolution, Diego Rivera reached into Mexico’s history to explore the nation’s identity, and materialized his findings in a series of famous mural paintings. His murals were situated in public space for everyone to view, so as representations of Mexico they conveyed both strong personal associations and deep cultural significance. Quite simply, artists that express themselves truthfully (their emotions, thoughts, perspective and/or cultural identity) produce artworks of high social value.

Globalization has recently added novel dimensions to the process of discerning authenticity. It has opened the doors of cultural mixing, signifying an exchange of styles, mediums, motifs or content. The Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura created a series of artworks in 2001 called An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo. Each photo was intentionally and distinctly coded with foreign and native elements. Morimura appropriated Kahlo’s identity blending it with references to his own Japanese heritage so that his posture, the hand-shaped earrings and a unibrow connoted Frida Kahlo, while his clothes, flowers, and oriental decoration reflected elements of Japanese culture and tradition. Cultural appropriation poses an interesting challenge for those who attempt to discerning authenticity; can an artist internalize and project the “truths” of other cultures?

The aesthetic handicap thesis [2] argues that artists cannot successfully appropriate material outside the sphere of their respective cultures. The idea is that an artist will fail to employ the medium and style of the original correctly because she or he lacks the intimate experiences associated with belonging to that culture. Within this framework, formal hybridity, as the result of appropriation, would fail to produce authentic artworks of high aesthetic value. In this argument, hybridity lacks provenance authenticity, which specifies that cultural artworks produced by “insiders” (those belonging to the culture) are authentic, and inauthentic otherwise. Appropriation also entails a lack of style authenticity, which refers to the use of the style and mediums belonging to one’s culture. Essentially, one would have to belong to a particular culture to successfully utilize the traditional styles and mediums.

This thesis, however, fails to recognize the full dimensions that constitute an artwork’s aesthetic value, and the intentions of the artist. If the artist is innovative and committed, then their artwork will have high aesthetic value because it possesses personal and existential authenticity. Personal authenticity is the artwork’s reflection of the artist’s own originality and genius; art that does not possess this quality is often dismissed as non-innovative and mimetic. If the artist is committed to the artwork and saturates it with their intent (rigorous planning or utilization of particular symbols), then the artwork is said to possess existential authenticity. Diego Rivera provides another good example: He appropriated Cubist elements into his work Zapatista Landscape (1915), while still retaining his own identity, cultural roots, and style. He produced a work of high aesthetic value because he conveys his own thoughts, intentions, creativity, innovation and commitment. However, he arguably broke with provenance and style authenticity by appropriating the style, motifs, and techniques of another culture. Although it may seem counterintuitive, producing artworks of high aesthetic value can involve the integration of both authentic and non-authentic elements. In general, however, when artists create innovative artworks through originality and modification of cultural memes their work will be perceived as more valuable.

The development of replication and photographic technology has distorted the boundaries between authentic and inauthentic artworks. Authenticity reflecting content, however, has remained unaffected – a photograph that deceptively stages/describes a scene is inauthentic. Robert Capa’s photo, Spanish Republican at the Very Instant of His Death, would be inauthentic if the victim was not shot at “the very instance” the shutter fell. The recent shift from storing images as analogue to digital has significant connotations, as it confers that photographs can be printed and transferred indefinitely with no loss of quality. Consequently, a shift from establishing token authenticity to type authenticity is necessary. Traditionally, artists signed, stamped, exhibited or printed an image in a certain way/context to mark its authenticity. Museums’ determination of authenticity hinged on this token; even if the artist did not themselves print the photos, bearing this token connoted authenticity. With the increasing reproducibility of prints and the transition to a purely digital medium, this token of authenticity is often lost. Thus, evaluating type authenticity is often substituted for token authenticity. Type authenticity is maintained when the photographer ensures that their art is printed/reproduced in a particular way (adhering to a specific “type”). If a publisher manipulates the dimensions, tone, or colour of a photograph without consent, it is no longer an authentic representation of the artist’s work. Particular mediums interact with conceptions of authenticity differently; when a medium no longer produces a ‘one of a kind’, but rather an almost endless number of identical copies, the line distinguishing what is authentic is blurred.

Authenticity cannot be described as a binary function; artworks contain a combination of inauthentic and authentic elements with respect style, symbolism, beliefs, intent and commitment. Globalization adds to this complexity because it facilitates the mixing of different cultures; hybridism and appropriation never truly produce authentic artworks. If the artist integrates their own beliefs/culture into their art, then viewers will be able to read it in a personally and culturally relevant way. However, one can only pursue expressional authenticity after the nominal authenticity (provenance) of the artwork is known.

Coryn Briere

Works Cited

[1] For more, see Denis Dutton “Authenticity in Art” in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] James O. Young, Cultural Appropriation and the Arts, Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

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