Smooth, Firm, But Not Subtle
By A.D. Freudenheim  

1 February 2004

If humanity is on a quest for one thing above all others, the pursuit of authenticity might well be it. From the sublimity of true religions to the palpability of good food, the credentialing of scholars to the rooting out of plagiarism in scholarship, civilization after civilization has obsessed over the right and the true. Most aspects of life lend themselves to an analysis of the “true” and the “real,” but what ultimately makes the difference in how any of us respond to authenticity is what we want to believe – or what we allow ourselves to believe – and how much value we imbue to the authentic.

Two of the most obvious and hifalutin subjects in which authenticity factors significantly are religion and art. Religions are founded and sustained by the belief that a given sect’s god is the true deity (or deities in the case of polytheistic religions). Religions, in turn, often face pressure to prove that that they are as true and powerful as their clergy and adherents allege, no doubt prompting the periodic arrival of miracles such as crying statues of the Virgin Mary or acts of healing performed by someone claiming to channel spirits or gods. To the extent that people need religion – spirituality – to provide some explanation or justification for the course of their lives, there will always be a market for sects claiming this mantle of authenticity, and relying on a cadre of believers for survival. This extends even to divisions within religious groups, such as with some Orthodox Jews who do not consider non-Orthodox Jews to be Jewish, or with polygamists who claim association not with the typically-accepted, modern Mormon church but with offshoots that continue to permit and promote polygamy.  Likewise in the arts, the “real” is prized (whether in painting, sculpture, or other fine handicrafts) and an entire network of “temples” has been constructed around the world to house art objects. Much like religion, art also relies on a broad pool of people who respond with devotion – a devotion bordering on the religious, and epitomized in the form of gifts, much as a religious establishment might receive – to those objects which the clergy comprised of museum directors, curators, and collectors has deemed to be authentic.

Yet even as we value the “true” in whatever form, life is also filled with alternatives that have been created to meet other demands, such as the needs of consumers or changes in consumer tastes. Fakes, some might call them, but again, whether we choose to see them this way is up to each of us. Consider the following:

- Authenticity and personal taste are often confused for one another. The role of food in human life is undeniable: it is the fuel that keeps us alive. Despite this life-sustaining role, many a substance that serves this function gets called something other than “food” because it does not meet someone’s particular needs or expectations. For example, some do not consider the hamburgers of “fast food” restaurants to be authentic because they do not meet individual expectations for how a hamburger should taste. Likewise, the pre-sliced “American” cheese offered in supermarkets across the country compete with those cheeses recently given the moniker “artisanal,” in order to suggest that unlike their factory-produced, mildly-flavored cousins they are more authentic for having been hand-made. However, it is difficult to say that millions of customers are wrong to choose food from the likes of McDonald’s or Burger King, or that cheese slices are not really cheese, if these products are meeting people’s expectations and needs. There may be plenty of reasons not to eat these mass-produced, mass-marketed foods – from health concerns to political beliefs to, indeed, how they taste to the consumer – but the same can be said for fancy French cheeses or burgers from your local, non-franchise restaurateur.

- Similar to the connection between authenticity and taste is that of price. So-called “luxury goods” are a multi-million dollar industry, but so are the copious copies that line street-corner tables or side-alley stores in cities like New York and London. One can buy a Luis Vuitton handbag for several hundred dollars from a store that sells “real” ones – i.e., Luis Vuitton bags manufactured under license by the company that owns the name – or one can purchase a nearly-identical version for a fraction of the price, made by someone who has stolen the use of the name, logo, and design. Diamonds mined from the earth, formed by naturally-occurring substances pressed together over thousands of years, can be purchased in a variety of forms, as can legitimate, legal faux-diamonds made of cubic zirconium, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from their carbon counterparts. To some, the mark of authenticity is having spent several hundred dollars or more on the purchase, even if that person would be hard pressed to tell the difference between an original and a copy (and likely could not identify the difference even if s/he had unknowingly paid hundreds of dollars for the copy). To others, the discounted version is good enough, and passing off a knock-off as real presents no dilemmas, either of morality or aesthetics. Much as with food, one can argue the relative merits of purchasing either the original luxury good or its cheaper twin – though there may be no question as to one’s legal authenticity, in the case of a Vuitton bag; but how much one cares about the difference between the original and the knock-off is a matter of personal taste.

- Variations in application or need may also account for the acceptability of fakery over authenticity, or even the language we use to describe the imitator. “Synthetics” are, by definition, human-made reproductions of natural substances; but while we consider fake leather to be just that, few worry that synthetic insulin has been produced through a different chemical process than that used by our own bodies. Fake leather meets one set of needs, synthetic insulin another, and the authenticity of either may be irrelevant for most consumers of either product.

- Then there is plain-old sexual desire, and the occasional (un)desirability of illusion. Breast implants call into question all sorts of authenticity-related issues and beliefs, depending in large part upon the function a given person wants breasts to play. Breasts that have been surgically enhanced may seem perfectly and reasonably authentic to the man or woman lustily watching someone walk down the street, or to the patron of a strip club who finds larger breasts desirable; they may look smooth, firm, and enjoyably unsubtle. Yet others may find the knowledge that a pair of breasts has been surgically enhanced diminishes their attraction – even if they, too, find larger breasts generally desirable – or that the reduced sensitivity or inability to breast-feed that might result from implants is a turn-off rather than a turn-on.

Make no mistake: there is such a thing as authenticity; yet authenticity does not necessarily imply higher value, and this is where societies often run into trouble. There exists only one authentic set of marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, located at the British Museum in London; these are undoubtedly authentic and also highly valuable. There are also several copies of the Parthenon’s marble frieze that may be indistinguishable to most viewers, and provoke as much joy and inspiration in those viewers as do the originals. In this case, although the dollar value and scholarly value of the copies may be less, the intellectual and emotional value is not necessarily lower.  There are many other areas of this subject to explore, like the current, seemingly-worldwide penchant for “reality TV,” which looks like authentic people having authentic experiences, in contrast to the fiction that constitutes most television fare. Reality TV has produced some stunning moments, such as the bottleneck of reality, authenticity, and perceptions about both, created when a show judging beautiful women includes candidates with smooth, firm, but definitely not subtle fake breasts, and whose fates are determined by audiences and judges who may (or may not) detect such fakery – and may or may not care. In the end, whether nor not any of it matters – whether and to what degree authenticity is relevant – is in the eye of the beholder, and the society in which the beholder chooses to participate. That is where we should be most mindful: parsing out how and why the authentic may matter, and to whom, and carefully resisting the temptation to overstate the case.

  Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.