Friday, March 04, 2005

I've been thinking quite a bit about what it means to grasp for authenticity in art and life. Much of my life -- as reflected in my choices & ideas -- has been directed at living and embracing situations and artforms I've perceived as more authentic. But more authentic to what? Authentic implies that it coheres to some given view on reality. Given that I'm fairly swayed by neo-pragmatism (more on this in a second), when I say "authentic," am I not just saying "preferable to me?"

And, basically, if what I like is just what I like, then my quest for authenticity is nothing but solipsism built on a tautology. In an lovely argument over aesthetic reasoning the other day, one of my more insightful friends surprised me by falling back on the argument that he "knew" that certain films are intrinsically better than others. Some of us disagreed, staking out the more relative position that certain films are better because they resonate with people who think about films similarly. In other words, my opinion is that rather than there being objective truth, especially in judging an artwork, groups of interested people use similar terminology to make critical decisions about artwork. Individual value judgment is built on what one is looking for in a film or album or whatever, and this "what one is looking for" is framed by useful language and consensual critical agenda.

So, where does this leave me? Do I draw upon critical opinion to decide what speaks to me or is there another level to this? I do draw on the opinions of my knowledgeable friends to figure out what films, albums, books, etc. I might find interesting. But what if I'm the only person in that peer group who likes a certain thing? We do have shared language to argue about why I think, say, The Feelies' second album is their best, but if I'm the only one who thinks this is true, i.e. if I cannot persuade anyone whose opinion matters to me that The Good Earth is the best Feelies album, have I failed myself or has our critical agenda failed me?

What's more, say I live in a vacuum. I've heard Chuck Berry on the radio and I'm drawn to his music because I perceive it as the most authentic music I've ever heard. Is this judgment affected when I learn that Berry considers his music ephemeral and useful only for the money it brings him? How about if I spent my days loving a group of young white frat-boys copying Chuck Berry's music note for note? Would my appreciation be affected by hearing the real thing, even if I learned that their love of his music was real?

Anyway, head games aren't healthy. This search for authenticity drove me to pry into the history and cracks of rock music for hidden greatness. I feel justified that other fanatics like myself do the same, but I do wonder how much of this fanaticism is just spinning our wheels.

That's one of the reasons I found this article on Salon about Mediated by Thomas De Zengotita so interesting. De Zengotita is looking at the culture that allowed me to indulge in my aesthetic tastes in the same way that I'm questioning those tastes in this post. If you're not a paying Salon subscriber, you may have to click through some obnoxious ads, but the ideas at play in the review of the book and interview with the author are worth your time. I know that I'm lucky to have the luxury of indulging my fantasies of self-expression by playing in a band, writing about pop culture, and even thinking about why I like the Fiery Furnaces and don't like the Libertines. It appears that De Zengotita is thinking about these luxuries and what they mean to our culture and to the world at large, thank god. In an age when we in the Western world are so freakin' overprivileged and entitled, someone needs to remember that it's important to gauge what it means to spoil so many young people. I'm a father, for chrissake. Why do the Fiery Furnaces matter so much to me?

4 comments:

Tiffany 6:32 PM, March 07, 2005  

You lost me with all of the big words. I do better with pictures...

Hayden Childs 11:18 AM, March 08, 2005  

Neo-pragmatism is hard to capture in a picture, though.

DavidS 3:21 PM, March 09, 2005  

You know what cured me of Authenticity? Nick Tosches' book on Country music. He spent a good chunk of research on all those classic old folk tunes in early Country and found many of them had started as popular broadsheet ballads of the 19th century, rather than handed down through Childe out of Scotland. Richard Thompson covering "Oops I Did It Again" is *very* authentic in my estimation.

Hayden Childs 12:58 PM, March 10, 2005  

Well, your bubblegum book did a number on my head there, too. The problem is that every time I think I've excised it, authenticity sneaks into some other motive. And I'm left wondering: without authenticity, what do I have left?

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