Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Authentic

What is behind the quality we are sometimes able to recognise as authenticity, in works of ‘art’, creative expression in general or just when we watch people doing things? Why is a Berber storyteller on a junk-strewn mat in the square at Marrakesh more authentic than a juggler at Camden Lock?

Where do we find expression that is not in some way self-conscious, not derivative, or imitative or commercial? What do we grasp as real?

Poverty is authentic. Misery, profound suffering, terror- these things are authentic. When there is no possibility of having any other reason for expressing an emotion than that it is can’t be hidden, no motive for doing something beyond the desire or the need to do it, when there is no thought for how it will look, because there is absorption in the feeling or the act, we have authenticity.

War, famine, disease, disaster, poverty, tenements, and abroad are good places to find authenticity.

Abroad is generally a good place because we are not very good at judging the motives of people whose culture we don't understand and we assume that they do what they do spontaneously and naturally, without intent to deceive. In many parts of the world there is a good living to be made by offering 'authenticity' to tourists who don't know the difference and probably wouldn't care if they did.

But all the best news photographs and most vivid impressions, the finest prose descriptions are from disasters and misery of one kind or another. And the subjects of them are real, at least before mediation by artist, writer, journalist or oneself.

And here we have authenticity, too. The old shoeshine boy, who must be 80 now, and spends his days looking for someone to stand him the price of a wine or two so he can sleep on a bench in the square in the afternoon when the weather's good enough. He is authentic, because decades ago he ceased to have any function in the world and has spent the rest of his life existing from one day to the next.

I've never photographed him. To take someone in close-up without permission is an intrusion and the line 'Do you mind if I take your photo? I find artistic truth in the abject defeat and surrender to failure in your face', is hard to pull off in practice.


Brett Hetherington said...

I've always had a fascination with poverty, and as you say this may due to it being such an authentic state.

I'd never (knowingly) seen a beggar until I came (from Canberra, a middle-class capital city) to Europe when I was in my early 20's.

I have a couple of photos of a shoe-shine guy in Greece though. One is him shining my shoes and another is of me shining his shoes (and doing a terrible job of it) while he gave a toothless smile of amusement.

CIngram said...

One of the (many) things I like about Spain is that some of the old ways of life still survive, at least among older people in rural areas. It may not be much fun to be an aging shoeshine boy but, with the piece of ice in my heart, I am glad they still exist.