Artists and Authenticity

In a culture that is increasingly homogenized and obsessed with what’s trending, authenticity is a quality Americans tend to seek elsewhere, traveling to far-flung corners of the planet where people aren’t so desperate to fit into what the media tell us we should wear, watch, listen to, or think. People experience authenticity at places like Burning Man, where the principle of radical self-expression enables them to be as weird and goofy as they want for a week. But even at such extravaganzas of authenticity, there is style to be followed. Classic “burner” style includes things like a crushed cowboy hat, petticoats, and a general steam punk sensibility.


In psychological jargon, the term authenticity refers to the individual’s trueness to self, regardless of what outside pressures they face. No other social group bears the essence of authenticity more than that of artists. For an artist to be interesting, they have to give us something new, an absolutely original vision that comes from their inner being and not from something else. And in a culture where the primary interest is in what’s popular, what’s new is of very little interest, until some arbiter of taste or maven of marketing gives it their trending stamp of approval.


Needless to say, attempting to gain attention for a brand-new artistic vision is what you might call a serious external pressure. Our society demands we fit into niches, so we can be employable or marketable. In essence, we need to be inauthentic if we hope to find a job or a market for our work, or perhaps even a social circle that accepts us. A wildly new artistic vision is as authentic as life gets, even if we don’t like it, and that’s what artists live for.


The first sign of an artist’s authenticity is in recognizing that making art is their life objective. That’s an immediate acceptance of the external pressure of the world, much harder than realizing you were born to be a lawyer or a corporate manager, careers for which there are jobs. Artists enter their chosen profession thinking that, eventually, they can make a living at it. In the meanwhile, they’ll wait tables.


In fact, for-profit art schools dupe young artists into thinking that they can get lucrative careers in creative fields, after an expensive education. When they get out of art school, they are confronted with the reality: artists are only employable if they fit into what’s already trendy or devote their expensively cultivated skills in designing apps. And while there are plenty of Craig’s List ads seeking artists or writers, most of them pay nothing, or so little that while people are working to advance their art careers, they’re still waiting tables. Still, they endure the pressure of a society that doesn’t really want the un-trendy, the general societal disinterest in the plight of the creative class, and the compulsion to be absolutely original in a world of increasing cookie cutter sameness.


The struggling American artist could be the poster child for authenticity. Unfortunately, people in our culture rarely look within our borders to find something authentic, assuming it’s really only found in places like the Omo River Valley, where people don’t have social media yet. When this city was full of creative people, the air buzzed with authenticity. It’s why people from all over the world were so enamored of this place: it was real. All those original thinkers bathed the culture in a soup of creative authenticity.


This city is beautiful in a heartbreaking way, and that alone is enough, for some people, to inspire love. In recent years, authenticity has been ousted to make room for glitz. The people who never experienced the city when it was actually arty don’t miss a thing, perhaps. But people who have watched the change deeply feel the seepage of the city’s authenticity that left town with its creative class.


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