Kingston, S  (1999)  'The Essential Attitude. Authenticity in Primitive Art, Ethnographic Performances and Museums', in Journal of Material Culture, Vol 4, No 3: 338 - 51

Authenticity refers to a universal interest in establishing the reality of the world. It is not culturally specific, nor on the verge of disappearing as a concept. As attempts to investigate the management of authenticity indicate, some notion of authenticity can not be dispensed with.

Some writers believe that authenticity is disappearing as we enter a new age of simulacra. However, authenticity refers to  'a mode of interrogating the world that has always been available and is not exclusive to any period or culture' (339). It is invoked whenever people interrogate the reality of local aspects of their culture --  'a complete unconcern with the reality of everything is likely to be regarded as a mental illness' (339). This universal interest does take specific shapes, however -- in the 17th century it was a term associated with emerging selfhood, in the 20th with reproduction and representation. Interest in authenticity continues to vary. Three case-studies are pursued: Errington  (1998) on the eclipse of authenticity in primitive art; Stanley  (1998) on ethnographic performance; Phillips  (1997) on the authenticity of exhibits in the museum.

Authenticity can also be seen as a general analytic concept, akin to a phenomenological investigation of reality and the attempt to separate that from representations. In this sense it continually refers to 'times and places beyond the immediate horizon of the audience' (340). The distinction between appearance and essence has been a central concern for European thought  'for centuries' (340), again taking different philosophical forms. It is so common that we almost fail to problematise it, but it underpins attempts to compare essences to what changes over time: these moments  'provide the flashpoints which make authenticity stand-out' (341).

These philosophical considerations take sociological forms, because the management of authenticity is an instrument of power, bestowing terms like 'reality' on some events and withdrawing it from others. Indeed, this bestowing and withdrawal may involve a zero-sum game  (341).

This is seen in Errington's example of the constructions of  'authentic primitive art' (341), for which there is a huge demand. The  'primitive' takes on particular meanings in this discussion, alluding both to some pre-rational art, an expression of otherness for those of us in modernity, and to something that took place in the shared past, or is timeless. Authentic primitive art tends to stress this temporal dimension: for a while it became  'highly attractive to those of taste and astuteness in riding and defining the flows of cultural valuation' (342). But the stock dried up, and it was this that threatened authenticity, more than the theoretical challenge to  the concept. The problem was that authentic primitive art could not be produced any longer, because authentic cultures untouched by modernism had disappeared. More recent artifacts were seen as mere curios or tourist art -- again for solid economic reasons, increasing the value of authentic primitive art. There have been recent attempts to revive interest in primitive art, in new ethnic forms, but this also has to be distinguished carefully from the inauthentic tourist product. Newly emerging nations also tended to collect artefacts and represent them as national heritage, and again faced paradoxes of wanting to enter the modern economic system as well: the authentic objects are literally irreplaceable, despite efforts to develop valuable modern alternatives. Kingston's comments on this account is that it represents a typical pessimistic view of how authentic primitive art is turned into valuable goods owned by others. However, the account misses other aspects of authenticity -- attached to cultural objects which are less easily commodified than is art, and the authenticity of the producers rather than the consumers.

Authentic primitive art was particularly susceptible to disenchantment as the people producing it became less unfamiliar and more integrated into modern society. This implies that  'authenticity is a magical effect similar in many ways to the  "technology of enchantment"' (344). When applied to artistic forms, authenticity refers to something which is obscured, usually the technical creation of art.

Authenticity becomes associated with some mysterious authorial process. This association can take forms which lead to several types of  'reality' when applied to cultural objects: 'super real' objects, which seem to have greater reality than the persons who created them;  'real objects', whose authorship remains unremarked and unnoticed; 'unreal' objects, which are attached to very definite authors and processes of creation  (Kingston, page 344, citing Scarry). Art falls into the last category as recognisably fictitious or constructed, and thus requiring unusual levels of authentication. Hence the problems faced by authenticating primitive art, or newly-discovered classic paintings.

Stanley refers to ethnographic performances, laid on specifically for tourists. These also have a particular problem of authenticity. Natural performances are just taken as unproblematically 'real' in the above sense, but performances in front of an audience immediately raise the issue of authenticity, for the sceptical audience and for the performers themselves. Stanley has a range of examples, where special objects, including folk museums or theme parks gain customers by offering authentic performances: both audiences and performers have 'a shared interest' in offering as much authenticity as possible, and unlike authentic primitive art, this can be renewed (346). However, performers and viewers probably have different views of authenticity: performers in particular can often pursue a kind of 'mastery and authenticity' in expressing their own history, even if this runs against official accounts. At the same time, spectators must be catered for, which brings constraints and frustrations [see also Tivers, J. Sometimes this shows in turning the tables on the spectators who are asked to demonstrate their own poor craft skills after watching a performance (example on page 347), or spectators themselves are mimicked. In this way, the reality of these performances gets threatened and can turn into parody. Awareness of the audience can never be forgotten -- there may be an awareness on both sides of the increasing  'situated theatricality of events' (347). Nevertheless, a notion of the authentic is still available, even if it is shifting and mediated:  'The essence, the absent presence, is never escaped. Merely deferred' (347).

Some notion of essential authenticity is constantly present, in museums as well. Phillips exposes some of the paradoxes faced by museum curators. For him, the origin of the problem lies in the collecting of authentic religious objects and relics in the Middle Ages. Problems arose as multiple relics became available: the Church responded by offering an account of miraculous duplication. When it comes to modern valuable objects, like Rembrandt paintings, such a rationalization is not available, of course. Instead, museums have developed whole batteries of specialist methods to establish authorship. In the process, they have realised that authentic paintings, say, can never finally be pinned down and defined -- historical evidence is flawed, objects reveal evidence of earlier attempts at conservation, and antique objects have to be preserved --  'We might confidently have isolated Leonardo's fragment of paint, but what colour is it supposed to be now? Does authenticity mean exhibiting age, or the effect as the artist saw it freshly painted.' (349).

Perhaps there is no workable notion of authenticity any more, which is Philips's view. His analysis turns rather on how notions of authenticity are mapped and framed. But this correspondence theory of truth is still unsatisfactory, and the issue of authenticity remains, even if this is displaced to the latest attempts to represent the work of art. Again there is a drift of interest in authenticity, from artist towards curator, and curators themselves increasingly need to be authenticated in order to avoid challenges.

Finally, avant-garde attempts to challenge conventional notions of authenticity can also be seen as victims of this drift, involving interrogating the authenticity of their own selves, performances, or sites. Anonymous performances might help, but there are strong temptations to attach names to products, and 'authenticity appears'; even if anonymity remains, the ordinary viewers become part of the display --'their authenticity sucked into someone else's display' (350). The interchange between display and reality is inherent in social life  'Now that is the authentic truth, isn't it?' (350

Errington, S. (1998) The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress, University of California Press: Berkeley
Phillips, D. (1997) Exchibiting Authenticity, Manchester University Press: Manchester
Stanley, N. ( 1998) being Ourselves for You: the Global Display of Cultures, Middlesex Univerity Press: London

back to key concepts