Sunday, January 10, 2010

Against Authenticity

"Authenticity" is a fairly generally-lauded value in art making. I have philosophical and personal reasons to oppose it. The philosophical ones very likely arise from the personal ones, as a means of self-justification, or simply because I have a surprising and specific experience with authenticity. So let me explain the personal issue first.

Everybody has a natural line. This could also be called an authentic line. It is the line that spontaneously emerges as the most uncensored line an artist can produce in the freest, fastest drawing they can do. Some artists have extremely distinctive and recognizable natural lines. Egon Schiele comes to mind, with his knobby junctures and jagged delineation of edge:

So does Domenico Tiepolo, with his bewitchingly weird wobbliness:

Others you might want to think about are Albrecht Durer, with his tense, cramped line:

...and Boticelli, with his graceful, sweeping line:

I think that, whatever modifications these artists have imposed on their natural line, a sense of their natural line comes through. These artists are in the marvelous position of having natural lines which are original and pleasing - their authenticity of expression is extremely delightful and, moreover, contributes to a new understanding of the capabilities of art.

I have a natural line, an authentic line, as well. I've had this line since I was five or six years old. I'm pretty convinced there's a genetic basis for it, and for all natural line. But there's a severe problem with mine - somebody else took it first.

The drawings of mine below are from a drawing session with Piera on December 30, 2009. She's pregnant, and can't work around oil paints and their associated toxins right now, so I'm doing a bunch of drawings and watercolors and whatnot, just playing around and experimenting, until she has her baby. I decided to do some drawings using my natural line; over the course of an hour, I drew 12.

Here's one of the drawings from that session:

And here's one that's too similar for comfort:

Yes, that's Henri Matisse.

The resemblance is not precise, but it's close enough that my authentic line looks derivative. And let me add that there are few things more fun for me than using my authentic line. Let's look at a few more drawings:



I should point out that I wasn't copying the Matisse drawings I'm including here - I found these post facto with a google search.

Aussi moi.

Aussi Henri.

Well, that's a bummer, isn't it! My authentic line looks completely inauthentic - it looks like an accomplished put-on.

Oh well. Here's how I dealt with the problem: when I was first becoming self-aware as an artist, this whole idea of authenticity didn't really exist in my universe. I just thought I was drawing badly! Because what I wanted was to draw a much more detailed, proportional, and harmonious image. I wanted to draw like Da Vinci. And I spent, what, ten or fifteen years figuring out how to draw? So now I have a way that I tend to draw which I also like very much:

It's not Da Vinci, but what is? I retraced the steps that Da Vinci took to learn to draw - life drawing and anatomical dissection, and above all, constant practice. So I think of it as time well spent.

That's my personal problem with the concept of authenticity.

Let me expand the argument to a general problem with the concept of authenticity. To do that, let's take a brief look at the justification that authenticity-proponents offer for its value.

The stated link between authenticity and merit is that art, being an emotionally expressive medium, is at its best when the line between impulse and work is as short as possible. The premise is that all people have something worthwhile to express. When that expression is unmediated, a true form emerges - an authentic form.

The unstated link between authenticity and merit is that it provides an algorithmic method for determining what we think of art. If an artist from Pasadena paints suburbs - that's authentic. If an artist from Ghana paints traditional tribal patterns - that's authentic. A simple comparison of the biography of the artist with the content and style of the art provides a linear metric for quality.

As far as I can tell, these are the two major arguments for authenticity. Let me attack the second argument first.

This algorithmic method of determining the "validity," and hence the "quality," of art, is yet another attempt to avoid the fundamental problem with forming an opinion of art. What is required in forming an opinion is taste. Developing taste and taking the responsibility for assertions of taste are insanely difficult and potentially humiliating tasks. People like to be told what to think of things. At its simplest, the biographical-authenticity argument is a quick method for providing an opinion without forcing the viewer to come to his or her own conclusion. It appeals to the fear we all have when looking at unknown art and asking ourselves, "Should I like it?"

It is also attended by a host of post-modernist argumentation. All of this argumentation revolves around a specific form of the general dehumanizing intent of post-modernism. The specific form is the denial of the human capacity for imagination. Which is to say, the post-modern argument is that any expression that does not arise directly from and address directly the personal (or, more particularly, demographic-ethnic) experience of the artist is inauthentic and hence, for various reasons, invalid. Anybody who denies the validity of imagination consequently denies the ability of art to communicate, and therefore is not only wrong, but has no pertinence to my project.

The first argument, the stated one about shortening the link between emotion and expression, is more interesting. Yes, art is emotionally expressive. Yes, true emotion is absolutely fundamental to sincere art. Yes, sincere art is the basis for good art. And yet - I cannot buy the Romantic overtone of the argument. Let me turn to Wordsworth's famous preface to the lyrical ballads. Famous? you say. I've never heard of it.

Sure you have. Here's the famous part:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...

Here's the not-so-famous follow-up. Well, he has two follow-ups in two different parts of the preface. The second is better known: takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity

The first is more complete:

...and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified.

Whoa! Now there is a strong argument for artifice.

I am reminded of two other comments on the subject - somewhere (I can't remember where), Nietzsche denigrates art as a sort of second-hand emotionalism, because anyone who felt a real first-hand emotion would be able to do nothing more than scream. Or something like that.

And Proust, in the final chapters of his book, concludes that his writing involves the transmogrification of the raw material of memory into a kind of artistic form or image which redeems and reclaims the lost past, fixing it and allowing, not the past, but the art, to be possessed. Hence the name of the volume, Le Temps retrouvé, generally translated as Time Regained.

What this means for the practical artist is that the locus of necessary authenticity lies not in method, but in source. Successful authentic method - that is, originality of method in addition to emotional or cognitive authenticity of the method - is, like love, nice work if you can get it. But it's a crapshoot of genetics and art history if you can get that kind of work. So it is good to remember that art, methodologically, is artifice. Art is making one thing, generally pigments mixed with a medium of some sort, look like something else, generally (in my case) naked ladies. So it's good not to get too hung up on authenticity of method, since the materials by means of which the method is executed are totally false to begin with.

The title of this post is a little bit of a falsely provocative choice. Of course I believe in authenticity. But the place where I believe authenticity is most important (and remember, after all, I have to) is in the inspiration and vision which the method serves. Find some true thing that you must transmit from yourself into the world, and use whatever works to give it a body.

Since I started writing this post, I've worked with Piera some more. I figured that since I can't help the Matisse effect, I might as well steal his best tricks. In the pieces below, I've drawn on top of colored-paper cutouts glued onto heavy white watercolor paper.

P.S. I apologize for hitting "post" before finishing uploading images. My bad. Fixed now.


  1. You want to worry about being seen as derivative? Try writing.

    And speaking of eyes (did I ask about eyes?) and Da Vinci, I am assuming you have been kept up-to-date on all of the business coming out of Itaky about the Mona Lisa having too much cholesterol?

  2. Pengo - Greetings! I can see the problem you mean, with regard to writing. Good luck to you with that particular thicket. You did ask about eyes, and I'm being very slack about writing up my one or two specific insights about eyes. I apologize; it's an extraordinarily difficult post to collect graphics for. I haven't been up to date on the Mona Lisa, but now I think maybe I ought to check. Thanks for the tip...