Authenticity | Kiyeol Kim

by Critical Asia

by Kiyeol Kim, Dec. 2021】

Authenticity, needless to say, is one of the buzzwords of our time. The value of the concept is strongly felt now, perhaps more than any other historical period. Ours is the time of fake news, the society of the spectacle, the reproducibility of commodities (and art); representation is more real than what is being represented, and simulation has engulfed reality. The idea of authenticity is regarded as the antidote to the plague of fantasies that has infected reality. And this concept is often linked to other valuable ideas such as sincerity, truth, freedom, and the good. Self-help gurus illuminate that being authentic is the path to Utopia, to true happiness. Finding one’s true self entails behaving with integrity when with others; thus, the concept of authenticity is vital to successful social relationships. Sometimes, however, the thirst for authenticity creates its own complications. From fad diets that mirror the eating habits of humans from the Palaeolithic era to historically informed performance or HIP (a sensitive issue in my own field which is music research) that recommends the use of period instruments and techniques, etc. The desire for authenticity has taken various forms and has spread to various aspects of modern life. We might even explain the rise of global populism as a resulting from the desire for the authentic, for the appeal of the populist is in part based on the perception that he “tells it as it is.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, while authenticity has been used to refer to the genuineness of a thing (i.e., a document, a text, an artefact, an artwork, etc.) since the early 18th century, authenticity as a quality of a person—the idea of being true to oneself or the uniformity of inward feeling and outward appearance—was only commonly used from the first quarter of the 20th century. This suggests that the problem of authenticity as a human virtue is a particularly modern one. This timeline is in consonance with Charles Taylor’s notion of “age of authenticity,” a period beginning around the mid-20th century where an “ethic of authenticity begins to shape the outlook of society in general” (475). This period is characterised by expressive individualism, an idea that Taylor traces back to the Romantic period of the late 18th century, where “commodities become vehicles of individual expression, even the self-definition of identity” but where “all this conformity and alienation may nevertheless feel like choice and self-determination” (483).

We are inhabitants of this paradoxical world created in part by the desire for authenticity. And we are caught in its circular logic: even if we are unable to determine what is genuinely authentic, it does not decrease our desire for authenticity. Thus, our desire for authenticity speaks more about the nature of our desires than about authenticity itself. For example, historically informed performance is a charming genre of music whose goal is to authentically recreate the sound and aura of early music based on historical research; however, there will always be an unsurpassable methodological limit since no one has a ticket to the past. But the unintended consequence of this specific desire for the authentic, is the demand for period instruments, and now the classical music market is overflowing with mass produced copies of early music instruments, generating a paradoxical combination: the new old instrument. The longing for authentic period instruments created a market that profits from such desires. This suggests that a paradox structures contemporary desires for authenticity. The idea of living an authentic life suggests that there are external forces that prevent us from acting in accordance with our nature, but by trying to live an authentic life through expressive individualism, we enable powerful institutions to profit from our desires and to control our lives even more. Is authenticity just one of the ingredients of the good life, or we are blind proponents of manipulated authenticity?

Perhaps instead of seeking for the authentic externally, we might look from within. Music, like other art forms, is an invitation into a particular inner world—in the case of music, a sound world. Particular sound worlds draw out certain emotions. Aristotle has long postulated that direct link between music and emotions. Perhaps authenticity is finally a result of faith in the intuitive honesty of feelings and emotions.

Kiyeol Kim, Orchestra de Macau, Macau SAR, China

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