In 1990, I took a school trip to Egypt. At dawn, we rode on horseback to the pyramids. The students complained. They thought the pyramids would be bigger. Once we’d climbed inside to the final chamber, they were disappointed to find no postcards or souvenirs.
It’s increasingly difficult to enjoy an ‘authentic’ experience these days. But what do we mean by the idea of authenticity anyway?
For many, it means going back to nature, a return to a pre-lapsarian or Edenic state, where we might get in touch with our ancient selves. And yet this is perhaps to misunderstand what a human being is.
The ‘natural’ state for humanity is cultural. From the beginning, homo sapiens (both men and women) decorated themselves with face paint, made ornaments, fashioned bits of clothing from animal skins. Our ancestors represented the world in cave paintings, told stories round a fire, chanted songs.
Unlike animals, then, the human condition tends towards civilisation. The development of tools, settlements, the cultivation of crops, burial of the dead, cooking of food, the domestication of animals, and – crucially – language, all came not as part of the corruption of any natural human state but as an evolution into the cultural beings that we are.
As Roland Barthes has observed, today the city is nature for humans. It is now our natural habitat.
The environmental historian William Cronon in his book The Trouble with Wilderness, tells the story of the American National Parks. The parks are a response to a sentimental longing for people to return to what they believe is their ‘natural’ state. But, Cronon says, while seemingly primeval, they are in fact far from being pure and unmediated landscapes; they are instead cultural constructs.
In establishing the US National Parks – including Yellowstone and Yosemite – native Americans were forcibly evicted by the military from their own sacred land in order to improve the visitor experience and to simulate Nature’s ‘pristine’ state. The return-to-nature and the creation of a ‘picturesque’ landscape was achieved at the expense of ethnic cleansing and dispossession.
The next best thing for many, if you cannot find authenticity in Nature, is an authentic ancient ruin, which again seems to put us in touch with our past. Tourists flock to visit the facsimile caves at Lascaux in France. On one level people know they are seeing only copied drawings, but they still take delight in pretending they are experiencing the real thing.
The horses on St Mark’s in Venice are all replicas, and so is the campanile. So is Michelangelo’s David in its square in Florence. Archaeologists are preparing to rebuild the temples at Palmyra demolished by Islamic State, using 3D digital printing of every stone. The hope is that, in time, no one will notice the difference.
As relics of our past grow more vulnerable, they also grow more valuable, and their conservation – or sometimes fake heritage – grows ever more controversial. Should Notre-Dame’s spire be replicated? How far is this from the pastiche of historic buildings we see today in the vulgarities of Dubai and the kitsch of Las Vegas?
According to the Wall Street Journal, 80% of ‘antiquities’ offered for sale online are looted or fake. Technology and craftsmanship can now reproduce astonishing copies of the ‘real thing’. Of Rembrandt’s 700 original paintings, it’s said that more than 3,000 are now in circulation!
It’s interesting how, in advertising and packaging, the word ‘original’ is now as powerful and appealing as the word ‘new’.
In the UK, there has long been a fashion for mock-Tudor houses. Meanwhile Chinese developers find their buyers demanding houses and schools that are modelled on historic English ones.
The German critic Walter Benjamin wrote a famous essay in 1935 called ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. With the development of high-quality printing and photography, he worried that original works of art would lose their ‘aura’ (or authenticity).
He gave as an example the Mona Lisa, copied so many times that most people know it only from reproductions rather than from viewing the original. Visitors to the Louvre these days struggle to see the genuine article because of the crowds; for those who do manage to get close, Leonardo’s painting must then be viewed through three centimetres of bullet-proof glass.
While Benjamin was anxious about the loss of an art work’s aura, Andy Warhol had no issues reproducing thousands of silk-screen prints of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Chairman Mao. His multiplication of images became a commentary on the commercial processes of art and how celebrities, like soup cans, can be turned into commodified objects.
The concern about authenticity extends to emotion. Umberto Eco once claimed that the words ‘I love you’ are now so inauthentic and clichéd, one must – in order for the words to possess any sense of integrity – instead declare, ‘As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you.’
Politically the issue of fakes is more complex. The suitcases, locks of hair and spectacles collected together in the concentration camps as proof of Nazi atrocities during the holocaust are all starting to rot and decay. This leaves the museum curators with a terrible dilemma. Do they replace the locks of hair and suitcases with fakes to keep alive the memory of what took place? Or will this merely support the claims of conspiracy theorists who say the holocaust never happened?
For Tolstoy and Hemingway, war was the ultimate authentic experience. But the French critic Jean Baudrillard has defined the modern experience of war as ‘hyper-real’. A button is pressed somewhere; a drone releases a bomb; footage is taken by satellites showing the explosion, and this is relayed to homes on television screens where it is played out as a kind of grizzly entertainment. We exist in an ‘age of simulacra’, he declares.
I don’t pretend to escape nostalgia for the authentic myself. I still like the physical feel of books. I enjoy owning the vinyl or CD as an object, and I like the idea of the ‘hiss’ on a recording because it seems more real. By contrast my sons download everything and consume it like popcorn, with no regard for the object and no care for the aura of the artwork on the cover.
The move towards a virtual world has been accelerated by the recent pandemic. Theatres and cinemas are unlikely to recover fully. High street shops are fast giving way to those online. ‘Reality’ TV shows stand in for reality in a postmodern version of Plato’s Parable of the Cave, while young people seem to experience the world through their phones.
At the same time, we look to ‘re-wild’ the landscape, introducing wolves to curated places in Scotland and in Italy. And Disney goes on buying up film studios, Disneyfying their content, anthropomorphising animals until any sense of their wildness is sweetened and tamed.
In short, we exist in a new relation to reality and to the idea of authenticity. It’s a hard time for children to grow up and become their own person, led as they are by brands and consumer fashions. Each of us has to trust our own tastes and develop our own sense of what is authentic – in food, culture, nature, love.
Not the least role of an education these days is to give students a critical angle on the world, and to cultivate an awareness of how experience can be mediated, news distorted, and emotions faked.
In the meantime, we ought to recognise how, as cultural beings, the idea of what is authentic is often naturalised as myth, and so be wary of those who claim to sell us the ‘real thing’.
With that, I wish you all a very merry and authentic Christmas.
Principal & CEO