Imperfection, Authenticity, and Excellence

I was in a cranky mood yesterday afternoon at about 4:45, so when NPR commentator Sara Fishko started expatiating about her recent hunger for “authenticity” in recorded music, my buttons didn’t even need pushing; she merely brushed them, and set off my temper.

This is not a new topic; others have treated it with wisdom and profundity, online and offline. I don’t have time to search for specific links right now, but I’m sure Jeff Ward, Tom Matrullo, the Happy Tutor, and Ray Davis would provide more than enough grist for an edifying mill; I’d love to convene an online seminar on “authenticity” with those luminaries, chaired by Heideggerian philosopher David Weinberger — what a treat! Hermenaut’s article on “fake authenticity” opens the topic nicely, and if you’re more comfortable with print media than digital media, Adorno’s Jargon of Authenticity and I’m inclined to think there’s something by Dorothee Soelle that led me to Adorno — her critique of Rudolf Bultmann — that led me to Adorno, but I can’t find the reference right now.

The short expression of why “authenticity” vexes me comes down to, “There’s no there there.” Fishko rhapsodizes about the informal, flawed performances that she prefers to the technically-refined, highly-engineered masterworks by perfectionist performers. She’s entitled to that preference, of course, but identifying it as “authenticity” perpetuates a critical sleight-of-hand by which Fishko’s preference for endearingly imperfect performances ascribes to the work in question a positive attribute: “authenticity.” That ascription, though, occludes the question of “authentic to what?” Are the missed notes and “risks” that Fishko admires part of, say, the composer’s own vision of the work? Or do they constitute a more genuine performance than one in which the instrumentalist doesn’t miss any notes, or take risks with the piece?

In other words, “authenticity” all too often serves as an ideological placeholder term for “stuff I like, for which I don’t have a more precise or reputable adjective that justifies this appreciation.” That’s sloppy thinking, and I object to it.

For the record, I too tend to prefer performances that involve risky, technically-imperfect expression of the compositions in question — though not by any means across the board, and certainly not because such performances are more “authentic.” Some performances benefit from a swung tempo, some from an urgency that missed notes actually reinforce, some from precision and immaculate engineering, some from the casual ambiance that amateur recordings imply. Some rare, astonishing performances combine technical virtuosity with imagination and risk-taking in a sublime confluence of the highest standards in accuracy of performance, recording and artistic imagination; would they be more authentic if the performer flubbed a few notes, or the engineer recorded the performance with a narrow dynamic range and mediocre microphones? When performers deliberately select minimalist, one-take recording techniques, are they opting for greater authenticity, or are they inauthentically adopting a style that doesn’t reflect their customary practice or capacities? Different listeners will assess different combinations of qualities differently, but not because one recognizes true authenticity while the other doesn’t.

To paraphrase the quotation I have most often heard ascribed to Sam Goldwyn, “The secret to success is authenticity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

11 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Does this discussion apply equally to “orthodox”?

    AKMA seems proficient at multiplying references, could s/he provide his/her service for this question?

  2. I think you are wrong because you devalue Sam Goldwyn’s observation. And for other reasons. And of course, Heidegger – pfeh. But I didn’t hear Sara Fishko so can’t speak to the case at hand.

  3. Fun to find instances in which “authenticity” or a related form produce a non-meaningful outcome:

    “The cat snoozed authentically on the sofa.”

    “He shot the robber authentically in the back.”

    “It rained with authenticity on the mountainside” [not movie rain].

  4. I don’t understand what Frank means when he says you devalue Goldwyn’s observation. It’s a paraphrase, and I think it appropriately relates to your point:

    In other words, “authenticity” all too often serves as an ideological placeholder term for “stuff I like, for which I don’t have a more precise or reputable adjective that justifies this appreciation.”

    The comment I would make is that commenting on something’s “authenticity” often seems more intended to reflect on the commmenter’s superior taste or powers of insight, than some unique virtue in the thing’s “authenticity” itself.

    Does that make sense?

    It’s as though one cannot be satisfied merely appreciating something because its quirks and qualities appeal to one’s own quirks and tastes, but one has to elevate one’s own quirks and tastes to something objectively superior, which is the ability to detect “authenticity.”

    All of which is not to say authenticity does not exist as a quality.

  5. I’m chafing. I listened to Fishko and found her presentation charming and skillful. My sense of what she was getting at was reinforced by my own experience with Glenn Gould recordings and when she brought him into the discussion I felt rewarded by own observation.

    Mark Woods has linked to this post, giving it more substance and weight than I think it deserves. The Hermenaut link is as much piffle as the Fishko presentation. Either can be criticized or enjoyed for the superficial mind candy that each of them is.

    But I think the real reason that I’m challenged is because at the same time you posted this, I was looking for an adverb describing how Shelley, Jeneane, Rebecca, and Ronni blog and lazy me… I chose “authentically.”

  6. I’m curious now, AKMA, if you’ve read Charles Taylor’s works on autheticity. I read _Sources of the Self_ and _The Ethics of Authenticity_ this year so they are somewhat fresh in my mind, though certainly much of it went over my head as well.

    Taylor makes the case that “authenticity” is a distictly modern virtue, and is perhaps the defining virtue within our modern liberal societies.

    It doesn’t take a whole lot of reading in ancint or medieval writings to see that the folks from those times were not especially concerned with being “authentic”, unless by that term you meant truthful or or steady character. But the idea that one has a need to differntiate oneself from everyone else was certainly not there.

    Anyhow, if you haven’t yet, do check out Taylor.

  7. I knew I was leaving something out, Paul. No, I haven’t read Ethics of Authenticity, but now I have to add that to my reading list. Thanks for the reminder!

    I should be clear, though, that although I’m leery of “authenticity” in the context of self-fulfillment, my main interest in this thread involves the notion of authenticity as a criterion of artistic or literary expression.

    I suppose, though, that the two intertwine — for instance, musicians frequently manifest an interest in getting “back to their roots,” to recapture some of the élan and verve of their earlier recordings. One can go about that on perfectly plausible grounds — “my first records were better, and these last few suggest that I’ve lost my capacity to devise a melody or capture a lyric” — but often enough, I hear people talking about “immediacy” or “authenticity,” as though (in the first instance) the recording weren’t always being mediated by engineers, producers, manufacturers, critics, and the distribution manipulators, or (in the second case) their recent recordings didn’t demonstrate that they had evacuated every good idea from their imaginations but instead had fallen into inauthenticity, from which a less-elaborate recordinng process would rescue them.

  8. Your last point reminds me of Glenn Gould and his decision at a young age to stop performing live and just work on recording. He just HATED the idea of a “live recording”, since the experience of a live performance and that of a recording are so entirely different. But then again, he was nuts.

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