Consumerism or idealism? Making sense of authenticity
Image credits: Corbyn t-shirt: Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Ceramic plates: Kirsty Allen via Pinterest


One of my favourite moments in cinema comes from Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. The scene is a fashionable get-together on a summer evening, and as the guests gossip over aperitifs, we catch a woman uttering: “Everybody knows Ethiopian jazz is the only kind worth listening to.” The brilliance of this line is not just that it shows the speaker to be a pretentious fool. More than that, it manages to demonstrate the slipperiness of a particular ideal. For what this character is implying, with her reference to Ethiopian jazz, is that she and her tastes are authentic. She appreciates artistic integrity, meaningful expression, and maybe a certain virtuous naivety. And the irony, of course, is that by setting out to be authentic she has merely stumbled into cliché.

I find myself recalling this dilemma when I pass through the many parts of London that seem to be suffering an epidemic of authenticity today. Over the past decade or so, life here and in many other cities has become crammed with nostalgic, sentimental objects and experiences. We’ve seen retro décor in cocktail bars and diners, the return of analogue formats like vinyl and film photography, and a fetishism of the vintage and the hand-made in everything from fashion to crockery. Meanwhile restaurants, bookshops, and social media feeds offer a similarly quaint take on customs from around the globe.

Whether looking back to a 1920s Chicago of leather banquettes and Old Fashioned cocktails, or the wholesome cuisine of a traditional Balkan home, these are so many tokens of an idealised past – attempts to signify that simple integrity which, paradoxically, is the mark of cosmopolitan sophistication. These motifs have long since passed into cliché themselves. Yet the generic bars and coffee shops keep appearing, the LPs are still being reissued, and urban neighborhoods continue being regenerated to look like snapshots of times and places that never quite existed.

The Discount Suit Company, one of London’s many “Prohibition-style cocktail dens” according to TimeOut

There is something jarring about this marriage of the authentic with the commercial and trendy, just as there is when someone announces their love of Ethiopian jazz to burnish their social credentials. We understand there is more to authenticity than just an aura of uniqueness, a vague sense of being true to something, which a product or experience might successfully capture. Authenticity is also defined by what it isn’t: shallow conformity. Whether we find it in the charmingly traditional or in the unusual and eccentric, authenticity implies a defiance of those aspects of our culture that strike us as superficial or contrived.

Unsurprisingly then, most commentators have concluded that what surrounds us today is not authenticity at all. Rather, in these “ready-made generic spaces,” what we see is no less than “the triumph of hive mind aesthetics to the expense of spirit and of soul.” The authentic has become a mere pretense, a façade behind which a homogenized, soulless modernity has consolidated its hold. And this says something about us of course. To partake in such a fake culture suggests we are either unfortunate dupes or, perhaps, something worse. As one critic rather dramatically puts it: “In cultural markets that are all too disappointingly accessible to the masses, the authenticity fetish disguises and renders socially acceptable a raw hunger for hierarchy and power.”

These responses echo a line of criticism going back to the 1970s, which sees the twin ideals of the authentic self and the authentic product as mere euphemisms for the narcissistic consumer and the passing fad. And who can doubt that the prerogative of realising our unique selves has proved susceptible to less-than-unique commercial formulas? This cosmetic notion of authenticity is also applied easily to cultures as a whole. As such, it is well suited to an age of sentimental relativism, when all are encouraged to be tourists superficially sampling the delights of world.

And yet, if we are too sceptical, we risk accepting the same anaemic understanding of authenticity that the advertisers and trendsetters foist on us. Is there really no value in authenticity beyond the affirmation it gives us as consumers? Is there no sense in which we can live up to this ideal? Does modern culture offer us nothing apart from illusions? If we try to grasp where our understanding of authenticity comes from, and how it governs our relationship with culture, we might find that for all its fallibility it remains something that is worth aiming for. More importantly perhaps, we’ll see that for better or for worse, it’s not a concept we can be rid of any time soon.



Authenticity vs. mass culture

In the narrowest sense of the word, authenticity applies to things like banknotes and paintings by Van Gogh: it describes whether they are genuine or fake. What do we mean, though, when we say that an outfit, a meal, or a way of life is authentic? Maybe it’s still a question of provenance and veracity – where they originate and whether they are what they claim – but now these properties have taken on a quasi-spiritual character. Our aesthetic intuitions have lured us into much deeper waters, where we grope at values like integrity, humility, and self-expression.

Clearly authenticity in this wider sense cannot be determined by an expert with a magnifying glass. In fact, if we want to grasp how such values can seem to be embodied in our cultural environment – and how this relates to the notion of being an authentic person – we should take a step back. The most basic answers can be found in the context from which the ideal of authenticity emerged, and in which it continues to operate today: Western mass culture.

That phrase – mass culture ­– might strike you as modern sounding, recalling as it does a world of consumerism, Hollywood and TV ads. But it simply means a culture in which beliefs and habits are shaped by exposure to the same products and media, rather than by person-to-person interaction. In Europe and elsewhere, this was clearly emerging in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the form of mass media (journals and novels), mass-produced goods, and a middle class seeking novelties and entertainments. During the industrial revolution especially, information and commodities began to circulate at a distinctly modern tempo and scale.

Gradually, these changes heralded a new and somewhat paradoxical experience. On the one hand, the content of this culture – whether business periodicals, novels and plays, or department store window displays – inspired people to see themselves as individuals with their own ambitions and desires. Yet those individuals also felt compelled to keep up with the latest news, fashions and opinions. Ensconced in a technologically driven, commercially-minded society, culture became the site of constant change, behind which loomed an inscrutable mass of people. The result was an anxiety which has remained a feature of art and literature ever since: that of the unique subject being pulled along, puppet-like, by social expectations, or caught up in the gears of an anonymous system.

And one product of that anxiety was the ideal of authenticity. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century, Søren Kierkegaard in the 19th, and Martin Heidegger in the 20th, developed ideas of what it meant to be an authentic individual. Very broadly speaking, they were interested in the distinction between the person who conforms unthinkingly, and the person who approaches life on his or her own terms. This was never a question of satisfying the desire for uniqueness vis-à-vis the crowd, but an insistence that there were higher concepts and goals in relation to which individuals, and perhaps societies, could realise themselves.

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John Ruskin’s illustrations of Gothic architecture, published in The Stones of Venice (1851)

Others, though, approached the problem from the opposite angle. The way to achieve an authentic way of being, they thought, was collectively, through culture. They emphasised the need for shared values that are not merely instrumental – values more meaningful than making money, saving time, or seeking social status. The most famous figures to attempt this in the 19th century were John Ruskin and William Morris, and the way they went about it was very telling indeed. They turned to the past and, drawing a direct link between aesthetics and morality, sought forms of creativity and production that seemed to embody a more harmonious existence among individuals.

For Morris, the answer was a return to small-scale, pre-industrial crafts. For Ruskin, medieval Gothic architecture was the model to be emulated. Although their visions of the ideal society differed greatly, both men praised loving craftsmanship, poetic expressiveness, imperfection and integrity – and viewed them as social as well as artistic virtues. The contrast with the identical commodities coming off factory production lines could hardly be more emphatic. In Ruskin’s words, whereas cheap wholesale goods forced workers “to make cogs and compasses of themselves,” the contours of the Gothic cathedral showed “the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone.”



The authentic dilemma

In Ruskin and Morris we can see the outlines of our own understanding of authenticity today. Few of us share their moral and social vision (Morris was a utopian socialist, Ruskin a paternalist Christian), but they were among the first to articulate a particular intuition that arises from the experience of mass culture – one that leads us to idealise certain products and pastimes as embodiments of a more free-spirited and nourishing, often bygone world. Our basic sense of what it means to be an authentic individual is rooted in this same ground: a defiance of the superficial and materialistic considerations that the world seems to impose on us.

Thanks to ongoing technological change, mass culture has impressed each new generation with these same tensions. The latest installment, of course, has been the digital revolution. Many of us find something impersonal in cultural products that exist only as binary code and appear only on a screen – a coldness somehow worsened by their convenience. The innocuous branding of digital publishing companies, with cuddly names like Spotify and Kindle, struggles to hide the bloodless efficiency of the algorithm. This is stereotypically contrasted with the soulful pleasures of, say, the authentic music fan, pouring over the sleeve notes of his vinyl record on the top deck of the bus.

But this hackneyed image immediately recalls the dilemma we started with, whereby authenticity itself gets caught-up in the web of fashion and consumerist desire. So when did ideals become marketing tools? The prevailing narrative emphasises the commodification of leisure in the early 20th century, the expansion of mass media into radio and cinema, and the development of modern advertising techniques. Yet, on a far more basic level, authenticity was vulnerable to this contradiction from the very beginning.

Ideals are less clear-cut in practice than they are in the page. For Ruskin and Morris, the authenticity of certain products and aesthetics stemmed from their association with a whole other system of values and beliefs. To appreciate them was effectively to discard the imperatives of mass culture and commit yourself to a different way of being. But no such clear separation exists in reality. We are quite capable of recognizing and appreciating authenticity when it is served to us by mass culture itself – and we can do so without even questioning our less authentic motives and desires.

Hi-tech Victorian entertainment: the Panorama. (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Thus, by the time Ruskin published “On the Nature of Gothic” in 1851, Britain had long been in the grip of a mass phenomenon known as the Gothic Revival – a fascination with Europe’s Christian heritage manifest in everything from painting and poetry to fashion and architecture. Its most famous monument would be the building from which the new industrial society was managed and directed: the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Likewise, nodding along to Ruskin’s noble sentiments did not prevent bourgeois readers from enjoying modern conveniences and entertainments, and merely justified their disdain for mass-produced goods as cheap and common.

From then until now, to be “cultured” has to some degree implied a mingling of nostalgia and novelty, efficiency and sentimentality. Today’s middle-classes might resent their cultural pursuits becoming generic trends, but also know that their own behavior mirrors this duplicity. The artisanal plate of food is shared on Facebook, a yoga session begins a day of materialistic ambition, and the Macbook-toting creative expresses in their fashion an air of old-fashioned simplicity. It’s little wonder boutique coffee shops the world over look depressingly similar, seeing as most of their customers happily share the same environment on their screens.

Given this tendency to pursue conflicting values simultaneously, there is really nothing to stop authentic products and ideas becoming fashionable in their own right. And once they do so, of course, they have started their inevitable descent into cliché. But crucially, this does not mean that authenticity is indistinguishable from conformity and status seeking itself. In fact, it can remain meaningful even alongside these tendencies.



Performing the authentic

A few years ago, I came across a new, elaborately designed series of Penguin books. With their ornate frontispieces and tactile covers, these “Clothbound Classics” seemed to be recalling the kind volume that John Ruskin himself might have read. On closer inspection, though, these objects really reflected the desires of the present. The antique design elements were balanced with modern ones, so as to produce a carefully crafted simulacrum: a copy for which no original has ever existed. Deftly straddling the nostalgia market and the world of contemporary visuals, these were books for people who now did most of their reading from screens.

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Volumes from Penguin’s “Clothbound Classics” series

As we’ve seen, to be authentic is to aspire to a value more profound than mere expediency – one that we often situate in the obsolete forms of the past. This same sentimental quality, however, also makes for a very good commodity. We often find that things are only old or useless insofar as this allows them to be used as novelties or fashion statements. And such appropriation is only too easy when the aura of authenticity can be summoned, almost magically, by the manipulation of symbols: the right typeface on a menu, the right degree of saturation in a photograph, the right pattern on a book cover.

This is where our self-deceiving relationship with culture comes into closer focus. How is it we can be fooled by what are clearly just token gestures towards authenticity, couched in alterior motives like making money or grabbing our attention? The reason is that, in our everyday interactions with culture, we are not going around as judges but as imaginative social beings who appreciate such gestures. We recognise that they have a value simply as reminders of ideals that we hold in common, or that we identify with personally. Indeed, buying into hints and suggestions is how ideals remain alive in amidst the disappointments and limitations of lived reality.

In his essay “A is for Authentic,” Design Museum curator Deyan Sudjic expands this idea by portraying culture as a series of choreographed rituals and routines, which demonstrate not so much authenticity as our aspirations towards it. From the homes we inhabit to the places we shop and the clothes we wear, Sudjic suggests, “we live much of our lives on a sequence of stage sets, modeled on dreamlike evocations of the world that we would like to live in rather than the world as it is.”

This role-play takes us away from the realities of profit and loss, necessity and compromise, and into a realm where those other notions like humility and integrity have the place they deserve. For Sudjic, the authentic charm of a period-themed restaurant, for instance, allows us to “toy with the idea that the rituals of everyday life have more significance than, in truth, we suspect that they really do.” We know we are not going to find anything like pure, undiluted authenticity, free from all pretense. But we can settle for something that acknowledges the value of authenticity in a compelling way – something “authentic in its artistic sincerity.” That is enough for us to play along.

Steven Poole makes a similar point about the ideal of being an authentic person, responding to the uncompromising stance that Jean Paul Satre takes on this issue. In Satre’s Being and Nothingness, there is a humorous vignette in which he caricatures the mannerisms of a waiter in a café. In Satre’s eyes, this man’s contrived behavior shows that he is performing a role rather than being his authentic self. But Poole suggests that, “far from being deluded that he really is a waiter,” maybe Satre’s dupe is aware that he is acting, and is just enjoying it.

Social life is circumscribed by performance and gesture to the extent that, were we to dig down in an effort to find some authentic bedrock, we would simply be taking up another role. Our surroundings and possessions are part of that drama too – products like books and Gothic cathedrals are ultimately just props we use to signal towards a hypothetical ideal. So yes, authenticity is a fiction. But insofar as it allows us to express our appreciation of values we regard as important, it can be a useful one.



Between thought and expression

Regardless of the benefits, though, our willingness to relax judgment for the sake of gesture has obvious shortcomings. The recent craze for the authentic, with its countless generic trends, has demonstrated them clearly. Carried away by the rituals of consumerism, we can end up embracing little more than a pastiche of authenticity, apparently losing sight of the bigger picture of sterile conformity in which those interactions are taking place. Again, the suspicion arises that authenticity itself is a sham. For how can it be an effective moral standard if, when it comes to actually consuming culture, we simply accept whatever is served up to us?

I don’t think this picture is entirely right, though. Like most of our ideals, authenticity has no clear and permanent outline, but exists somewhere between critical thought and social conventions. Yet these two worlds are not cut off from each other. We do still possess some awareness when we are immersed in everyday life, and the distinctions we make from a more detached perspective can, gradually and unevenly, sharpen that awareness. Indeed, even the most aggressive criticism of authenticity today is, at least implicitly, grounded in this possibility.

One writer, for instance, describes the vernacular of “reclaimed wood, Edison bulbs, and refurbished industrial lighting” which has become so ubiquitous in modern cities, calling it “a hipster reduction obsessed with a superficial sense of history and the remnants of industrial machinery that once occupied the neighbourhoods they take over.” The pretense of authenticity has allowed the emergence of zombie-like cultural forms: deracinated, fake, and sinister in their social implications. “From Bangkok to Beijing, Seoul to San Francisco,” he writes, this “tired style” is catering to “a wealthy, mobile elite, who want to feel like they’re visiting somewhere ‘authentic’ while they travel.”

This is an effective line of attack because it clarifies a vague unease that many will already feel in these surroundings. But crucially, it can only do this by appealing to a higher standard of authenticity. Like most recent critiques of this kind, it combines aesthetic revulsion at a soulless, monotonous landscape, with moral condemnation of the social forces responsible, and thus reads exactly like an updated version of John Ruskin’s arguments. In other words, the same intuitions that lead consumers, however erroneously, to find certain gestures and symbols appealing, are being leveraged here to clarify those intuitions.

This is the fundamental thing to understand about authenticity: it is so deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking about culture, and in our worldview generally, that it is both highly corruptible and impossible to dispense with. Since our basic desire for authenticity doesn’t come from advertisers or philosophers, but from the experience of mass culture itself, we can manipulate and refine that desire but we can’t suppress it. And almost regardless of what we do, it will continue to find expression in any number of ways.

A portrait posted by socialite Kendall Jenner on Instagram in 2015, typical of the new mannerist, sentimental style

This has been vividly demonstrated, for instance, in the relatively new domain of social media. Here the tensions of mass culture have, in a sense, risen afresh, with person-to-person interaction taking place within the same apparatus that circulates mass media and social trends. Thus a paradigm of authentic expression has emerged which in some places verges on outright romanticism: consider the phenomenon of baring your soul to strangers on Facebook, or the mannerist yet sentimental style of portrait that is so popular on Instagram. Yet this paradigm still functions precisely along the lines we identified earlier. Everybody knows it is ultimately a performance, but are willing to go along with it.

Authenticity has also become “the stardust of this political age.” The sprouting of a whole crop of unorthodox, anti-establishment politicians on both sides of the Atlantic is taken to mean that people crave conviction and a human touch. Yet even here it seems we are dealing not so much with authentic personas as with authentic products. For their followers, such leaders are an ideal standard against which culture can be judged, as well as symbolic objects that embody an ideology – much as handcrafted goods were for William Morris’ socialism, or Gothic architecture was for Ruskin’s Christianity.

Moreover, where these figures have broadened their appeal beyond their immediate factions, it is again because mass culture has allowed them to circulate as recognisable and indeed fashionable symbols of authenticity. One of the most intriguing objects I’ve come across recently is a “bootlegged” Nike t-shirt, made by the anonymous group Bristol Street Wear in support of the politician Jeremy Corbyn. Deliberately or not, their use of one of the most iconic commercial designs in history is an interesting comment on that trade-off between popularity and integrity which is such a feature of authenticity in general.

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The bootleg t-shirt produced by Bristol Street Wear during the 2017 General Election campaign. Photograph: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

These are just cursory observations; my point is that the ideal of authenticity is pervasive, and that for this very reason, any expression of it risks being caught-up in the same system of superficial motives and ephemeral trends that it seeks to oppose. This does not make authenticity an empty concept. But it does mean that, ultimately, it should be seen as a form of aspiration, rather than a goal which can be fully realised.