There has been a striking increase in the use of the word ‘authenticity’ over the past few years: in newspapers and other media, in various forms of discourse, and especially also in discussions of art and artists. The precise definition of the concept is not always clear, however. ‘Being authentic’ appears to be a general value or value judgement. The idea being that whatever is authentic is a cut above the rest: original, pure, real.
In the 18th century, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau turned his back on manmade society and withdrew into nature to find himself. In contrast to the rationally organized society that restrained the individual in a normative straightjacket, he idealized sublime nature. In the overwhelming and unspoiled power of nature, Rousseau began to discover the unspoiled origins of humanity. This new path of the authentic self would become a leitmotif of modern self-understanding for centuries.
While Rousseau’s self-liberation was driven by rebellion and emancipation, the search for one’s true self has now becoming mired in an obsession with individuality. While Rousseau went in search of inner transformation outside society, authenticity has become an imperative of the system, fed by social media and politics. Being authentic is increasingly becoming a question of outward display and self-marketing.
The market is skilfully capitalizing on this development: in neoliberal society, an authentic lifestyle is a question of the choices that you make as a consumer. And it works exceptionally well: artisanal products are just a little tastier, unspoiled travel destinations just a little more attractive, traditional customs just a little more meaningful, reality TV just a little more exciting, and participatory art just a little more real.
But what does self-liberation mean when we are so effortlessly led by whatever the market touts to us? What is originality when we buy the same authentic products in droves or strive for the same authentic lifestyle. In the urge to be ourselves, we risk becoming increasingly similar. And if this is the result, what do we think to find in this urge for the ‘real’ or the ‘original’? When does the desire for authenticity become collective nostalgia, conservatism, or fundamentalism? And is this desire not an enormous paradox anyway in a digital age when we simply click and swipe from one artificial, simulated reality to the next?
In the growing critique of Western, modern thought, an increasing number of voices are calling for a revision of historical and philosophical constructions. They invite us to ‘un-learn’ patterns of thought and narratives and to be receptive to whatever this exercise produces. What is more, this process reveals a desire for ‘realness’, in an age in which reality often no longer feels real or sincere. Throughout the season, we are bringing artists and intellectuals together to focus on this desire. Where might the search for truth and origins take us, if we are prepared to look beyond authenticity?